Then the coronavirus struck.
While 419 colleges reported space available for new applicants after last year’s May 1 deposit deadline, this year
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Then the coronavirus struck.
While 419 colleges reported space available for new applicants after last year’s May 1 deposit deadline, this year 729 did so, by far the most such colleges the National Association for College Admission Counseling has listed in recent years. In a recent survey of college presidents, 86 percent said fall or summer enrollment was now among their most pressing issues.
With unprecedented turmoil over standardized testing, the unmooring of the admissions calendar, and uncertainty around whether campuses will reopen for the fall-2020 semester, enrollment managers and consultants are confronting greater challenges than ever before. How do things look from where they sit? Here’s what they told us.
Dinosaurs Had an Asteroid. We Have a Pandemic.
By Madeleine Rhyneer
New-student enrollment numbers for this fall are all over the place. Regardless of May 1, June 1, or open deadlines, some colleges are prospering while others languish. Even the most coveted institutions have admitted more students this spring as an initial gambit to hedge bets, and quite a few lucky students were plucked from wait lists even before May 1. Public-health crisis aside, this was a very good year to apply to colleges. It was also another tough year for enrollment managers as their yield models went out the window.
When the dust settles, we’ll see what colleges were offering students to entice them. Enrollment managers were already aggressive, and now that NACAC has weakened its ethical guidelines, all bets are off. As many have said, admissions is now the “wild, wild west.”
Dinosaurs died out because their environment changed too quickly for them to evolve; colleges face the same challenge. Many were optimized for the good old days of rising enrollments and strong public support. That environment has shifted slowly but surely, yet higher-education leaders have largely refused to acknowledge it or have been unable to galvanize their communities to act.
In such a market, victory belongs to nimble institutions that pivot quickly and boldly. One president I work with is doing just that by eliminating undersubscribed majors and identifying new in-demand programs. Decision making must shift to light speed for institutions with declining demand, no cash reserve, and modest endowments. Sadly, colleges that faced serious financial challenges before the coronavirus are dead institutions walking.
No one knows yet what fall enrollments will look like. What we do know is that higher education experienced its version of an asteroid this spring, and that for institutions unable or unwilling to make thorny choices, extinction will soon follow.
Put Students First
By Jon Boeckenstedt
I’ve said that a lot recently, along with the previously unthinkable, “Your guess is as good as mine.” Neither of those — especially the latter — is something enrollment-management people normally feel comfortable uttering, but it’s become our mantra of late. Anyone who speaks with absolute certainty about what fall will bring to campuses is just kidding themselves. And others.
Our business runs on historical trends and economic principles. The size of the market of potential college students, the rate of inflation that drives tuition increases, price modeling based on historical data, and the actions of competitors all influence our predictions about the future. But we have no model variable for “pandemic effects.” Higher education cannot speak collectively about whether we’ll be Zoom U. or business as usual next fall, or some combination of those. Both public and private colleges, reliant to some degree on government largess, have no idea how shrinking tax revenues, skyrocketing unemployment, or government deficit tolerance will affect support for what we do.
How to manage? The places at the top of the higher-education food chain will be fine, of course, and a few at the other end may not be able to survive. But for all the rest of us — those who occupy that big middle part of the distribution — I’m going to suggest a novel approach: Consider students and their parents before you consider yourselves.
We all watched with interest as colleges closed campuses in the past few months: Some gave students just a few days to pack up and go home, while others kept residence halls open, not assuming that every student could go home, or even that they necessarily had a home to go to. Some refunded student-activity fees, while others said the money was already spent. At least one, Liberty University, stayed open and drew both criticism and praise for doing so. But those actions were decided in haste, and parents and students, trying to make the best of a bad situation themselves, will most likely understand.
When it comes to new students, however, try putting yourself in their place. Imagine the psyche of parents watching their 18-year-old moving to a university a thousand miles away, even though they hadn’t had a chance to visit. Think about making a tuition deposit when you don’t know if there will be students on campus, football games to attend, or recreation centers open this fall. Ponder the dashed dreams brought on by a college-savings fund greatly diminished in the last month, or the specter of job loss looming on the horizon, or mortgage payments already missed.
In general, think about all the things you do, and whether you do them for your benefit or the benefit of students and families. Now might be the best time to think about eliminating archaic rules and processes that exist simply because no one has ever thought to change them, and to focus on how your students might benefit from changes.
Starting with students won’t solve all your challenges. But it’s a step in the right direction, and the situation demands it.
Bad, Very Bad, and Worst-Case Scenarios
By Stefanie D. Niles
I am on an email list with other chief enrollment officers from private colleges around the country, and recently one of them asked how others were predicting fall enrollment. About 20 people responded, most indicating they were planning for between 10- and 15-percent fewer students than originally predicted, though some said they thought their enrollment declines might be greater.
What struck me most, however, was the language used to describe potential outcomes. One of the more optimistic responders indicated that their institution was examining “Best, Expected, and Worse (not worst)” enrollment scenarios. Another (perhaps more realistic) responder said they were considering scenarios labeled “Bad, Very Bad, and Worst-Case.”
We were already anticipating a more competitive enrollment environment this year as a result of last fall’s vote by the National Association for College Admission Counseling to relax its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. The new uncertainties created by Covid-19 have added significantly to the unrest institutions feel. “Summer melt” has always been a concern for many institutions; now we anticipate even higher summer attrition.
In an April survey by the higher-ed research firm SimpsonScarborough, 11 percent of high-school seniors who had planned to enroll at a traditional college said they no longer planned to do so. And if colleges offer only online education this fall, many more may take a gap year or choose a different college. This is one of my greatest concerns. If my institution is forced to teach remotely because we can’t do it safely in person, will students enroll?
All of this has caused me more than a few lost hours of sleep. While my institution is one of more than 400 that have extended the deposit deadline to June 1 or later, that might not be enough time for some students to make a commitment.
In a meeting with my staff this week, an admissions officer responsible for recruiting students from several states far from Ohio indicated the greatest level of angst. Students weren’t sure they would feel comfortable getting on a plane in three and a half months. Some of them have parents who have been laid off or furloughed, and they were worried about being away from their families during such a time of uncertainty — particularly when the coronavirus could return in the fall and force them back home.
Last fall, I wrote in The Chronicle that “until higher education confronts head-on the challenges of increasing costs and a shrinking pipeline, less financially secure institutions on the lower end of the prestige spectrum will continue to falter, and even disappear.” Covid-19 only exacerbates the situation. As Robert Zemsky, author of The College Stress Test, said in March, “Are colleges doing business as usual in September or even October? If they’re not, then all bets are off.”
By Angel B. Pérez
Is all this really necessary?
My greatest hope for post-Covid-19 admissions is that we honor the simplicity and flexibility that colleges have created during the pandemic. Once institutions realize they can make informed decisions without making the process cumbersome, it could be a turning point for college access. For decades, colleges have been adding admissions requirements while taking few away. What if we asked ourselves, if I had to create a new admissions system, what principles would I hold sacred, and which ones would I deem no longer relevant?
Colleges should join together to reimagine a process that gives them the evaluation information they need and makes the process less cumbersome for students. Organizations like the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the Common Application, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, and testing agencies could create a coalition to lead this conversation. This is our moment to recreate a process that has not evolved for decades.
Enrolling a class was already a heavy lift. After the pandemic, meeting enrollment goals will require us to move mountains. In a post-Covid-19 world, the college-application process should be different. Let’s make it simpler for students. It can be the catalyst that creates more access and enrolls more students.
The Predictive Model’s Mortal Enemy
By Richard A. Clark
Then March and Covid-19 hit. As activity on campuses disappeared, so too did confidence in the key predictive metrics that admissions professionals rely on to forecast new-student enrollment. Consider how each of the following once-reliable metrics appear now:
Number of deposits. What percentage were received pre- or post-Covid-19, and how will date of receipt affect retention? How many students will submit deposits at multiple institutions, in light of economic and employment uncertainty and significant dips in college savings? To what extent will deposits decrease if all instruction is online in the fall? Will U.S. embassies and consulates be open in time to issue visas for international students?
Number of admitted students who attend a campus tour and information session. April is the most popular month for admitted students to visit colleges, so what impact will the inability of students to see campuses and speak with faculty members or current students in person have on yield? Although colleges worked feverishly to enhance online webinars, provide virtual tours and information sessions, and help students make online connections with campus community members, will the efforts be equally compelling and effective?
Number of students registering for housing or orientation. With the uncertainty of a fall residential experience, how firm are housing applications or deposits? And given that most orientations will be online, will summer melt increase because families do not have the opportunity to engage with advisers, current students, and other families?
Email open rates, clicks, forwards, and online interactions with staff. Whether up or down, how reliable are these data points when students and parents are home, on screens all day, and receiving countless Covid-19-related messages from their banks, the local gyms, and the store they purchased a spatula from two years ago?
Canceled deposits. Will selective colleges move earlier and at higher rates to their wait lists, or will they wait longer into the summer to watch financial and health indicators? When and to what extent will the admissions dominos of the higher-education ecosystem fall this summer in comparison with the past?
As the adage goes, not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Even if travel and the economy begin to rebound, and college campuses are open in the fall, how comfortable will families be sending their kids tens, hundreds, or thousands of miles away from home?
As we have all heard and probably said far too many times lately, this pandemic is unprecedented. Unfortunately, “unprecedented” is the mortal enemy of a predictive model.