Top Recruiting Tips to Reverse Enrollment Declines


Top Recruiting Tips to Reverse Enrollment Declines

Episode 50. March 30, 2021.

Welcome to the Office Hours with EAB podcast. You can join the conversation on social media using #EABOfficeHours. Follow the podcast on Spotify, Google Play, Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud and Stitcher or visit our podcast homepage for additional episodes.

College enrollment dipped this past fall as most people expected. However, the decline was not equally distributed across all demographic cohorts or types of institutions.

Journalist Jon Marcus joins EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer to examine the data which show surprising enrollment trends that have not received the media attention they probably deserve. The two discuss ways that college recruiting has changed forever as a result of the pandemic, and they explain why doing “more of the same” isn’t going to work this time.



0:00:14.0 Speaker 1: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, EAB enrollment expert, Madeleine Rhyneer, welcomes journalist Jon Marcus to the podcast. You've probably read Jon's work in The Washington Post, USA Today, Time Magazine, or more recently in The Hechinger Report. This episode is kind of special, not only because of our guest, but because this is the 50th episode of Office Hours. We launched the podcast just over one year ago in the early days of the pandemic. Doing the podcast each week has become an educational and eye-opening labor of love for our little podcast team. We hope you are enjoying it as well, and we thank you for listening.


0:01:00.7 Madeleine Rhyneer: Hello, and welcome to EAB's Office Hours. I'm Madeleine Rhyneer, and it's my privilege to serve as a Dean of Enrollment Management and Vice President of Consulting at EAB. And I am joined today by journalist Jon Marcus, who is an author and also an adjunct faculty member at Boston College and Northeastern University. Welcome, Jon, we were thrilled to have you with us here today.

0:01:21.7 Jon Marcus: Thanks very much for having me.

0:01:23.9 MR: So let's get started because I know you've been doing a lot of work on this and have some great insights to share with our listeners, so as we all know, overall college enrollment dipped this fall as pretty much everybody expected, however, the decline was not equally distributed across all demographics, as we've been noting. Can we spend a couple of minutes talking from your perspective about the specific populations that saw the greatest decline and some of the issues that this raises for you in your work?

0:01:53.0 JM: We've been covering the longer-term impacts of what's happening this year. I think a lot of us will sort of wish that the pandemic problems were confined to the pandemic year, or now almost more than a year, and that will all just go straight back to going back to normal. Some of the enrollment trends that we've seen over the last year, however, suggests that there'll be a longer-term impact that we all should be concerned about, and those impacts are particularly significant among men whose share of enrolment declined seven times more than the decline in enrollment of women, exacerbating a problem that already existed before the pandemic. And also low-income first generation, and since that often correlates with race, Black and Hispanic students.

0:02:41.4 JM: And you can see that in the numbers of students that are completing the FAFSA Those numbers are down across the board, but more significantly at Title I high schools, in high schools that enroll larger numbers of Black and Hispanic students. The reasons for that are the same reasons that this has always happened. Financial reasons, for example, which were exacerbated for people at the lower end of the income scale by the pandemic recession, who were affected more than people at the higher end of the income scale. Among men, and we've been out in the field talking to a number of high school boys, they seem to feel more obligated to help their families by supplementing family incomes, getting a job, sticking with it, at least saying that they will eventually go to college someday, but as we know, historically, the data suggests that that once you decide not to go to college you probably will never go. So those are two particular areas where... And they overlap, but those are two areas where we've been seeing particular areas of concern.

0:03:47.8 MR: So, Jon, let me ask you this. We did a survey, EAB conducted a survey of students who enrolled in college this fall, and we also within that reached out to students who actually chose not to enroll. And in our survey work, so 7% said, "I'm not going to college this fall," probably related to this work and the economic disruption brought on by the pandemic. 67% of those actually said their decision not to enroll was COVID-related, which means 33% had a slightly different reason, but 72% said that they planned to enroll later, later being a little bit determined because I completely agree with your assessment. Often when students take a break between high school and college, we know statistically they are much less likely to go on to college, which I've been characterizing is this incredible loss of human potential for students who had to stop out this last fall for very understandable reasons.

0:04:46.1 MR: Thinking about that percentage, just in our small survey about 4500 students nationwide, if 72% plan to enroll later, sort of... What's your take on that? Do you think for those students who really did feel this immediate impact of COVID and that was the precipitating factor, that they are likely to go back next fall, or are you seeing this as a longer gambit?

0:05:06.6 JM: So Let me answer that in a few ways, and I don't mean this sounds like a cop out, but we journalists learned last spring that it's futile to speculate about what 18-year-olds are thinking, and as you may recall, we saw much higher numbers initially of people saying, "Oh, not gonna go to college," and then actually decided not to go because when they thought about it, they realized, "What else am I gonna do? I can't travel, I can't do community service, and there's not a lot of jobs." So they did end up going to college. They may not have ended up going to the colleges they originally thought they would, and I do suspect that we'll see a lot of movement, a lot of transferring and that kind of thing.

0:05:46.3 JM: Second of all, I would suggest that some of those people that said they will eventually go to college, will eventually go to college, but not all of them, and history suggests... And that's really the only thing we have to go on at this stage, that students who put off college end up never going. I wanna speak about one of the figures you mentioned, which is the 33% of students who said that they were deferring college for reasons other than COVID-related, and I don't know if they've thought of virtual or remote learning as to being COVID-related or not, but a lot of students that I've talked to in person, high school students were particularly put off by the idea because in high school, they were virtual, at least for the spring, and even in high schools that are in person this year, many of them are hybrid models, so they're at some days and virtual, and they hate it. That's one thing I think we can speculate confidently about.

0:06:42.4 JM: You've seen survey data suggesting how much high school students in particular hate being online, and they suspect that... And especially last spring, they suspected greatly in many cases, that when they went to college, they would still be online and they didn't wanna do that. I'm hearing even this year from students that I've talked to, rural students, another category of concern by the way, that I didn't mention earlier, rural students are concerned about being virtual and therefore saying, "I don't wanna go next year. I don't believe campuses that are saying they'll be back in person. I'll go someday, but next year I'll go work at a supermarket." And again, it begins a slippery slope for them, but I think that the virtual experience was a bad experience. That to digress slightly is also really good news for, I think, for residential colleges and universities, because where their students may have previously taken for granted all of the advantages of libraries and office hours and intramural athletics, and they now miss those things a lot, and I think that will work to the advantage. And we're beginning to see that, at least at selective universities and colleges in the application numbers for the coming fall.

0:07:57.6 MR: So let's dig into that a little bit more because I think I really appreciate you raising that point about virtual education. And we now know that high school seniors, many of whom will have had a year and three months of, in many cases, virtual or hybrid education, and we know that they didn't love it last spring, and there's no reason to infer that they love it anymore this year, in fact, I think some are feeling very frustrated by it. So one of the standard questions that we ask in our first year student survey is to ask students to share with us their level of satisfaction with their choice, in other words, knowing what I know today, which is about mid-point through the first semester. Am I really happy with my choice and not surprisingly, student satisfaction is down this year. So only about 68% of students say they're either really happy, that's only 35%, or I'm happy or I'm somewhat happy with my choice. So there's sort of a range in there. There are only 35% who said, "Ooh, if I had to do it today, I would choose you all over again." And this is a pretty substantial drop, almost 20 percentage points from the previous three years of longitudinal data that we have.

0:09:09.8 MR: And I think that much of this can be laid at the feet of we're either virtual or hybrid, or we also have heard students talk about, "I am in my residence hall at my school, but I only got... Some of my classes I'm still taking virtually. I can't have those social gatherings that are so important to me," of course, fall sports and many conferences were cancelled, especially at the D-2 and D-3 level. So you mentioned intramurals, all the kinds of social gatherings that really add to the richness of the college experience, I think students are feeling a little chippy that they're not having that opportunity this fall. What do you think about that?

0:09:48.6 JM: Yeah, so this is an entirely qualitative answer, this is not what they expected college to be, and I mean that's tough. I put myself in their position, how would that feel? And I know and I have relatives who are freshmen this year, and they're making the best of it, but it's demoralizing. Also, I teach, as you noted at the outset, and I'm teaching in person, and we're all at a distance wearing masks, but there are huge numbers of restrictions and my students are unhappy, and I can see that in the parts of their faces, I can see they're just unhappy and this wasn't what they expected college to be. And in my mind, because I cover this field, I know how lucky we are to be together in a classroom compared to the situation and which students elsewhere find themselves this year. So I'm surprised that the numbers aren't worse in your student satisfaction survey.

0:10:51.6 JM: I think that student satisfaction also respectfully has been affected by the way they consider their institutions to have handled the pandemic, as with everything else in higher education, unfortunately, everyone is painted with a broad brush, and many institutions handle this wonderfully, but some of them also were very slow to refund room and board fees in the spring, or if they had... And we've covered this, if they had third party contracts with private companies to run dorms in places like Maryland, it took until December for them to come to an agreement about refunding some of the housing costs or letting students out of their leases, that just compounded a lot of the existing anger. Some colleges and universities have lowered tuition, but not by a lot, and when students consider virtual instruction to be worth less than the price that they are paying for in-person instruction, all of those things... All those things also financially significantly affected the institutions.

0:12:00.0 JM: But I think they have accelerated a process in which students or actually in parent regard for colleges. There has also when... There's been... Survey data shows over the last year is increasing skepticism about US higher education, and I think this pandemic year, as hard as it really was for colleges and universities to figure out what to do in this unprecedented situation, I think some of the decisions that were made, rightly or wrongly, have speeded up that process of people feeling less supportive of the industry, of the sector.

0:12:42.9 MR: So that's interesting. So the way that I think of that in my own mind is it's a little bit like the Wizard of Oz, and they saw students and families saw behind the curtain, because in many ways, we think about the transformational impact of a college education, there's the intellectual growth, there is the personal and social development that accrues at the same time, and yet it is most fundamental, it also as a business where universities and colleges need to cover their fixed costs. And I think that that's the part where students started to feel like, "Oh wait, perhaps I'm not quite as important as I thought I was." And frankly, in terms of the rhetoric, the high-level rhetoric colleges and universities share. So I know you've done some work around this for your writing, what are some of the things that colleges and universities could do better, Jon?

0:13:35.0 JM: So as a journalist, I hesitate to give advice to anyone. I listen to what experts say and suggest, but I have covered a lot of institutions that they're doing sort of interesting things. And if nothing else, this pandemic is one of those moments of inflection that force change, and change is hard in colleges and universities, and higher education. A university chancellor, once said to me, I'm sure that you and some of your listeners have heard this, "How many faculty does it take to change a light bulb?" And the answer is, "What do you mean change?" And so I have seen institutions, and often it's out of necessity, make significant changes in the model that we have used now for what, 200 years, by doing things like a small college in Maine spread out the academic year, and actually has courses in the summer and took advantage of this shift to virtual education to offer its students hybrid learning forever. And in terms that run in shorter terms, they pay by the term, so they don't have to come up with the entire tuition in advance. They can go to school in the summer. The number of courses that they take over the full year still adds up to enough to meet the criteria for federal financial aid. It's a very simple, seemingly simple change, but one that other colleges and universities have tried to do and failed at.

0:15:10.8 JM: We were even before the pandemic, covering the number of students who were going, trying to take courses in the summer to get rid of... To knock off some of their core requirements, and typically they would end up going to the community college near where they lived, because many four-year universities and colleges don't offer summer programs, don't offer summer credit programs, and that's something that is curious. Why do we still run this calendar based on an agricultural era when it was invented? That's an interesting question. And so we've seen colleges questioning those long-standing traditions in ways that make pretty good sense. That particular college in Maine saw a big increase in enrollment during the pandemic when everyone else's enrollment, especially within small colleges, was going way, way down. So there are those kinds of initiatives being undertaken. You're seeing a lot more mergers and consolidations that was already happening, but that case is speeded up, especially when it makes logical sense for the two institutions to combine, that is they offer complementary programs rather than duplicating their own programs, those mergers never seem to work.

0:16:24.7 JM: So a lot of those kinds of measures seem to be... This seems to be a really good time to try them. In many colleges and universities, I see sort of a doubling down on, let's just keep doing things the way we have. I'm not sure that works this time, that's what colleges and universities did in the last recession. And as you and I discussed, I've been working on some research about that 10-year period in which colleges continued spending, hiring and building, exactly at a time when enrollment was declining and resources were beginning to dry up. And when they knew not only that that enrollment decline was coming, but that the next one's coming in 2026, pandemic or not. So, it is time to look at things, I think, in fresh and find really kind of dramatic new ways of doing business.

0:17:17.6 MR: You know, it's interesting, Nathan Grawe talks about that in his book... Also his most recent book, The Agile College, and I love the way you sort of characterize that, what... Change because that my observation has been often times the way that presidents or chancellors and boards look at the external environment is, that's the other guy's problem, that's not us. And it's very difficult internally to actually say, "Oh no, I think that is us because we are not so special or so unique in our offering that the sort of standard economic rules and what's happening environmentally, it's gonna apply to us." But it's actually... It's not even the change mindset of faculty, it can be the leadership mindset.

0:18:04.3 MR: But I just was made aware of a really interesting collaboration that I think is so cool, it's in downtown Chicago, and it's DePaul University, Roosevelt University and Columbia College. And none of the three of them could afford a facility in downtown Chicago on their own, so they came together and it's a space that is both... There's meeting space, there's conference space, and then there are apartments, and it's available to all of them, so it's kind of like you think of almost modern condominiums, you know, the first three floors are here, meeting space, business space, retail space, and then you have apartments on top of that. And faculty members are even living in those apartments, so this can become.

0:18:45.0 MR: In a pandemic world where distancing is important, it can even become a space that you could use that you might have been renting out to others about, maybe you're using it because you can just... You can get more people in a bigger room with the appropriate social distancing, and as I think about... So is it necessity? That's the mother of invention. Or is it economic? Looking at it, looking at difficult economic choices and that prompts one to move. As you've seen people making these choices, what do you think are the best precipitating factors?

0:19:18.9 JM: Yeah, so really interesting. So several of the... Let me pick up on some of the things you said. Trustees do think that there are problems in higher education, again, according to survey data, except at their institutions. They think that the problem is everywhere else. There are other examples of that sort of... It's not really consolidation, it's more collaboration of universities and colleges that are in proximity to one another. There are several in Atlanta that share a library. There are the five colleges in the Central Massachusetts, in the Amherst, Massachusetts area. There are the five colleges of the Fenway in Boston, and that share security, for example, and whose students can take courses at each other's institutions. I spoke with another college president a few years ago about this before the pandemic, who's college also was in proximity to several others, and he tried to engage them in consolidating things like their health insurance and doing things like that collaboratively to lower their costs. And the resistance was from inside his institution, because employees, especially on the administrative side, were worried that that would cost them their jobs, that they would become redundant.

0:20:39.1 JM: What I have seen changed over the last few years, again, before the pandemic, as we began to see small colleges close, is a change in attitude among faculty who know people who worked at a college that might have closed, who now recognized the reality of the situation and I speak with people who work in the consulting world to go out and talk about the financial conditions of colleges and universities, and they'll speak to faculty senates, and they tell me that members of the faculty will come up to them afterwards and say, "I didn't know it was so bad."

0:21:10.9 JM: And so now you're beginning to see, I think, some flexibility where, again, respectfully, I've come to believe a lot of the resistance lives, it's on the administrative side. There's a lot of self-interest in keeping things running the way that they do, whereas I think there's more flexibility now, I'm on faculty. I don't know that always at the top of institutions, there's as much flexibility. And boards of trustees would prefer not to make really hard decisions. Presidents don't stick around forever. They know they can keep building buildings and have their names put on them and then leave the problem to the next guy or woman, usually guy, unfortunately. And so, but there are attitude changes. I think it's not necessarily a necessity, that's some other invention, it's the dire state of many colleges and universities right now, I think, it forced them to change in ways that really was... Well, actually might have been true before, but wasn't as widely recognized as it is, I think right now.

0:22:23.7 MR: I love the distinction you're drawing between faculty awareness and perhaps growing flexibility and administrative incentives, 'cause of course, one of the great criticisms faculties have in general is the big growth of support on the administrative side, which may be related to federal or state mandates, may be efforts to improve succession throughput to graduation, this sort of thing, but of course, they view that was suspicion and understandably so. One of my favorite provosts was fond of saying that tenure track position, it's the last of the late great jobs. It's a wonderful job, if you're coming to an institution where there's no foreseeable likelihood that that tenure would be... Would be eliminated. And I do believe as the professoriate, it changes over time with retirements, I've also seen much greater flexibility from young faculty members because they realize it's like winning the lottery actually to get a tenure track job in a place where many, many schools would not be adding, maybe adding lectures or sadly, wonderful professionals who are adjuncts like yourself, because it allows them to have greater control over their fixed cost.

0:23:35.2 MR: But let's talk for a minute about... Let's get back to enrollment because I'm wondering, you know, we know that as the composition of who's going to college changes, it's not just the number of graduating high school seniors, but who makes up those graduating seniors is evolving over time, and of course, I believe for our nation this is a good thing, but we're recruiting different students, much more diverse, many more come from families where they would be the first in family to attend college, and many who come from more constrained economic circumstances. So as we look ahead a lot of... It could be that people are thinking, "Well, why would one actually recruit some of these students, not because they're not wonderful academically and would be great contributing members of the community, but if they need more financial aid to attend my school, does that make sense financially for me to be recruiting now?" What are you hearing about that in your conversations?

0:24:29.0 JM: Yeah. So, I would not in a million years wanna be an admissions director, at least, certainly not this year, because there's one of the components of this that you didn't mention, which was the commitments that universities and colleges broadcast to the world last summer after the George Floyd killing to be more aligned with the racial and social justice movement. So now you have a situation where enrolling those students may, in many cases, not only require more financial, more need-based financial aid, but also more support services because they often come from poorly resourced public high schools, urban public high schools, often also rural, which is a huge population that we have kind of not been paying attention to. And so yeah, there's a huge demand.

0:25:19.3 JM: They are also the one growth area, I mean, I live in New England where there's virtually no increase in the birth rate, and where there is a potential market is in, particularly Hispanic students, that market is growing in the South and in the Southwest, and you need to recruit them, you need to support them financially, you need to support them academically and socially, in many cases, at a university or college. So that's a lot to ask of colleges and universities that are also really thinly stretched, but if they don't do it, there's not enough White kids, essentially. And actually, as you and I have discussed, even when you're lavishing financial aid on students who have high levels of need, you at least are realizing some revenue from auxiliary services because they ideally come and live and eat on your campus.

0:26:24.3 MR: You know, it's funny, as you were speaking, I was thinking about, I've been doing this for a very long time, and there was a period 20, 25 years ago, where a merit scholarship-ing, if I might use that as a verb, really started to take hold and it actually was a strategy some schools pursue to build academic profile, so you would go after certain categories of students, National Merit finalists, for example, and how many National Merit finalists were enrolled at the school became... For a brief period, I think is sort of a badge of distinction, and you were often buying those students, if you will, to increase your prestige and certainly to help strengthen your academic profile and the life on campus. And so as sort of financially leveraging began to take hold, now it's become, I would say, not only much more widely used, but used in a slightly different way, not necessarily better, but different. It's designed to use institutional aid funds as efficiently as possible, if I might sound like an economist for a moment, to actually maximize the potential for tuition revenue, because again, depending on the kind of school you are, you have these pretty significant fixed costs that you can't do very much about impacting, often that's about 70% of an institutional budget or fixed costs.

0:27:42.4 MR: And so you're trying to extract... That sounds so terrible, that's behind the curtain, as much revenue as possible to help support your budget. And one of the things you and I also talked about is, in a world where enrollment is challenged at a small residential school, where you have unused beds that auxiliary revenue that you were referring to when you were talking about the refunds related to COVID last spring, that also becomes really important because again, that's a fixed cost. You can't do anything about it, you’re depreciating it and you may be paying down on debt on producing that building. And so incremental tuition revenue that then helps support auxiliary revenue in your residence halls and dining service actually is a winning formula for institutions. And I think many more boards and CFOs, especially CFOs have really been focused on that in the last few years. Are people talking about that in the conversations you have?

0:28:38.7 JM: Well, actually, let me digress just slightly and pick up on something that I think is really important because we've been talking about how the pandemic is changing things, and I think there's an element of this too that could move the needle in a positive way, and that's transfers. So what we've seen during the pandemic is a lot of students, again, we don't know for sure yet, but they seem to have picked institutions from survey data that we've seen other than where they had initially been thinking before the pandemic of going, maybe a community college that was closer to home, or a college that was closer to home, or an institution that might have promised they'd be open and in session. There's expectation, as you know, that there'll be a huge increase in the number of students that are transferring, it also coincided with the change in the NACAC Code of Ethics last year, that allows students, colleges to go after each other's students after May 1st, and even to transfer, to go after a student that might have applied, gone somewhere else, reach out to them as a sophomore and say, "I hope you're happy, but if you're not, we have a chair." What that allows people to do, and I wanna pick up on what you were saying about things like ratings, and it allows colleges and universities to take students as transfers who can improve their campus diversity.

0:29:56.6 JM: A number of four-year institutions have been working with local community colleges to encourage the students to transfer in as Juniors, community colleges are more diverse, so that allows the four years to increase their diversity. It filled seats, which colleges and universities also obviously are really... It's really important to them to do right now, and it doesn't show up on your US News rankings because US News looks at inputs based on freshman year. So you can take a chance with transfer students. And I think colleges and universities, first, just because they need it to fill seats, and now because they realize the churn that's going on out there will improve the transfer process in a way that can help them in terms of their campus diversity, helps students who might not otherwise have that opportunity. And that there's a positive outcome of the... If there can be such a thing of this terrible year.

0:30:52.0 MR: Where everyone is looking for the silver lining... That's for sure. So kind of to summarize, Jon, I think that you and I would both agree that the pandemic has really created an inflection point for colleges. You knew the demographic cliff was coming, I think schools were trying really hard. I think we would agree with mixed success to try and indemnify themselves about what they could see coming, but all of a sudden, it's right here right now. You don't have to wait till '25, '26 with the kind of enrollment dislocation that's going on. And from your work about the mistakes that people have made, you've also seen, I think, some positives, so you were just referring to one. This potential focus on transfer students, strengthening that process, colleges and universities being able to use that to fulfill their commitment to build more diverse communities, and for families to find it more affordable, especially if they've started on at a two-year institution. What are some other... What are a couple of other positives that we could end on where you've seen opportunity?

0:31:54.3 JM: Some of them are pedagogical. I think I am not among those people who says... I don't think people are saying this anymore, but at the beginning of the pandemic you begin to hear higher education is gonna go online forever. We talked about this, nobody likes it. But I do think that some of the technological tools that faculty were forced to adopt this year, they like them. I like having a pin-up, a camera in my classroom so that I know that a student that missed this class can watch the video. And so there are those kinds of opportunities.

0:32:29.0 JM: I think on the admission side, virtual recruiting fairs, I was speaking with someone that was telling me about how a student from a rural area in Iowa commented to him, this was someone at NACAC who was... We've just been holding virtual college fairs, saying, "I'm really glad we did this. None of these colleges that I got to experience virtually would have ever come to my school." So there are actually some changes that I think will embed themselves. Overall, and in general, as I think has been a theme of our discussion, I think what... The biggest takeaway will be for colleges and universities is they get how big a problem they have, which was something that they were able to avoid for a while. It was beginning to show up in their bottom lines, but they could kind of think, "Oh, I don't have to worry about that yet." Now they do. And if anything is ever gonna change, it's gonna be next year, right now, next few years because people no longer have the luxury of waiting.

0:33:33.6 MR: Well, Super. Well, thank you very much for your time, Jon. We are hugely grateful to you at EAB and through Office Hours. Again, it's my privilege to have been joined by Jon Marcus, who is a journalist and author and adjunct faculty member. Jon, thank you so much for your insights. We really appreciate it.

0:33:52.6 JM: Thank you very much for having me.


0:34:00.6 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when our experts share what the Coursera IPO means for higher education, and the future of online learning. Until next time, thank you for joining us on Office Hours with EAB.


Don't miss a beat

Visit our podcast homepage for additional episodes, information on our expert contributors, and more.

EAB asks you to accept cookies for authorization purposes, as well as to track usage data and for marketing purposes. To get more information about these cookies and the processing of your personal information, please see our Privacy Policy. Do you accept these cookies and the processing of your personal information involved?