by Bob Massa and Bill Conley
You have heard it all before. The media has been replete with observations on how the current admissions season and undergraduate enrollments are being impacted by the pandemic. Wild trends in application volume – up, up for the elites; down, down for almost everyone else- foretell a volatile spring yield season and summer-long class building. Meanwhile, current undergraduates have experienced nothing close to a typical academic year; how will their topsy-turvy experience translate to persistence toward graduation?
Enrollment leaders will be under significant pressure to land the desired first-year class and, at the very least, hold the line on retention. As always, they will need the support of and contributions from a myriad of campus partners to achieve these goals.
First, two recent surveys give us a small glimpse at what colleges may face this fall as they try to return to some form of “normalcy.”
The higher education marketing firm SimpsonScarborough surveyed nearly 700 college-bound high school seniors from across the country in February 2021. They found that students are behind in their college search and that they are in crisis and need support. Meanwhile, the “Student Voice” survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed in partnership with College Pulse, reached over 2000 traditional-aged students at 120 colleges across the country from March 2-9, 2021. It provides a sense of what college students think worked during COVID and what did not – and what they want from their colleges going forward.
While not surprising, the results from both surveys can help inform institutional planning.
With an increase in the average number of applications submitted by individual students according to the Common Application (an 11 percent growth in applications submitted but only a 1 percent increase in the number of unique students), expect that yields on admission offers will decline for many institutions. Further compounding the “yield” uncertainty is the impact of financial need. As the class of 2025 prepares to enroll this fall, the demand for financial aid has already spiked. Of those college-bound seniors surveyed by SimpsonScarborough, 43 percent said the pandemic impacted their family’s finances, and 23 percent had at least one parent lose a job.
This will create opportunities to positively impact yield through responses to appeals for additional aid. While this will unquestionably increase the discount rate, it could also increase enrollment and total net revenue. Students who appeal their financial aid award are typically interested enough in the institution to take the time to appeal. Chances of enrolling these students are typically good, even with a response that falls short of a requested amount. In short, listening intently to financial appeals and doing what you can to make your college affordable is essential to “yield.”
With “yield season” upon us, it is also important to note that while 85 percent of college-bound seniors think visiting a campus is an important factor in making a final decision, only half have been able to do so. This is the time to reach out with virtual visits personalized to a student’s major or extra-curricular interests. With almost half of the surveyed college-bound students claiming to have a high level of anxiety about how COVID will affect their ability to begin their college education, making admitted students feel a part of your community will be especially impactful this year. And the high connectivity to deposited students must be maintained throughout the summer.
According to “Student Voice,” college students, like their high school counterparts, found it more challenging to stay motivated in an online environment. A full 80 percent of college students surveyed claimed this was their number one challenge, while just under two-thirds of high school seniors said the same. It is likely that some classes will be remote in the fall, even for students residing on campus. Efforts to engage students, which faculty typically do as a matter of course, will be even more critical in situations where some classes are in-person and some are remote.
Of particular interest to enrollment managers is that 9 percent of the traditional college students surveyed said that they had no desire to return to in-person classes. This could have an impact on retention and, obviously, on institutional revenue. To retain these students, some institutions may decide to create dual tracks – one for in-person instruction and one for online, which may be more limited in scope and restricted to certain majors or certificate programs. This is not likely as feasible for many small institutions.
While almost one-third of the college students surveyed said they never wanted to take another class on Zoom, 79 percent wanted lectures to be made available online for review purposes. Almost half wanted the option to attend classes either online or in person. It is likely, therefore, that some form of digital learning will be demanded by students well beyond the pandemic. Colleges that recognize this and that create the infrastructure to deliver course content digitally could avert significant declines in enrollment.
Not surprisingly, 80 percent of those college students surveyed said that they wanted to return to an in-person college experience. But what they look forward to the most is being back with their friends and having a social life once again. Nearly three-quarters of the students indicated this was the most important reason to return to campus. The next closest reason to be back on campus cited 43 percent of the time, was to return to in-person classes. Social programming and opportunities for students to interact should be high on any college’s list of things to invest in as a retention strategy.
As this most difficult academic year draws to a close, college and university leaders have significant financial, physical, human, and programmatic issues that require serious attention. To succeed, colleges must put students at the center of what they do and why they do it. The imperative, as colleges begin to emerge from this global pandemic, is to listen carefully to what students are telling you and to do your best to meet their needs while being true to your mission and being responsible stewards of your resources.