EAB’s Tara Zirkel and Mike Saxvik examine systemic weaknesses within the admissions practices at two-year institutions that allow far too many prospective students to fall through the cracks. They urge listeners to begin cataloging all the “side doors” through which prospective students inquire about your school and then capture those disparate data points into a unified CRM and student retention platform. Doing so helps short-staffed admissions team streamline subsequent communication efforts to convert more inquiries into applicants and more applicants into successful, engaged students.
0:00:11.0 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we look at the customer relationship management technologies and processes that short-staffed admissions teams at two-year schools must adopt to turn more student inquiries into actual students. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.
0:00:34.0 Mike Saxvik: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Mike Saxvik and I'm a senior director here at EAB. Today, we're going to talk about student recruitment at community colleges, an area many schools are prioritizing as they compete for a shrinking pool of students. With me today to talk about this very topic is my colleague, Tara Zirkel. Tara, would you mind introducing yourself and giving us a little bit of context about your work on this topic?
0:01:00.0 Tara Zirkel: Yes, thanks Mike. It's such a pleasure to be here. My name is Tara Zirkel. I'm a director of strategic research here at EAB with a focus on community colleges. I come from sort of a recruitment and enrollment background and spent 11 years on campus, so this topic is very near and dear to my heart. And as Mike kind of mentioned, today we're going to dive into how community colleges can begin to rebound from enrollment declines by building stronger connections with prospective students. And the declines that two-year schools have been seeing have not only been impacted by the stress of the pandemic, but also by shrinking demographics, rising wages, increased competitiveness and trends of younger students who are opting out of college altogether. So, this means building strong relationships with students early on and making sure they don't fall between the cracks is really critical to restoring community college enrollment. Kind of a fun fact is that over the course of the pandemic eight million young adults have opted out of higher education, but 60% of them may have applied to college which means these non-consumers could be hiding in plain sight just waiting to be engaged.
0:02:09.5 MS: Awesome. You just released a white paper on this topic, right?
0:02:13.1 TZ: That is right. And I think we can put a link to that white paper in the show notes if folks are interested in giving it a look.
0:02:22.0 MS: Thanks Tara. I know for our listeners, particularly those who work in community and technical colleges, they're probably thinking to themselves, "Well, this isn't new news." Recruitment is one of those evergreen challenges that they're constantly thinking about and working towards. So what is it about some of these current challenges in the enrollment landscape today that's making this such a topic for renewed priority?
0:02:46.2 TZ: Mike, that's a great question. So we've seen how enrollment has definitely been impacted by the pandemic, right? So we have students that were under tremendous stress, tremendous trauma, tremendous loss within their families. And as we've begun to sort of stabilize after the pandemic, there are some things that are coming out that are different about the enrollment landscape now versus before. So one thing that's really interesting is that though in sort of this last fall, we've begun to see flatlining enrollment in community colleges which has caused a lot of people to celebrate and we should absolutely celebrate that. One thing I draw attention to though, is a lot of that recovered enrollment is from dual enrollment. So we had this period of time, the pandemic, where it was difficult for students to do dual enrollment because their high school was maybe on shaky ground, folks are responding to the pandemic and those numbers began to shrink. So this recovery that we're seeing, I'm wondering if some of it might be a little artificial.
0:03:46.8 TZ: So in fall 2022, for example, as enrollment began to flatten, dual enrollment was actually up 11.5% from fall 2021, so this huge jump in these high school students. So that's one thing that's different is the recovery that we're seeing is these dual enrollment students. And about 20% of community college students in the US are dual enrollment students, so one in five two-year students is actually enrolled in high school. What makes that interesting is that in higher ed recruitment, we've been talking about this thing for years called the demographic cliff which isn't new. But one thing I'm concerned will happen is that if we have this large section of our enrollment that's kind of floated by these dual enrollment students, as that demographic cliff creeps closer and that's demographic cliff meaning that there are sort of less college-age students out in the world, there are less high school graduates, less people in that traditional age range. If that is true, that could potentially mean that there's less dual enrollment students going forward. So it's something we really need to keep an eye on is this sort of reliance on dual enrollment as part of this kind of recruitment and enrollment strategy.
0:05:00.3 TZ: Another thing that I've been watching a lot too is we kind of are wondering, where are these students going? They're opting out of college, what choices are they making that are taking us away? One thing that we've been watching here at EAB is rising wages. So we know that our students in two-year schools have always had to work to support themselves. They're supporting their families, they're supporting their children, they're supporting their loved ones. And many of our students have to choose between, do I do college or do I go to work? And right now, one thing that we've been tracking is through the Atlanta Federal Reserve Wage Tracker is how much are wages growing, basically. So right now, in the past year, wages for all adults have risen 6%. Wages for 16 to 24-year-olds have risen 12%. So it's really easy to see why particularly a younger student or really any person considering postsecondary education might say, "I'm going to opt into the workforce right now and maybe kind of put higher education on pause."
0:06:02.3 MS: Oh man, that seems like there's a lot of external pressures. But what about other options? Are you seeing any data or any research about students pursuing alternative options to college or kind of the traditional community or technical college option?
0:06:18.9 TZ: Yes, so there is some evidence that some high school students, high school students more than ever, might be opting into sort of the larger online four-year school, so the massive national four-year schools. And what's really interesting about that and what I think two-year schools need to watch is these are institutions that aren't really even actively recruiting that traditional student age range. It's just more of these younger students are seeing a value proposition and the flexibility that some of these massive online institutions offer. There's also some data out there too, when we look at students again in that sort of 18 to 24, 26-year-old range who have opted out of school, they haven't enrolled at all, there's some evidence that they're actually doing online courses or pursuing licensures and smaller credentials which makes a lot of sense. So if this is a student who is chasing those higher wages, which makes sense, they're working to support their families, that little credential or that little license might be something that feels more manageable than the commitment of a two-year or a four-year degree.
0:07:25.8 MS: Interesting. I think that those are all really great points, Tara. I think I spend a lot of my time not only on the recruitment side, but on the retention and success side of the house. And one of the other things that we've been noticing is the impacts of COVID on learning loss. And so I think on all of the things that you're talking about, not only are less students maybe pursuing these traditional models or opportunities, they're coming in with different levels of preparation. Do you think that this is something that will have long term implications or is this something that maybe is still a blip that we'll come out of in the next year or two?
0:08:03.9 TZ: So when we think about open access institutions, these are institutions that accept everyone regardless of your SAT score, your ACT score, what your high school GPA is. When we open our doors to everyone, which is one of the great strengths of community colleges, we also open our doors to students who are academically vulnerable. And as we accept academically vulnerable students, there are supports that need to be in place to make sure that those students are successful. So if we see students coming in that have maybe had some losses in English and math in particular, we really need to be prepared that as we recruit these students and as we engage with these students, that there's going to be supports that they need to make sure that they retain at the institution and that they're successful in the institution.
0:08:52.0 MS: Got it. Got it. So what you're saying is the landscape is pretty challenging right now, there's a lot of external factors happening. But you didn't really hit on what's happening at the institution level. Are you seeing anything different in what's happening at institutions when it comes to this work?
0:09:10.2 TZ: Yes. So one thing that we've talked about at EAB kind of at length is staffing difficulties, not only in two-year institutions but across the landscape, in four-year institutions as well. But us in the two-year sector have been hit a little bit harder by some of those staffing losses. So we're seeing people really across the board that are maybe opting out of working at two-year schools. Specifically, we're seeing this in folks who work in IT are kind of leaving the fastest and we know that these folks are the underpinning to kind of the structure of the institution. And it's difficult to service students in sort of a tech forward way, we don't have those folks on staff. I think another thing I would say is as we see these staffing losses, we also see institutional knowledge loss. And any of us that have worked at a college where someone really senior leaves knows what an uphill battle it can be to begin to really replace that person and replace the expertise that they have.
0:10:11.9 TZ: I can think both schools I worked at, we are so fortunate to have registrars that were there for 30-plus years and I can't imagine what would have happened if these people would have left. And I think another kind of adjacent issue with that is as you lose people, you want to replace them. And it's been difficult to attract new staff. We just kind of talked about wages are rising and when you work at a two-year institution, it can be really hard to adjust your wages to accommodate what's happening in industry. So two-year schools, again, kind of have these holes in their teams which makes recruiting students difficult, it makes onboarding students difficult, it makes sort of trying to have innovation in those areas really difficult because you don't have enough hands to do the work.
0:11:00.2 TZ: And I think the last thing I'd say on that kind of related to enough hands to do the work is when you don't have enough hands to do the work, tech and efficiency and different ways of doing things can be strategies to kind of share that load or even that load out. And when you're working with processes and technology that maybe need freshened up, I guess is a way I could say it, it can be really difficult to sort of accommodate students when you're doing things on paper, I'll be really honest. And I've worked in institutions that have done that, and it kind of slows down your ability to really build relationships with students, communicate quickly, do the outreach that you want to do to really pull those students in.
0:11:45.7 MS: Yeah, I've actually heard that a lot from the schools that I've been working with Tara. This idea, I kind of refer to it as a Goldilocks phenomenon as schools really try to think about creating efficiencies, recreating overly manual processes, something that's too small or too manual. The flip side is trying to invest in something that might be too big for them, sort of being attracted to a lot of shiny bells and whistles when maybe those aren't the things that they need in order to create some of those efficiencies. So it seems like in all of this, both internally and externally, we certainly set ourselves up for a challenging landscape. And I imagine, and you've kind of affirmed that, prospective students could be falling through the cracks. Why do you think this is happening? All of these challenges sort of considered, why do you think students are falling through the cracks?
0:12:43.0 TZ: Yeah. And kind of one of my stats that I love to hate right now, to be honest, is InsideTrack recently did a study on this exact topic and found that after 10 days, 17% of community college web inquiries had received no follow-up, 17%. And when we think about some of our institutions who are receiving hundreds, thousands of inquiries a year, if that follow up doesn't exist, it really impacts our ability to successfully build relationships with students, successfully help them enroll. And some of the reasons why these students fall through the cracks are really attributed to sort of the things we just talked about, that external influence of maybe I'm kind of lukewarm on college. And if this process has a lot of friction to it, it's really not going to help me feel more positively about pursuing it. And then those internal processes of, we don't maybe have the people or tech that can help us manage these high volumes of prospects that we might receive.
0:13:49.8 TZ: One thing in particular that I see happen in two-year schools is that students or prospective students often come through a lot of what I like to call side doors. So not every student who's interested in your institution is going to get online, fill out an application, hit submit and kind of kick back and wait for you to reach out. Some of them are going to show up to your open houses, they're enrolled in your dual enrollment programs, they're participating in noncredit courses, they are in high schools that you're sending recruiters to. And there's all these little kind of mini touch points that the student can have, and it can be really difficult to capture that much information in one place and in a place where you can kind of make sense of it. So I think that is one reason why prospective students are falling through the cracks, is just sort of that lack of bandwidth and lack of tech to really house the full scope of prospects that are kind of lurking around the corners.
0:14:47.1 MS: Okay, so students are coming in from all these doors, these side doors that you say that we're not necessarily monitoring, when they are coming in through the main channels, we're not responding. Even if we did those things, what other challenges are you hearing that sort of keep us from really making sure we're activating and engaging with these student populations?
0:15:13.0 TZ: Yeah. So let's say... That's a good question. Let's say we did a great job and we responded to every student that reached out to us within 24 hours. We're at Fantasy Community College, this is where we work. Even if we did that, I think another thing we really need to put stock into is looking at the data that we have around those interactions to better understand where we can have the most impact. So if we can track students who are coming through side doors, we can begin to understand which side doors are the biggest and need our most attention and which side doors are smaller and maybe need less attention. So if we have students who are coming in through dual enrollment and maybe we want to encourage those students to pursue an associate's degree program with us and we see that they're doing that maybe not as frequently as they could be, that's a place that warrants attention but we need the data to be able to understand where those opportunities lie. And again, when we're thin on people and we're thin on tech, getting that data, harnessing that data and really digesting that data can be really difficult. So even if we did a great job at reaching out to every student, we still want to make sure that that outreach resulted in impact. Because outreach itself is certainly helpful, but we want to understand was the outreach effective? Did it reach the right students and did they respond to the call to action that we put out to them?
0:16:39.8 MS: Yeah, I've seen that a lot. I know one of the things I'm often talking to partners about is creating calls to action within your communication. So it's not enough just to inform a student that this is an opportunity or this is a resource, it's really thinking about how are we driving students to the action we want them to take? And that gets really hard because a lot of times we're building that communication in college jargon. We're telling students they have to meet with the bursar and they're saying to themselves, "Who or what is the bursar and what do I need to see with them?" So I see that and that certainly extends beyond the enrollment and recruitment. Post-application, we are creating barriers in the onboarding process and that part shouldn't be overlooked either. So a lot of challenges. Let's kind of start to flip the script and think about what strategies are actually out there to help schools do this work better. So Tara, you've been on both sides of this work, you've been at an institution, obviously now you're on the research and work side of this at EAB. What can community colleges do to better engage and capture students early on so that those students or prospective students are receiving the information they need about the options available to them at the college?
0:18:04.8 TZ: Yeah. I think one thing we can do is begin... To go back to the analogy of the side doors, is to begin to really catalog where those side doors are as a starting point. And one thing that we can maybe post in the show notes is we do have a diagnostic here at EAB, that's about 20 to 30 of these side doors that you can sit down with your team and really think about, of these 20 to 30 side doors, A, how many does my institution have? B, are we capturing any information from them? And C, for students who enter through these side doors, are there any existing workflows that we can kind of put that student into to begin to help them receive communication from us, receive invitations from us so we can begin to share our value proposition with the student? So I think that's kind of bucket number one is finding the doors. Bucket number two is really taking the time to invest in your communications flows. I can tell you, I've worked in institutions where these three different offices were sending students the same message, same call to action and it's very confusing for a student when they get a letter from the bursar, the admissions office and advising all on the same day and they all kind of say different things.
0:19:21.0 TZ: So really sitting down with your team, both for prospective students that are in that inquiry phase and students who are in the application phase, really sitting down and kind of spreading all the papers out, so to speak, and really thinking about are we duplicating effort? Are we sending too many messages? Are the messages we're sending of high value and have a clear CTA? So it's different to say, "We're having an open house," versus, "Register for the open house here." Those are two different messages for a student and one has that really clear call to action. I think another area to... And we've hit on this, is really thinking about if there's ways to leverage tech to do some of the manual lifting so your staff can focus on high impact tasks.
0:20:06.8 TZ: So I'll give an example, from when I was on campus where we would do dozens of open houses on a campus, we would have students sign in at the door, we would have paper inquiry cards and at the end of the events, I would realize that maybe only a third of the information that we had gathered was actually useful. Some of it was illegible, some of it was incomplete. And if there would have been ways to leverage tech to kind of replace that manual sort of task, not only would it have been a lighter lift for us, we would have gotten a higher quality of information back from the student that was more actionable for us. So really, again, thinking about tech as far as how can we use tech to also rapidly respond to students, students really expect follow-up within a day. If I submit an inquiry form, if I register for an open house, I want some kind of confirmation that somebody heard me, somebody saw me. Because otherwise, all those competing priorities that I had, that we mentioned earlier, all those other competing priorities might seem like a better choice for me right now if I don't hear back from the institution.
0:21:16.8 MS: Yeah. And I know this extends, so today we're talking a lot about that application, getting students to that point of application but I think those same principles apply post-application as well. So thinking about how do we communicate the next steps and personalize that for students, creating those calls to action and then ultimately thinking about, are there ways to leverage tech in that onboarding process with a goal of not only getting more students to that application point, but increasing our yield and getting more students to day one? So a lot of schools are probably... And folks listening today are probably saying, "This is all well and good but we don't have enough people to take this on." So how can community colleges make this a priority while doing so with small or lean teams?
0:22:13.0 TZ: Yeah. And I think one reason why schools might feel bogged down, to use my example of the manual sign-in sheets, is because they are spending time doing those kind of low impact tasks, doing things that are ad hoc, doing things that are repetitive. And I really think sitting back and kind of looking about at your whole sort of recruitment strategy to say, what are the 10 things that we're doing? What are the 10 things that take up somebody's time this week? And are there two things that we can remove from their plate so they can focus more on having these meaningful relationships with students? If it doesn't add value or we can't measure the value, I think it becomes really hard to persist in that strategy. So it's really about kind of, to use the phrase trimming the fat, thinking about where we can trim down. Again, using that tech to replace those high volume tasks. If there was a way... I can't tell you how many manual emails I've sent to students in my life, that could have maybe been aggregated into one kind of system where I could have responded at scale.
0:23:18.5 TZ: Self-service tools too, I think, is a way, again, to free up your staff, to free up their bandwidth to take on these more strategic conversations. So how much stuff can an inquiry do on their own or an applicant do on their own? Are there places that we can refer these folks or they can engage in a self-service sort of relationship with the school rather than sort of these high volume, very labor intensive interactions? And again, part of that like we talked about before is really using the data to understand what practices are high volume, what needs cut out so people are using their time in the most impactful way. So kind of the short answer is, is really cutting, trimming the fat, thinking about what did I do this week that maybe I didn't need to do and if you could find five hours, two hours, three hours, it can be enough time to really refocus your efforts to think about your whole recruitment strategy.
0:24:17.8 MS: Yeah. You've kind of hinted at this, underscoring a lot of this as data and information. So for the folks that are thinking about this for the first time, what types of data points would you recommend they think about or track to understand the efficacy of their work?
0:24:34.0 TZ: Yeah. So thinking about... I'll give an example. I know a lot of community colleges put a lot of stock in events, so events that you're hosting on campus or events that you're attending. So really tracking, how many leads am I getting from that event? Are they converting? Why aren't they converting? To really understand if the volume of events that you're doing is helpful or if you're at the right events to really kind of warrant your participation. And it's not that these events aren't valuable, it kind of goes back to the idea that we don't have enough staff to literally staff every event that's out in the world. I think looking at sort of your speed to contact, so if an inquiry submits a form on your website, how long on average does it take for you to respond to that student? Is there a way that you can trim six hours off of that, 12 hours off of that and really make some sort of incremental goals around how quickly you respond to students? If you have the ability to track how students interact with your recruitment communications, so what are your open rates? What are your clickthrough rates? What times of day are students opening things?
0:25:46.0 TZ: Those can be really valuable information too, because just because we're sending messages to students doesn't mean we're sending the right messages to students. And messages for messages sake aren't necessarily going to kind of nudge students into the next steps that we want them to take. So going back to that clear call to action, really measuring did my call to action work? So if I send a communication to prospective students that says, "Hey, we're having an open house next week. Register here." Seeing 24 hours later, how many more registrations did I get to really sort of prove the efficacy of the communication that we're doing. So those are some places I would start. And we also obviously want to look at sort of the conversion rate of if I have X number of inquiries, what percentage turns into an applicant? What percentage turns into a student? To begin to benchmark where we start from and then thinking about how do we incrementally improve from there.
0:26:43.8 MS: Got it. So it sounds like there's a lot of great ideas. I'll kind of take us back to the beginning of our conversation today, we talked about sort of these challenges that are happening right now both externally and internally, we've obviously gone deep into some of the impacts. There's always this pressure and I think it's always easy to say yes, and maintain the status quo. So Tara, as you think about all this work and certainly it takes some effort, it takes some time to make some of these improvements and efficiencies, what happens if community colleges maintain the status quo or don't get... Said differently, don't get a better handle on their inquiries and prospective students?
0:27:30.0 TZ: That's a really good question. And I think the question I would ask a college is, would you pour water into a leaky bucket or would you plug up the holes first? And I think that's what a lot of institutions are facing right now, is they've put a lot of effort and money and person power into recruitment, new initiatives with high schools, new employer partnerships, new community relationships. And all of these things are great and all of these things are things that we should be doing. But if you take those relationships and those students and you pour them into a leaky bucket, not only are you not getting the enrollment that you would hope to get, you've also now impacted the relationship with all the people that are involved in filling your bucket, essentially. So really, I think, if students submit that inquiry, they go to an event, they're excited, they talk to somebody and then no one follows up with them, you've really damaged the relationship with the student and that student is going to tell five other prospective students. So there's sort of... That interaction is really important.
0:28:39.3 TZ: I think threats to enrollment will become amplified. These are students as we mentioned before, sort of the menu of options that they're considering is broader than it has been in the past. And they're really maybe struggling with the value proposition of why should I come to college? And then if the student kind of dips their toe in and says, "Well, maybe I might want to go to college," and they don't get that feedback, it only really maybe confirms this thought that they had that, "Well, college isn't for me. They didn't even kind of follow up with me." And I think there's sort of also, when we think about the mission of two-year institutions, the mission of two-year institutions is to build stronger communities, it's to engage people and their communities to help them have greater social and economic mobility. And without really getting a handle on this, I think there's sort of a threat to the mission as well. So again, that student who sneaks in the side door and they kind of have this hope of maybe this can be a place that can set me on track with a new job or set me on track with a new skill, if we're not monitoring the door, we really hurt their prospects of this future that they've hoped for. So there's that imperative as well in addition to also obviously sort of the enrollment imperative that we're all under.
0:29:58.0 MS: Awesome. Well, Tara, I can't believe it but our time on the podcast is already running short. As we end today, what advice or top piece of advice would you give to our listeners for applying greater rigor and organization around communication and recruitment of prospective students?
0:30:19.3 TZ: I think really making the time to step back and kind of looking at your entire recruitment picture and really thinking about it from the student's point of view. So if I'm a student and I engage with your college, what is really the experience that I'm having? And I think there's ways that you can do that and exercises you can do with your team to think about how does the student sort of move through the steps at our institution. Again, thinking about the side doors and kind of thinking about where they are and really kind of being transparent and making a list of these are all the places where our students make communication with us, touch base with us and really thinking about that communication strategy to hit all those different student personas. And again, really thinking back and stepping back and thinking about, what is the mission of the institution? So we want to connect with people in our community that want to connect with us and really sort of carrying that through the work. And Mike, I know you spend a lot of time talking to colleges as well and I would actually love to hear your top pieces of advice as well.
0:31:28.0 MS: Yeah. I think this has been really interesting. I know we've collaborated a lot in our work. As I think about this work, it doesn't end at that point of application. As mentioned earlier, my work is really thinking about how do we get students from application to day one and ultimately to the finish line around their goals. And so my advice to institutions as they're undertaking this work with recruitment is to make sure that we are carrying forward that work beyond application, how do we simplify and streamline the onboarding and reduce some of those institutional barriers to actually enroll and ultimately matriculate? And then finally, making sure that as students progress that we are doing the things that we need to to keep them engaged, keep them connected, ultimately to get them to persist and graduate. So I guess I would summarize that by saying recruitment and retention are two sides of the same coin. And so as an institution, if you're investing in one, you should be investing in the other.
0:32:33.6 TZ: I 100% agree with that.
0:32:37.0 MS: Awesome. Well, Tara, thank you so much for coming and talking with us today. Thank you listeners for joining us on this edition of Office Hours.
0:32:55.9 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when our guests examine the rise of the university stealth shopper. These are prospective students who have already researched your school and formed a strong opinion before you ever get the chance to engage and recruit them. Until next week, thank you for your time.
Don't miss a beat
Visit our podcast homepage for additional episodes, information on our expert contributors, and more.