A College Admission Cycle Like No Other

April 01, 2020

hile we have had wrenches thrown into our admissions cycles before, COVID-19 will have an unprecedented effect on how institutions educate and enroll their incoming classes amidst so much uncertainty.

Some of the changes we've had to navigate in recent years include :

  1. The introduction of the Common Application: When the Common App was introduced several decades ago, it was suddenly much easier for prospective students to apply to many more schools than they would have in the past. Schools tended to see large increases in the number of “soft applicants” in their pool when they first joined the Common App and the yield of the pool in that first year was difficult to predict based on historical data.
  2. Removal of school order on the FAFSA: When the decision was made to remove school positioning on the FAFSA, many schools lost one of their strongest predictors of yield.
  3. The economic downturn: The recession of 2008 had us all understandably worrying about how the financial crisis would affect the decision families would make when it came to choosing a college, as well as their ability to pay for college. Many wondered if we would see a big spike in yield at public institutions and a drop at private institutions.

In addition to the factors above, all of which had industry-wide effects, colleges and universities experience changes in their own external circumstances that can affect application numbers, interest, and yield. Sometimes these changes, such as winning a national sports championship, have a positive effect on yield; other times they have a negative effect, such as when a school receives media attention over the mishandling of sexual assault cases on campus. In both cases, however, the change in external circumstances cannot be measured by a model in a statistical sense. But, even with all of the changes that have happened to college admissions in the past 10-15 years, it is safe to say that none of us have been in the situation that we are all in today: trying to operate our colleges remotely in the midst of a global pandemic. So, what do we do? How do we plan for a cycle that has so many unknowns?

Well, the first thing we can do is gather as much information as possible on what prospective students and their parents are thinking right now. If you can survey your own prospective students, that will provide the most relevant information. It doesn’t even need to be a formal survey. Have your staff talk with as many families as possible and ask those families how their thinking has changed in light of COVID-19 and what they are most concerned about. There have also been some large-scale surveys conducted that provide very valuable information (e.g., Carnegie Dartlet’s survey of 5,000 high school seniors). We should all be paying close attention to what prospective students and their families are telling us. For example, the Carnegie Dartlet survey found that two-thirds of respondents feel a May 1 deposit deadline is unrealistic at this point. Any school that has not yet adjusted their deposit deadline should seriously consider doing so, or at least communicate to admitted students that they can have an extension if needed.

That brings us to the second recommendation: we all need to adjust and be flexible. This is something that has typically been difficult for higher education institutions, for good reason. We are all hesitant to adjust deadlines that have been in place for many, many years. We build recruitment and yield activities around these deadlines. We plan for things like waitlist activity and housing decisions to begin at specific times, so that when the students arrive on campus in the fall, our enrollment goals have been met and the administration, faculty, and students are all prepared to begin a successful semester. We all need to step out of our comfort zone at this time and make adjustments to our rigid timelines to ensure that students have adequate time and the support they need to make their decisions.

The third point brings us back to the opening paragraph. Although none of us have had to predict the effect that a global pandemic will have on our enrollment, we have weathered changes that felt big at the time and provoked plenty of anxiety. As mentioned earlier, ordering of schools on the FAFSA form was one of the strongest predictors of yield for many institutions. When this information was no longer available, schools had to adjust their yield models and they had to get creative. They needed to find other factors to test in their models and schools that had been systematically collecting interest data fared better than those who hadn’t because they had many other indicators of a prospective student’s interest in their school. The same is true right now. Schools need to adjust their models, bring in any and all data they have available, perhaps even including third-party data available from places like the US Census and Experian.

Finally, it isn’t a bad time to be a defensive pessimist: plan for the worst, as best you can. All of the key players at an institution, including the CFO, president, provost, and deans, need to band together to make contingency plans. The VP of Enrollment Management cannot shoulder all of the responsibility for bringing in the class, and thus the lion’s share of the revenue, in a year like this. It also should not be seen as a failure on the part of the enrollment management team if enrollment and revenue targets are not met. This is a year like no other and calls for a comprehensive strategy with several back-up plans in place to be prepared for the many “what if” scenarios.

As always, the team at HAI is here to help you get through this extremely challenging cycle. We have weathered the storm with many institutions through large external changes in circumstances by building/rebuilding yield models and financial aid strategies, implementing melt prevention tactics, and consulting. We certainly understand that this cycle is like no other and has brought unprecedented challenges to all members of the higher education community, including enrollment managers. We would be happy to partner with you to help in any way that we can so that you can best predict and influence enrollment and retention in these uncertain times.

We recently posted a piece on how COVID-19 may affect fall 2020 college enrollments and what campus leaders can do to be as prepared as possible. You can view these thoughts from our CEO, Emily Coleman, here.

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