Undergraduate Enrollment: How To Start Over (And Win Again)

It’s our opinion that higher ed folks place too much emphasis on May 1. For a majority of schools, it’s just another day on the calendar—they’ll be fighting for deposits all the way up to the first day of classes. But since it’s about the closest thing our industry has to a closing bell, we’ll roll with it.

So let’s say this May has you falling short of your goals, and let’s say that trajectory continues, and come the first day of classes this fall, the numbers do end up being worse than you’d like. What can you do? How can you begin to turn the tide?

First, it will help if you can fully embrace three fundamental truths about higher ed enrollment:

1)     Where you are today, this very second, in your enrollment efforts is the result of decisions made and efforts asserted (or not) over at least the last three years—maybe longer.

2)    There’s a lot you can do today, this very second, to start winning in your enrollment efforts.

3)    If you do nothing—if you change nothing—next May will feel even worse than this one. We guarantee it.

Given these truths, here are some big-picture, but still actionable, steps you can take to start engendering real change at your institution.


1) Look at your data.

The number one determinant of success in a direct marketing campaign is data. So if you didn’t hit your enrollment goals, you have to start by examining who you were trying to win and why. What geographies and test scores did you buy? How did those lists perform? Where did you win? Where did you lose? Did you buy fresh data as it became available? Why not?

Embrace what the numbers tell you and devise a way to do things differently or better. Our article, “5 Best Practices for Undergraduate Search” might help you begin this process.


2) Look in the mirror.

It’s audit time. Gather your team and map the process: From when you first reach out to prospective students up until the point of deposit, what does that entire journey look like? How are you approaching search? Did it work? What about your nurturing? Your event invites? Your actual events? Your campus tours? Your phone interactions? Your texting platform? Your award letters? Your orientation? Your bill?

Once you’ve taken time to draw the map, look closely at all the discrete parts, and then be brutally honest about what did and didn’t work. But don’t try to fix everything. Pick the one or two most pressing issues and attack them with everything you’ve got. Build from there. If you try to fix all of it all at once, you’ll probably get overwhelmed and never see or feel real progress.


3) Look at your pricing.

It might seem like an ancient notion in these digital times, but the Four P’s of Marketing (Price, Product, Promotion, and Place) are still a relevant framework with which to approach this line of work. For the purposes of this blog post, we can chalk up product and place as things that are largely unfixable as far as you personally are concerned (you can’t magically introduce new majors or delivery models, and you can’t move your campus to a more desirable location), so that leaves us with promotion (what are you saying about your school and to whom?…see points #1 and #2 above) and price.

You need to devise a sustainable, effective model for awarding/delivering money to your prospective students. This year more than ever (owing largely to PPY) we’ve seen an appetite in the marketplace to commit early when the price is right. If you want to win, you have to get the price right.

So, as an institution, what financial levers are your moving in order to stabilize revenue? A large class that’s been over-awarded can do more harm than good. Similarly, a class that’s a few students shy of your goal but that doesn’t require as much aid can be healthy. So loop in your VPs of finance and financial aid, and come up with a workable plan. This is a discussion you have to force your institution to have.


4) Look for an expert.

At the risk of sounding self-serving, you really need to court the opinion of folks who see things differently than you. You don’t have to hire them. Or agree with them. But if you’re struggling to improve your enrollment, you probably need to do at least a little listening.

Here’s why: Waybetter (for example) currently serves colleges and universities across the country, from highly selective liberal arts colleges to huge state schools to tiny not-well-known privates in isolated locations. We see a lot, and we have a good sense for what works, what doesn’t, and why people have the enrollment problems they do.

So, get in touch with us, or someone like us. We’ll talk about your struggles and tell you how we’d go about solving them. Even if we never talk again, it’s a conversation that will be well worth your time.

If you’re seriously considering hiring an outside firm, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Beware of bluster. No company can bring in an entire class—no matter what they say. Don’t listen to folks who over-promise. This is really, really hard work, and there are exactly zero magic bullets. Success comes down to doing a lot of unsexy things really, really well, day in and day out.

  • Identify your metrics for success. Lots of companies in this space promise huge increases in inquiries and applications—but the reality is there are lots of ways to inflate these numbers. In fact, huge numbers of applicants can actually be an impediment to your success and give you a false sense of security. Hire someone who understands that the only metrics for success are the number and quality of your deposited students—and the cost it takes to enroll them.

  • Hire someone who understands that higher ed enrollment is, fundamentally, a competition. To change your trajectory, you have to beat other schools. You want to work with a company that is talented enough and tenacious enough to do that.


5) Align your marketing and enrollment efforts… AND YOUR BUDGETS.

Here at Waybetter, we get an up-close look at schools of all shapes and sizes, and it never ceases to amaze us how little collaboration exists between enrollment and marketing offices—in fact, it seems that these departments tend to butt heads more frequently than they work together.

On one hand, this is natural: sales and marketing groups bump up against each other in just about every industry, and higher ed is no different. Sales teams (that’s you, admissions folks) can get frustrated with what they view as ineffective or overly precious marketing collateral that doesn’t engage prospects. Marketing folks, meanwhile, get irked by sales reps who can’t convert prospects into customers with the brilliant marketing materials they’ve so painstakingly produced.

Our most successful clients turn this tension into productive dialogue—making use of each other’s insights to build truly collaborative, transparent relationships across offices. They check their egos and combine their limited resources to prioritize enrollment growth. They educate each other. They respect each other. They share responsibility for their successes and their shortcomings. But most of all, they work really, really hard to do the unsexy things, day in and day out. After all, the more people you have pulling in the same direction, the more likely you are to succeed.

So, where are you in this process? Would it help to have a conversation with some folks who’ve seen this up close? Then get in touch. We love talking about this stuff.

Joel Anderson is Waybetter's VP of Marketing & Strategy. Higher ed. is all he knows.