Let me tell you a story about a parent showing their child how to cook the holiday roast beef.
The parent meticulously reviews every step with their child, selects the cut of meat, and how many pounds are needed for their family of six. They explain seasoning the meat and setting it on the counter before cooking. Finally, the parent explains the last step “… cut off the ends of the roast before setting it in the oven to roast.”
When asked why, the parent shrugs their shoulders and says “because that’s the way it’s always been done.” The child looks at their grandparent for a better explanation. They respond while holding their hands 18 inches apart, “Because growing up, the oven was only this big.”
Practically speaking there was no reason to continue to trim the roast. Modern ovens are bigger and easily fit a full-size roast. But: “this is the way things have always been done.” Sound familiar? Universities have scores of policies and procedures they follow, but when asked why, no one really knows how the policies came to be.
We’re nearly a year into the most unprecedented and unpredictable enrollment landscape in history. Our teams took a real-life crash course in crisis communication, learning on the job how to better support prospective students and their families. I've adapted and evolved at a rate never seen before in an industry that’s known for its glacial pace in responding to change. As things settle down, there will be the temptation to get back to trimming the roast as soon as possible because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
As we look ahead to the ever-important yield season — and to recruitment of the fall 2022 class — it is critical for enrollment managers and marketers to put our money where our mouth is and look at the data to influence how and where we invest our time, budget, and human capital to maximize outcomes.
Choose new ingredients while they are fresh
In the TV show “Kitchen Nightmares,” we watch Gordon Ramsay visit outdated restaurants whose challenges run the gamut from having poor management, lacking focus on quality ingredients, or exhibiting poor standards. One thing most of their owners share, however, is passion. One of Ramsay’s common fixes for these restaurants is a simpler menu that uses fresh ingredients to modernize classic dishes.
Like these restaurateurs, admissions and marketing professionals have passion. We want to succeed. And, more importantly, we want our prospective students to succeed.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that many of the ingredients we’ve used to build our recruitment plan — large-scale, impersonal communications and redundant travel programs, for example — aren’t fresh. They waste the passion of our staff and miss the mark on making meaningful connections. We’ve trimmed the beef but we have a new oven. Worse, we’re over-complicating our menu, trying to add every dish to appease everyone’s tastes. Time to trim our offerings in response to what’s fresh and in-season right now.
Digitizing the admissions process
Data from PlatformQ Education indicates that meeting with and presenting to students virtually can be just as effective, if not more, than traditional approaches in key ways. Emails related to virtual events outperform standard communication flow emails by nearly 10%, while click-through rates are double industry averages. More importantly, institutions that were digitizing the admissions process prior to the pandemic saw application completion and yield rates that were 25% and 10% higher respectively. More completed applications at a higher yield rate is an enrollment manager’s dream.
And, when we do return to travel, we’ll need to focus. Data from Eduventures shows us that finding best-fit students, especially those from out-of-state, may come at a higher cost.
The moment travel and large-scale campus visit programs are deemed safe there will be a clamoring to a return to normalcy. However, this should be done only after the development of a holistic recruitment plan featuring fresh ingredients like webcasting, social media streaming, chat, and other high-impact virtual content. I am excited about the prospect of returning to the road. But I’ll take with me all the recruitment lessons learned during 2020 to better integrate virtual and in-person offerings.
Jay Murray is the Associate Vice President for Enrollment Services at Western Connecticut State University. A recognized expert in student recruitment and engagement, he has presented on numerous virtual panels and at conferences including the National Association of College Admission Counseling National Conference.