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Recruitment trends and tactics to consider amid list source uncertainty

April 21, 2020

COVID-19 has caused both College Board and ACT to cancel recent administrations of the SAT and ACT. Many enrollment leaders are concerned that these cancellations may limit the quantity of prospective students available to contact as part of their recruitment efforts, and in turn cause many students to miss opportunities to explore and expand their college options.  

At the same time, many colleges and universities have adopted test-optional policies in response to the test cancellations—as well as the operational challenges associated with sending, receiving, and processing test scores in the current environment. While these convergent trends will lead to change and potential disruption both for institutions seeking to connect with right-fit students and for students pursuing higher education opportunities, it’s important not to jump to conclusions. 

While much is still unknown, careful analysis of testing services data and historical enrollment data can provide a better understanding of potential impacts related to targeting strategy, institutional policy, and student testing behavior. We discussed these topics in detail in a recent webinar and have summarized key insights below.   

Impact and implications of test cancellations

While testing did occur in February and early March, the late March, April, May, and June administrations of the ACT and SAT have been cancelled. These cancellations will impact name availability through at least July.  The full impact on total test takers and subsequent name availability will ultimately depend on when test administrations can be rescheduled.  The following illustration depicts best-case and worst-case scenarios related to when and how many student names might become available for contact. 

Estimated ACT and SAT Test Takers Available

Estimated SAT and/or ACT Names Available.

A timing issue or a volume loss?

For now, the most significant consequence of test cancellations will be a delay in name availability. Successful late summer and fall testing will have the potential to drive volume recovery. To this end, both ACT and College Board are exploring strategies to ensure students have access to the tests. Delays in access to names presents a challenge, but is a much different problem than volume loss all together. While there is still considerable uncertainly, to meet recruitment objectives, colleges and universities likely will need to consider modified targeting strategies based on when and how many names will be available. There are several categories to consider.

Students whose names are currently available

While cancelled tests affected a large population of students, many students had already taken the SAT and/or ACT. Institutions will be able to target and contact this population of students without any adjustment to targeting strategy or timing.

Students whose names will eventually be available

Most students who planned to take one of the cancelled tests will ultimately sit for a test—the question is when. One option is to wait for these names and testing data to become available and plan for outreach later in the recruitment cycle. Alternatively, institutions could contact some portion of these students on typical timeframes, using other testing data such as the PSAT or AP exams, as a proxy for targeting purposes. 

Students whose names will never be available

Of course, there is the possibility that some students, whose original test dates were cancelled, will never take a test. Hopefully this population will be small, but it is an important consideration, nonetheless. To reach this population, colleges and universities will need to consider alternatives, such as Search Engine Optimization, virtual visit experiences, enhanced websites, and paid search. In fact, even in the absence of test cancellations, these areas are critical for success in today’s market. 

While test cancellations make targeting strategy more complicated, it has never been more important. Given that it may be harder to pursue traditional fall recruitment initiatives such as high school visits and college fairs, it will be critical to ensure that your marketing outreach is targeted and executed effectively.      

Test optional trends among colleges


colleges and universities have announced test option policies for 2020
colleges and universities have announced test option policies for 2020

At the same time as test administrations have been cancelled, there has been a surge in the number of schools adopting and announcing test optional policies. According to, 51 institutions announced a move to test optional policies as a response to COVID-19, on top of 48 institutions that had already announced a move to test optional policies for the 2020 entry year. Many enrollment managers have begun to question whether this recent surge in institutions adopting test optional policies could suppress overall test taking activity in the future.

While this is certainly a possibility, recent history suggests it’s unlikely.  Over the past five years, ACT and College Board have both experienced growth in testers even as the national momentum has pushed towards wider adoption of test-optional policies. The following illustration summarizes the number of students taking the SAT and/or ACT for a given entry year, relative to the number of colleges and universities adopting test optional policies.

New Test Score Optional Schools Versus Total Test Takers

National Total of Students Taking ACT/SAT, and Total High School Grads, by Entering Class Year

Growing Popularity of Test-Optional Admissions Not Deterring Test-Takers

To understand this relationship, it’s important to note that test optional does not mean that an institution ignores or shuns test scores. It simply means they are open to evaluating an application for admission without a test score.  For example, in a recent analysis of 70 test optional institutions, 65% of applicants still submitted test scores. Further, the admit rate of students who submitted test scores was 90% higher than those who did not. 

5 recruitment actions to consider during list source uncertainty

1. Assess impact specific to your target markets

Risk profiles and name availability varies considerably by region.  Plan to assess your potential exposure to both name delays and potential volume loss in the coming weeks. EAB partners can find time with their strategic leaders to use your datasets and scenario planning tools to review potential risks for the year ahead. 

2. Finish junior search strong

Strong inquiry pools are the best strategy to mitigate against loss of senior search names for entering class of 2021. Continue to drive inquiries through a strong finish to junior search efforts.

3. Emphasize quality lead collection from organic sources

As enrollment teams juggle this year’s yield efforts with next year’s foundation building, organic inquiry data collection must be executed well. Virtual summer visits and events for rising seniors offer an excellent option for driving more “visitors” than historical on-ground efforts have allowed. Be sure these platforms are collecting accurate, actionable data including parent data and academic indicators, where possible.

4. Focus on parents of inquiries

One of the most powerful assets available to EAB partners is a pathway to collect parent inquiries. With a potential lack of names to pursue, direct parent engagement will be a critical avenue for driving increased conversion among existing inquiries. If you have yet to design a robust, dedicated parent communication flow, now is the time.   

5. Plan for application programs earlier and more assertively

For campuses that do end up with a deficit in senior search names, conversion rate gains will be key to sustaining applications. We’d encourage colleges and universities to think about earlier and more aggressive deployment of application marketing programs.

Consider the implications of COVID-19 on your application question and answer set. Do test score and GPA collection fields need to be redesigned? What about extra-curricular collection sections? Transcript receipt processes? Now is the time to find ways to streamline the student experience in order to meet or exceed the expectations of the new normal.

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