College athletic coaches sometimes joke about the difficulty of entrusting their careers to the decision-making of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds whose brains are not fully developed. This is also the case for college enrollment leaders, as the pressure to meet goals can be extra intense in the admissions department.
During the early fall, admissions teams’ jobs are mostly complete as they watch the new school year begin. Some are quietly celebrating a great class start, while others are strategizing how to improve next year’s success. Either way, enrollment leaders know they are often only as good as their last class. That’s why now is the time to start focusing on what’s ahead. Unfortunately, that’s often easier said than done.
How to prepare when the data isn’t ready
One difficulty during the start of the fall semester is that there is often little data to indicate what next term’s class will look like. However, this doesn’t stop people from asking you as soon as the first yellow appears on the trees, “How is next year’s class looking?”
This is a question your entire admissions staff needs to be prepared to answer. While some predictions and strategies for next year’s class will need to wait for new data to roll in, being able to sufficiently answer it before complete data is available is key to building credibility across campus.
3 ways enrollment teams can talk to their college community about next year’s class
To help your enrollment team build credibility and confidence with the broader campus community as they wait for the data, I recommend implementing these three strategies when you’re asked, “How is next year’s class looking?”
1. Devise a consistent team answer for the question
Basic communication theory tells us that in the absence of information, people will fill in the blanks with whatever information is available. To maintain control over the narrative and build confidence in your team’s efforts to recruit for next year’s class, I’d suggest collaborating as a team to develop a standard answer that covers three main points:
- What you are excited about
- Where your focus is
- How and when you are going to begin sharing data more broadly
Response example: “We are excited about recruiting for next year because we’re adding some great new programs. Based on what we saw last year, we are really focused on students from the greater Chicago area. The first enrollment report gets emailed to the executive team on November 20 and we should have a better sense of our year-over-year progress and where we need to make adjustments then.”
2. Use the question as an opportunity to enlist support
Unlike the football coach who probably won’t want the financial aid officer or political science professor calling plays, the enrollment leader does need everybody involved. When someone asks what next year’s numbers look like, they are indicating that they care – and if they care they’re probably willing to help.
After providing your team’s standard answer to the question, consider engaging the questioner further. For example, you could say, “Students love to hear from faculty. Are you going to participate in our calling program?” or “We have an open house Saturday; I hope you can walk through and meet some parents!” Again, give the team two or three specific actions they can offer to involve the college community.
Another idea is to acknowledge the questioner’s role in the enrollment process. You could do this by saying “When students in the community talk about how supportive their professors are, it makes a big difference in recruiting efforts. We appreciate what you are doing.” Don’t flatter for flattery’s sake. But acknowledging someone’s role and helping them feel a part of the process can help encourage more participation in the future.
3. Don’t make early public predictions
Enrollment leaders should never broadly share data early in the year that is not part of the typical process. While you may need to share some data with your executive or internal teams, looking at random data sets, making conclusions and sharing them broadly sets you up to be wrong – jeopardizing your credibility on campus.
For example, early in my career I worked at a state school largely attended by students from farm families. When wheat prices were up, our fall enrollment was typically better. Our team knew that, and we talked about it internally, but communicating that in hallway conversations would have been a mistake. First, wheat prices are a factor that we have no control over, which makes enrollment management seem like magic. Second, we would likely have been setting ourselves up for conversations down the road that started with “But you said …”
Let others conjecture. You and your team should stay focused.
4. Turn the question into a game
Many admissions outreach offices have contests about application numbers, calls made or deposits secured. These are fun and can add some extra motivation. Why not get your team into the spirit with an office pool or a bingo game tracking every time someone asks them questions about next year’s class size?
Rather than dreading the question, your enrollment team might get excited about hearing it. For example, maybe the first one to get asked five times gets a prize. Or you could start the count on August 1 and have a pool estimating the first time a faculty member asks the Vice President of Enrollment. Make it fun. The pressure is already on, but you and your team are up for it.
Prioritize your data infrastructure for better enrollment reporting and insights
While some predictions for next year’s class will need to wait as new data rolls in, navigating conversations about enrollment numbers and strategies can be exciting and constructive if you have access to good, clean, integrated data. By embracing digital solutions that enable deeper reporting capabilities, you can empower your team to build both community confidence and more effective strategies.
Collegis Education has helped many of our college and university partners re-structure their technology, integrating data across siloed systems, to build a foundation for more efficient and effective enrollment strategies.