The Year in Review: Doing More with Less

For more than 20 years, we’ve asked seasoned enrollment management professionals around the country to assess the past year’s recruiting cycle for the fall issue of The Lawlor Review. Gathering their thoughts this year proved to be more challenging than in the past. In some cases, admissions offices were still enrolling this fall’s class (and hoping that move-in day wouldn’t present any unexpected surprises for the census count). But even at institutions where the enrollment goals had been met or exceeded, senior enrollment officers were cautious—even modest—in their discussions about what worked well despite the continued challenges to the profession. The overarching sentiment about the 2013-14 recruitment cycle from those with whom we spoke was that it definitely felt like a very long year in admissions.

The collective thoughts among her colleagues about the recruitment of this year’s class were perhaps best summarized by Paige Booth, vice president for marketing and enrollment management at St. Edward’s University (Texas), with this observation: “I can say that while this was a better year than the previous one, the job never gets any easier. The climate is increasingly difficult, the competition is stout, prospective students have become more challenging to reach and connect with, and the channels of communication continue to fragment and multiply. There’s never a dull moment!”

Flat Is the New Up

Phil Trout is now in his eighth year as a college counselor for Minnetonka High School (Minnesota) and is also serving as president-elect of NACAC’s national board of directors. For almost two decades, Trout has been a college counselor at several schools in the Upper Midwest—some public and some private, but in every case the majority of his students have been college-bound. Among the changes he’s noticed in the last few years is that students are being invited to submit their applications earlier and earlier.

“We have seen a number of students receive urgent appeals from colleges and universities to submit their applications as soon as possible,” he says. “For those schools that do rolling admissions, October 1 appears to be the new November 1.”

Augustana College (South Dakota) offers admissions on a rolling basis, with the first decisions going out to applicants as early as October 1. “Every class is different so we never know what students will do, but in recent years applications have come earlier—perhaps because students are eager to receive scholarship awards,” says Vice President for Enrollment Nancy Davidson.

Early applications do not necessarily lead to early deposits, however. “At May 1, we were up, but we certainly didn’t have our class,” says Davidson. To combat the “melt” experienced in recent summers, Augustana’s admissions office implemented improved communication efforts to maintain new student enthusiasm as well as to provide helpful tools for transitioning to college. “Although we did hit our target, we didn’t relax about the incoming class until after the students arrived on campus,” she says.

For many enrollment managers at small private colleges in the center of the nation—from the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region down through and including Texas—it appeared to be a challenging year to enroll as many students as they’d hoped to. A review of several consortium reports from this region shows that, as of late summer, only one-third of the colleges had met or exceeded their enrollment goals. The numbers on these reports seem to reflect that students are increasingly making late admissions decisions.

That was exactly what happened elsewhere too, such as at Thomas College (Maine), where the 2013-14 enrollment pattern looked more like stair steps than a steady rise on a line graph. “It was a year like none I’ve ever seen,” says Vice President of Enrollment Management Jonathan Kent.

In early spring Thomas College’s deposits were up, but then they simply stopped. “A competitor offered additional scholarships in late April, and it hurt our paid deposits,” Kent notes. Fortunately, retention was up for returning students, and the admissions office kept working through the summer, in the end receiving more applications and enrolling more students in the two weeks before classes started than ever in its history. When the fall term began, Thomas College’s enrollment was almost identical to the previous year, and the academic profile had improved.

“My president is happy,” says Kent. “She says, ‘Flat is the new up.’ ”

Sharing the Demographic Blues

Ask anyone about recruiting students from the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, and they’ll tell you it’s tough. Really tough.

The prediction of the Northeast’s demographic decline more than a decade ago was not lost on the enrollment team at Smith College (Massachusetts). “We have been watching this closely for several years and investing in outreach to increase our national and international presence,” says Vice President for Enrollment Audrey Smith.

The strategy has served the college well, with 2013-14 marking seven continuous seasons in which the total number of applications has risen, even though the share of students from New England has dropped from 32-33 percent to 26-28 percent during that time.

“We’ve made our class several years in a row, with record applications,” Smith says. “But the shift in demographics is troubling.”

“New England has always been a great area for us, but now the students simply aren’t there,” says Mark Kopenski, vice president for enrollment management at Drew University (New Jersey). “Demographically, the I-95 corridor states between Maine and D.C. are losing population at the sweet spot of ages we are all trying to recruit.”

Additionally, Drew has seen increased competition for students from its own backyard. With a high average household income and a solid secondary system, New Jersey has become the number one exporter of high school students in the nation.

“This year, we saw incredible financial aid and merit scholarships offered to our New Jersey admits by competitors from coast to coast,” Kopenski says. “New Jersey seems to be on everyone’s radar now.”

Even on the West Coast, where the population is on the rise and most California colleges report they’ve had good results this past year, enrollment offices have begun to notice the effects of the nation’s smallest graduating class of high school seniors in years, as well as the increased competition for those students.

“This was the first in at least five years when we saw a modest decline in applications,” says Kevin Dyerly, vice president for enrollment at the University of Redlands (California). “However, the decline was due to our own backyard and was mitigated by an increase in applications from states outside of California and an uptick in yield altogether, resulting in a larger than anticipated freshman class.”

Disruption Comes in all Shapes and Sizes

North Dakota’s recent energy boom sets it apart from other Midwestern states in many respects, yet recruiting students for a small private school there hasn’t gotten any easier, according to Scott Goplin, who joined the University of Jamestown (North Dakota) as vice president for enrollment in 2013-14.

“Implementing reliable and innovative strategies to encourage campus visits is critically important for any private university,” he says. “But ‘North Dakota’ puts a whole new spin on this!”

A robust state economy, coupled with low unemployment rates and higher-than-average per capita incomes, seems like a scenario that might beckon more local families to take a look at the few private institutions that exist in North Dakota. However, what has transpired has been a serious caveat to this seemingly positive demographic environment. According to Goplin, many of North Dakota’s rural and capable high school graduates instead have been lured to the oil fields by extraordinary hourly wages and benefits.

In the end, Jamestown managed to enroll approximately the same number of students from North Dakota in 2013-14 as it had in previous years but found its deposits from Minnesota, a key secondary market, had dropped more significantly.

The reason? Possibly the weather, if Phil Trout’s theory is right. “The proportion of our [Minnetonka High School] students who went out of state this past year went up to over 50 percent,” he says. “And many of them were going to warmer weather!”

In an average year, one or two Minnetonka students go to the University of Arizona; last year it was eight. Likewise, Miami University (Ohio) might typically enroll two or three MHS students, but in 2013-14 there were nine.

“Maybe these are just blips and not necessarily trends,” acknowledges Trout. “But my colleagues and I heard lots of conversations about the weather, and this year students and their families were really tired of the winter in Minnesnowta.”

Developing New Markets

Midwestern states have been facing a demographic decline similar to New England’s. As a consequence, Jay Goff began to target a wider national and international audience when he was named vice president for enrollment and retention management at Saint Louis University (Missouri) three years ago. “We understood that the next few years would be a challenge for anyone relying on the Northeast or Midwest as their primary student market,” he says.

At that point, SLU’s admissions operations included two regional recruiters in Chicago and one in Texas. This past year, they utilized eight full-time regional admissions counselors in major metropolitan markets across the nation and supplemented their efforts with a well-organized alumni support network. Goff credits these changes in staffing with offsetting the decline in students applying to Saint Louis University from the Midwest.

“In three short years, we have more than doubled the number of students who come from the West Coast,” says Goff. “We feel fortunate to have reached our enrollment profile goals again this past year. With only 25 percent of our new class coming from Missouri, we recognize that establishing a national footprint is key to our future.”

Smith College also has focused more energy outside of its home region in recent years. “Our admissions officers spent four weeks in California in 2013-14, and for the first time we had more applications from there than from Massachusetts,” says Smith. “We’ve also done more international recruiting and seen that share of the student body rise to 15 percent.”

Regional representatives have long been a staple in certain cities, like Chicago. From his nearby vantage point, Illinois Wesleyan University’s dean of admissions, Tony Bankston, has watched the number of Chicago regional representatives go from a dozen or so just a decade ago to well over 120 now. “[Other colleges] have been increasingly coming into our backyard,” he says. “So, we’re starting to go elsewhere ourselves.”

Illinois Wesleyan set up its first regional recruiter in Texas last fall. “In the fall, our representative was one of about 20 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” says Bankston. “By the end of the season, another dozen reps had started working there, too.”

St. Edward’s University has noted increased competition in Texas, according to Booth. “Families here have a strong preference for public colleges, so vying for Texans is a challenge to begin with,” she says. “That has been compounded by the number of out-of-state schools recruiting in Texas because of its growing population and diversity.”

In response, St. Edward’s has invested more in out-of-state and international recruiting. Rather than targeting any particular region, however, the admissions office has focused on developing relationships with feeder high schools, especially those that were likewise founded by the Congregation of Holy Cross.

“Several years of expanded travel have given us momentum in a number of areas, resulting in greater geographic diversity in our learning community, including in the Class of 2018,” says Booth.

Doing More with Less

Admissions budgets have remained fairly stagnant, according to most senior enrollment officers. And yet they also believe their offices are called upon to do more and more work each year.

“We do more outreach, generate more applications, admit more students, try to provide more high-touch service,” says Illinois Wesleyan’s Bankston. “But having the same number of people on staff to do the work is a growing challenge.”

Enrollment managers are forced to cut existing programs in order to reinvest those dollars to try new initiatives, like regional recruiters or travel abroad. And deciding what to cut is challenging. For example, while everyone admits to trying to reduce counselor travel, particularly for national college fairs and high school visits, the reality is that for most institutions, these traditional modes of outreach remain intact.

“We continue to question the value of high school visits but are still conducting them,” says Davidson at Augustana. “Will they cease to exist at some point? We have yet to identify an alternative that is hugely successful.”

Goff at Saint Louis University agrees that it’s really difficult to completely eliminate them, but he stresses that his admissions officers are trying to be more strategic and efficient in executing these and other efforts. Evaluating every activity involved in the enrollment process in relation to the University’s mission and student profile goals helps to keep them on target.

Take search, for example. By having clear strategic enrollment and profile goals, SLU has been able to use predictive modeling to reduce their prospective search pool by over 40 percent, and the savings are being reallocated to new efforts.

“We want to know if something works for reaching our desired student profile—we know we cannot succeed in being everything to everyone,” Goff says.

Making the Most of Social Media

“Admissions is a business where you’re not ‘even’ until you’re one ahead,” muses Smith.

Social media is one of the areas in which most colleges and universities struggle to stay even, although those who have been able to devote adequate resources to it believe it is paying off.

“We strive to be mission-driven, and social media helps us to be more nimble and adept in this market,” she says about Smith College.

Although the college had been incorporating social media into its recruiting efforts for many years, she wasn’t always convinced that good content was reaching its audiences in the best formats. In an effort to make some progress in this capacity, the Office of Admission recently invested in a social media position with the Public Relations Office. (The position is housed in PR, but Admissions is the only client.)

Smith has been pleased with the work that was accomplished this past year, and she points to new initiatives on multiple channels, from Tumblr and Twitter to Instagram and Facebook. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the new efforts, so she looks forward to receiving the college’s ASQ results for more objective insight.

Saint Louis University was able to develop a social media position within the enrollment and retention management division in 2012, so they have actual data to sharpen their communication strategy. “We have been able to better measure students’ habits for using social media. Their site preferences and activity levels are changing often, sometimes dramatically,” says Goff.

“When we assessed the channels students were actually using three years ago, only 17 percent cited Twitter as their preferred social medium,” he says. Yet this year, Twitter was the most used channel overall by SLU students, with almost 80 percent of the responding new students saying they were using it weekly. “This just proves that to remain effective, social media plans need constant evaluation and adjustment,” says Goff.

Questioning the Value

The question of value in higher education has been a consistent topic in the media in recent years, but the coverage felt even more intense to some this past year.

“NPR dominated the media scene with so many stories about the value of a college degree—and more specifically about the value of a liberal arts degree,” says Drew’s Kopenski.

“We now live in an era where the discussion has been reframed to place value on education that leads directly to a job, and NPR stories actually posed the question of whether or not students should go to college anymore,” he says.

As a 30-year veteran in enrollment, Kopenski feels like he’s well versed in explaining the value of a liberal arts education. “But schools like Drew have been under siege this year with more questions from current parents, prospective families, and even board members that are a direct result of these news stories,” he says. “We are having to spend an enormous amount of time better educating students and families about the long-term benefits of their education.”

Bankston at Illinois Wesleyan agrees that the media spin has been crucially negative for enrollment efforts and points to the thematic redundancy of these stories that devalue higher education (“Is college really worth it?” and “Today’s college grads are under- or unemployed”). Even so, he believes colleges and universities have played a role in fueling this fire, too.

“A lot of institutions have added to the perception that all college degrees and experiences are created equal—but in some cases it’s for less money,” he says. “This approach may work temporarily for institutions that employ a high discount rate, but it creates real problems for institutions that may require a larger investment from families in order to dedicate more resources to the educational program, and it perpetuates a misperception about value in higher education.”

The Perceptions of Affordability and Costs

Minnetonka High School is a large, suburban high school with a full IB diploma program and more than 20 AP courses. Ninety-two percent of its students enroll in post-secondary education, and most parents are college educated themselves. Thus, expectations for MHS students are usually high, according to Trout, and so far he has not had any conversations in which students appear to be questioning the value of a college education. However, he and his colleagues are having more and more discussions with families about affordability and costs.

“You have to keep in mind that [unlike at private high schools] these families are not used to paying tuition for their child’s high school education,” he says. “They have a lot of questions, and there is a greater expectation that we college counselors be fully versed about all aspects of the financial aid process—cost, affordability, loan indebtedness, and how to measure ‘bang for the buck.’ ”

Just a few years ago, Minnetonka’s college counselors offered one evening financial aid program for students’ parents. “Fast forward to 2013-14,” says Trout. “We offered the financial aid program at both 4:00 p.m. and at 7:00 p.m. and videotaped the session, which was then posted on our guidance website so more families could access it.”

Trout and his colleagues also hosted after-school workshops on filing the FASFA and a presentation about merit scholarships. “Based on the demand, I think we could be doing even more,” he says. “I anticipate the ‘how are we going to pay for it’ conversations will remain frequent and compelling for those of us in college counseling.”

Booth at St. Edward’s has noticed that when it comes to discussing college cost, today’s families have a more consumer-oriented mindset. “They are very savvy and are asking about the total cost of attendance as well as possible tuition increases in future years,” she says.

“Student debt continues to be a crucial conversation,” notes Augustana’s Davidson.

She acknowledges that it’s only natural that most families don’t want their children to graduate from college with significant debt and that they would prefer to reduce the cost of college with a scholarship or grant rather than a loan. “But they also don’t necessarily want to tap their savings or alter their lifestyle to pay for college,” she says.

“Many people are not making the distinction between good debt and bad debt,” says Davidson, “and we need to continue to do a better job of quantifying the value of the investment and the outcomes the student is likely to see.”

Illinois Wesleyan’s Bankston believes that homing in on exactly what price families are willing to pay for an education has become increasingly more difficult. “This past year, we instituted a more conservative aid regimen to drop our discount rate,” he says. “We expected a slight change in yield, but it fell further than we’d anticipated.”

“It just goes to show how price-sensitive families are today,” concludes Bankston.

Making the Liberal Arts More Appealing

For Kopenski, the “success” of each enrollment cycle isn’t about just numbers. “We are juggling lots of balls to make a class and to ensure we have the culture we want at Drew University,” he says. “It’s not just about finding enough bodies, but about building a class with students who can handle the workload and maintain the mission of the university by having enough students in every area—not just in STEM and business.”

In order to make the traditional liberal arts fields appeal to today’s high school students (and their parents), Drew has been making changes to the curriculum to reflect the desires of the marketplace while utilizing the faculty expertise already in place.

Drew’s recently launched international relations major is a good example, according to Kopenski. This new major maintains key elements of the existing political science program and incorporates additional studies from Drew’s history, economics, and foreign language departments.

“We recognize that the world is changing and student interests are changing, so we are adapting,” he says.

Additionally, the university has begun to leverage its location and proximity to New York City to support a series of semester-long engagements (on themes such as the United Nations and Wall Street) that enable students to see firsthand how their skills and coursework can be applied to contemporary topics.

“We are taking these special opportunities, wrapping them with the traditional liberal arts message, and packaging it so students can see the long-term benefits of what they are learning,” says Kopenski.

At Smith College, Audrey Smith admits that their faculty—a group that historically has shied away from professionally oriented areas of study—also recognizes the need to show students (and the public) the possible return on investment of their education. In this regard, the college has added a number of “concentrations” (such as Museums and Global Finance) for a variety of fields to include internships and a capstone project.

“The concentrations show a more practical side of a liberal arts education, and prospective students have been incredibly interested in them,” says Smith.

You’re Only as Good as the Last Class You Recruited

Sidebar conversations at late summer and early fall professional meetings were often centered on recent (or impending) changes in enrollment personnel across the nation. The Chronicle’s article titled “The Hottest Seat on Campus” recently put the topic front-and-center for the profession.

Some actually found reading it to be a relief. “I thought I was the only one going through this and that the story was about me,” said one senior admissions professional who, after serving the same institution for more than 20 years, was encouraged to resign shortly after the first day of classes.

Another officer who remains gainfully employed admitted that he has had several headhunters contact him over the summer about filling empty senior-level positions. He says, “Presidents are panicking and going in and firing people—and then not understanding why no one wants to take the job.”

Everyone who spends any time in the admissions business understands that it can be a stressful line of work, even when you have job security. “By its nature, recruitment is often additive, so you end up doing more and more every year to drive numbers higher,” says Illinois Wesleyan’s Bankston. “The workload gets heavier and more intensified each year, and even with a great amount of work, effort, and ingenuity, it’s just proving difficult to move the needle very much in a positive direction for any sustained period of time.”

Working at an institution that has experienced a heavy downturn in enrollment or for a new president who has unrealistic ambitions isn’t a recent phenomenon. Drew’s Kopenski admits that he has made a career out of working at schools that have had big challenges in enrollment, so the stress has always been quite high. So what makes today’s situation seem different?

“The difference now is that some boards want a silver-bullet solution for very complex issues that often are not controlled by the enrollment division, but which have a dramatic effect on enrollment,” he says.

Similarly, some boards and presidents have come to believe the admissions office is a turnkey operation. “I am seeing good friends being replaced nearly overnight when it often takes several years to see any measurable results,” says Kopenski.

“I often say that our job is to attract the most talented and diverse class that we can afford,” says Redlands’ Dyerly. “But there are tradeoffs within that objective, and it’s critical that the president, board, and community understand the institution’s position in the higher education landscape—and the opportunities and challenges presented by that position.”

As a career admissions officer, Jamestown’s Goplin has likewise been there and done that. “I have absolutely loved my profession—the people, challenges, and maybe even the heightened insecurity of it all,” he says. “But my own optimism has been tempered by the fact that I don’t see any end in sight for the competition for students or the consequences of that stress.”

The Elephant in the Room: Something’s Gotta Give

Indeed, the decade’s best known obstacles for enrollment—the demographic slump, a broken K-12 pipeline, the student loan crisis, internal and external pressures to improve institutional reputation, and the declining perception of the value of a college education—show no signs of relenting. But the general sentiment of those with whom we spoke, both on the record and off, was that the current model for higher education is not sustainable. It’s merely a question of when something will give.

“I think the sobering reality for many enrollment managers is that things are going to continue to get worse before they start getting better,” says Bankston at Illinois Wesleyan. “The landscape is changing more quickly than our ability to adjust.”

Some suggest that this might bring about some much needed evolutionary changes, although not necessarily quickly or for the better.

Trout at Minnetonka High School points out that some of the hurdles that have existed for his entire career in college counseling show no sign of going away. “For example, no matter what we say, students and families continue to make assumptions that some colleges won’t work financially for them based on the sticker price,” he says.

“The net price calculator was created to address this, and I had hoped it would be a game-changer,” he says. “So far it hasn’t helped all that much.”

However, the idea of a “prior-prior” financial aid policy that utilizes income data from two years prior to a student’s planned enrollment date is a real concern for Trout. “The number of need-blind admission decisions is very small today, and the existence of a financial aid form submitted in the fall of the senior year will rewrite the ledger of priority admissions, placing even more emphasis on a student’s ability to pay,” he says.

“If this happens,” says Trout, “it will be a change to the profession comparable to the introduction of the Internet to admissions.”

Addressing issues on the college side, Bankston believes many colleges are panicking and, in the process, creating problems that will hurt the industry in the long run. “The ramped-up competition is leading to financial policies that aren’t sustainable, and in order to avoid a swathe of institutional shutdowns, there needs to be some type of major adjustment to the pricing model. But I’m not sure how that’s going to come about,” he says.

Kopenski at Drew University likewise believes that a number of institutions will be forced to merge or close in the future. “What colleges do is expensive, and we can’t finance our way out of this,” he says. “Everyone who has read Moneyball wants to come up with the perfect model, but it’s not that simple.”

He predicts the smart institutions will take a chapter out of the healthcare playbook and concentrate on what they do best and eliminate the rest. “Like hospitals, we cannot be all things to all people any longer,” says Kopenski.

Goff suggests that solutions may lie within the institutions themselves, particularly when it comes to the possibility of using the academic enterprise to offset the costs of traditional students. “We have begun to offer summer programs and language camps at Saint Louis University for exactly this purpose,” he says.

Noting that regional demographers predict there will continue to be fewer traditional students who enroll in college over the next few years, Goff concludes, “If your goals are to continue to grow without changing outreach and student pipeline development plans, that’s not strategic thinking; it’s just hopeful thinking.”