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We Missed Our Start: How to Recover From a Slow Enrollment Cycle

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2020-09-02T01:59:21+00:00June 02, 2020|

You’ve been keeping close tabs on enrollment projections for the weeks and months leading up to the term. But when final census numbers are reported, a missed goal is a significant setback and can have a negative impact on an institution’s financial health. Upcoming term goals are often increased with no incremental budget or resources, and cross-departmental teams are placed under more pressure to outperform and over deliver.

But improving your performance starts with understanding your data. Once you’ve evaluated both internal and external influencing factors, you need to be willing to make strategic shifts across the broader enrollment process in order to drive change.

Keep reading for actionable advice on assessing your prior start performance and developing a go-forward plan to deliver improvements.

6 Tips for rebounding after a missed enrollment goal

A disappointing performance doesn’t have to repeat itself. Consider the following tips to regain traction within your enrollment strategy to show improvement for upcoming terms.

1. Use the data available to establish a comprehensive understanding of performance

While you may have assumptions as to the indicators that led to missing your goal, reviewing and analyzing the data available is critical to developing a new strategy for next term. Recognizing obvious discrepancies or outliers can help you identify where performance shifted from projections.

Here are some examples of the types of questions that can help you diagnose the root cause:

  • Did down-funnel enrollment conversion rates decrease month-over-month or year-over-year?
  • Was there a steady decline in prospective student interest in key geographies?
  • How did programmatic interest or demand change from prior terms?
  • Did you have a change in personnel or underperforming staff during a key time in the enrollment cycle?

It’s easy to point to weakness in marketing inquiry flow or yield, but a closer examination of the bigger picture can help you understand the key data points across all funnel stages. Once you’ve pinpointed the main issues, you can begin strategizing next steps.

2. Recognize any obstacles that served as enrollment barriers

There are likely plenty of students who are interested in your institution, but there may be barriers in place that can end up hindering their decision to attend. Barriers disguised as internal processes can be your worst enemy and in a highly competitive market. This can ultimately lead to a steady decline in enrollment term after term.

Use your data to understand falloff points in student interest and bring together the teams that impact each portion of the process. Question policies that affect admittance or acceptance rates and research the processes of competitors to determine how you stack up.

For example, removing the letters of reference, personal essays and professional resumes that were once required for admittance will likely have a positive impact on application numbers. And if you’re facing internal resistance to testing these new strategies, propose piloting it for one term to assess its impact. If the new initiatives play out positively, it’ll be much harder to oppose the strategy.

3. Identify and maximize areas of success

Missing your start goal is a setback, but don’t let that overshadow the areas you experienced growth or outperformed expectations. A thorough analysis of your data not only identifies problems and risks, but it can bring to light the positive trends and successful strategies from the team.

Be sure to highlight and communicate these enrollment wins to your team, as well as cross-departmental leadership. After all, meeting term goals is a responsibility not solely owned by the office of enrollment. Now is the time for key stakeholders to align on shifting strategies and increasing efforts to the areas that are proving successful.

4. Don’t dwell on the missed start number

Every day counts in an enrollment cycle. Now that the end of the term has come and gone, it’s time to shift the focus toward making improvements for the next start. Make sure your prior term performance analysis is documented so that institutional leadership will have a record to understand what led to the miss.

Then it’s time to move on. Often institutions spend too much time reviewing and reevaluating those numbers and are too slow to transition to the upcoming term.

5. Enhance strategies to grow transfer audience

Never underestimate the ability to grow your transfer student population. As trends indicate that more students are looking to attend a school closer to home, a concentrated transfer strategy can lead to unplanned and incremental enrollment growth.

Revisit your marketing efforts to ensure your strategy is proactive, not reactive. Understand the geographic and institutional competitors that are vying for your prospective students. Consider investing a portion of your recruitment budget in transfer campaigns and be aware of conversion metrics for this audience. Also keep in mind that transfer initiatives should be a consistent focus, not an afterthought that only gets initiated when new freshman enrollment is down.

6. Don’t ignore the importance of retention

Growing new student enrollments is a critical component of the financial health of an institution. But the projected loss in revenue from not meeting term goals can be reduced by improving overall student retention. The enrollment team should maintain open communication with the student affairs team regarding the performance metrics and benchmarks each are working towards.

The slightest improvement in student retention could have a significant impact on the lifetime revenue of a particular program. Understanding the give-and-take of each department can help uncover holistic institutional strategies.

Prepare for a strong comeback

The higher education market is more competitive and uncertain than ever, as declining enrollment and missed goals are becoming more common. The key to recovering is to be agile and have a data-driven mindset. If your team is able to swiftly assess performance, double down on wins and adapt strategies as needed, you can begin to recoup the loss and work toward making gains in the terms ahead.

Let our experts help you find a unique solution for exceeding your enrollment goals.

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About the Author
Erin Werthman
Erin Werthman is a partner director at Collegis Education. She holds an MBA from Benedictine University.