The First “Digital Only” Admissions Cycle

Elizabeth Farrell |

Tambellini Columnist

Top of Mind: The Higher Ed CIO’s 2021 Agenda - Business Leadership
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Part 1: Early Hurdles and Predictions

In my former career as a journalist reporting on college admissions trends, I learned early that enrollment management directors are a breed of academic professionals who are enamored with technology and know how to use it. They have a well-deserved reputation for being early and eager adopters of apps, platforms, and tools to help them target and engage prospective students.

College admissions experts don’t shy away from sophisticated data analytics tools either, which are typically embedded into popular admissions CRM platforms, including TargetX and Slate. These features are crucial for building predictive models and quantifying real-time progress towards meeting enrollment goals—a vital requirement in a role where presidents and trustee board members are regularly asking you, “How’s next year’s class looking?” 

During an early-aughts phone interview with one of my favorite enrollment management sources from a college in upstate New York, he memorably said that a more apt name for his department would be the “Office of Revenue and Reputation,” because most institutions rely on tuition dollars, and hence admissions offices, for the majority of their annual operating revenue funds.

Not much has changed since that call years ago. Meeting enrollment goals is still synonymous with remaining viable. Missing them will always make everyone nervous about the future of their institution and jobs. For at least the past two decades (and going forward), admissions leaders have been in (and will continue to occupy) a high-tech and high-stakes role.

From Digital First to Digital Only

For years, prospective applicants across all age groups have preferred a “digital first” approach to learning about institutions. It’s worth noting, though, that even the most technology-savvy admissions leaders have heretofore never stopped devoting significant staff resources (and travel budgets) to traditional in-person events. 

The reason? Regional college fairs, targeted high school visits, campus open houses, and small group tours are still widely considered worthwhile efforts for generating interest and leads in the early stages of the recruitment cycle, known as the “top of the funnel.”

Of course, the current global pandemic put an abrupt halt to most of these in-person events early last year and forced admissions leaders to figure out how to navigate their first exclusively virtual recruitment cycle.

As a recovering reporter, I was naturally curious to find out how leading admissions experts—from institutions large and small, public and private, across the country—were contending with their current predicament.

Enrollment managers have always comfortably straddled the two worlds of face-to-face interactions and digital engagement, so how are they faring now? Based on conversations with many of them, I was pleasantly surprised by their optimism.

This is the first of a three-part series focusing on how admissions professionals are leveraging technology in their first exclusively virtual admissions cycle, from identifying prospective applicants to wooing accepted students. 

In the Midst of a Grand Experiment

Admissions directors have long faced uphill battles in meeting institutional enrollment targets, and the past year has made it even harder to overcome these hurdles. 

Here are some of the most common and stubborn challenges they face and how pandemic-related factors have hastened the trends working against them.

  1. The “Demographic Cliff”: Competition for students has been increasing for a while as the number of U.S. high school seniors graduating annually is expected to plateau and then reach a “demographic cliff,” by 2025-26, when the annual number then begins to decline.  This dreaded sharp drop may be hastening, however, as the Common Application’s late November report showed that applications have decreased by 8 percent nationally year over year.
  1. Skepticism about Degree Value: The cost of earning a postsecondary degree has ballooned, and higher education institutions have trouble convincing prospective students that their tuition price tag justifies the considerable debt burdens higher education can bring. A recent national survey of prospective college students found that since the beginning of the pandemic, one third of them are reconsidering higher education in light of ongoing economic uncertainty.    
  1. Attracting Students from Low-Income Backgrounds: It’s a perennial struggle for institutions to find and engage potential applicants from low-income backgrounds, who often (erroneously) assume they can’t afford college. The Common App also reported a 16 percent drop in the number of students applying to college who completed the free application for federal student aid.

Despite many justifiable reasons for anticipating dismal recruitment results, most admissions leaders I spoke with admitted that, though application numbers are down compared to this time last year, their prospects look promising for meeting institutional fall 2021 enrollment targets—albeit on a longer timeline than usual.

The main driver of their upbeat outlook? They have had free reign and unexpected resources this year to push the envelope by leveraging new technology, expanding their use of current resources, and trying out new approaches. Unlike most departments and offices at postsecondary institutions, the pandemic prompted an unexpected windfall for admissions teams, as they no longer could spend their travel budgets and were able to reallocate those funds in new ways.

“The current environment has been a springboard for a lot of experimentation in admissions and recruiting,” says Lukman Arsalan, Dean of Admission at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “It’s created unprecedented opportunities and autonomy for our teams to revamp our approaches and tinker with new tools in a relatively low-risk environment.”

Regardless of their institution’s size, geographical location, target demographics, and application deadlines, it would be premature for any admissions director to declare victory before they see the quantifiable impact of their efforts on their final conversion and yield rates later in the year.

They have, however, found that their innovative approaches have already reaped early benefits. For instance, some institutions are finding they have attracted more applicants from hard-to-recruit groups, like international students, than in previous years when they had more opportunities for traveling abroad to meet with prospective applicants face-to-face.

In part two of this series, “Finding and Filling the ‘Top of the Funnel,’” we’ll share some of the promising creative strategies and technology tools that admissions leaders are using to build their pipeline of prospective applicants for recruitment early in the admissions cycle.   

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Elizabeth Farrell |

Tambellini Columnist

Elizabeth Farrell
Elizabeth Farrell is an award-winning communications leader with a proven track record of success in delivering high-impact results for national and global colleges and universities, Fortune 100 companies, dynamic start-ups, and influential nonprofits. She has collaborated closely with higher education institutions over the past two decades in numerous roles including media relations, branding, marketing, business development, and as a journalist for outlets including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal, and PBS Newshour.

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