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4 lessons to improve yield in an uncertain enrollment season

March 10, 2020

This year’s yield season is likely to be tough. Making your class—or, in a really difficult market, just minimizing drops in headcount—will require exceptional focus and execution. Find out why—and learn what you can do to get the most out of your admit pool.

Reasons for a challenging yield environment

Today’s challenging yield environment is the result of multiple factors compounding over time.

First came the early FAFSA, which caused previously sequential processes to overlap in time, started conversations about net price and value much earlier, extended yield season, and created a logistical puzzle for enrollment teams. At the same time, the elimination of FAFSA rank from information shared with colleges made it harder to predict students’ likelihood to enroll. 

More recently, changes to NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practice have enabled more schools to offer incentives for early decision, with as-yet unknown impact on student behavior.

It will take a few enrollment cycles before anyone gets a confident read on how yield works under this new normal. But that doesn’t mean you should sit on your hands in the meantime. Regardless of what coming seasons might bring, the core principles of effective yield management are likely to remain the same, and that’s where you’ll want to focus your attention in the near term.

Priority number one is communication with admitted students. To assess your communication strategy, compare how you’re doing on the four communications priorities explained below. (You can also find a more detailed take on these priorities in our white paper on yield-stage communications).

4 communications priorities for maximum admitted-student engagement

1. Favor high-impact channels and formats

The ongoing digital-media revolution is constantly delivering new and improved high-tech options for engaging students—think admissions chatbots and website-hosted immersive video

You should definitely be considering these options. But it’s just as important to make the most of established high-impact channels—ones that are easily within the reach of every enrollment team but are often underleveraged. Texting is a great example. 

Texting is teens’ main form of communication—they actually text more than they talk. That means there’s no surer way to reach them. At the same time, many enrollment teams shy away from texting students, fearing that they might find it intrusive or otherwise off-putting. The truth is that students are happy for you to text them—within limits.

Fortunately for enrollment teams, those limits are well known and translate easily into convenient rules of thumb. The most important one is to stick to timely information with a specific call to action that benefits the student. A great example is reminders about important deadlines or events.

2. Make the conversation about value, not cost

It’s no secret that students fear college debt, and many also question if it’s all worth it. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 41% of 18- to 29-year-olds consider college important, down from 70% in 2013. This means you’re going to have to work harder than ever to convince them that an education at your institution is a smart investment. 


of 18- to 29-year-olds consider college important, down from 70% in 2013
of 18- to 29-year-olds consider college important, down from 70% in 2013

The first step is to make sure students understand how much they’ll be paying. Colleges’ aid award letters are notoriously hard to make sense of, and if your team hasn’t taken steps to ensure that yours is quickly and easily understood, make it a priority. (This guide from EAB’s Enrollment Management Forum explains how).

But being clear about net cost is not enough. The most effective financial aid award communications also make a strong case for value, underscoring aspects of your offering that you know are high priorities for prospective students. Furthermore, the best aid communications give painstaking attention to visual presentation. That may mean including full-bleed shots of the most beautiful parts of your campus. Or ensuring that the layout always presents cost-related information alongside key value drivers. Or providing information tailored to specific students’ demonstrated areas of academic interest.

If you’re thinking this is totally different from the dense, text-only one-page aid award letters so familiar to many of us, you’re right. The best examples we’ve seen look more like a high-end magazine than an accountant’s ledger. 

Anatomy of a Value-First Financial Aid Award Communication

Based on an Example from Regis University

Content and messaging

  • Cost never shown without value messaging adjacent to it
  • Simple but comprehensive line-item presentation of costs and awards
  • Avoids technical financial aid terminology and obscure acronyms
  • Next steps laid out in easy-to-follow bullets
  • Value arguments and data given a dedicated page
  • Full-bleed photos of beautiful parts of campus and surroundings
  • Detail included on academic offerings for the student’s chosen major
  • Information on campus amenities, activities, clubs, etc. throughout

Graphic design and layout

  • Financial aid award “letter” is actually a personalized 8-page brochure
  • Value messages given greatest visual prominence
  • Large, distinctive fonts used to drive home key points
  • Critical information surrounded by uncluttered space
  • A variety of layouts ensures sustained visual interest
  • Overlapping imagery and text increase messaging depth


  • Casual, fun language used to defuse anxiety
  • Aspirational words and phrases appear frequently throughout
  • “Bite-size” blocks of simple text used to explain financial aid basics

3. Communicate interactively, at scale

Many people—including myself—will tell you how crucial your school’s website is to effective student recruitment. That point is impossible to overstate. But it’s also important to understand the role other channels play, by funnel stage and by the type of information students are seeking. 

Early in their research on schools, students are usually looking for general information—the sort of thing they prefer to get from your website or via search engines. Once they’re admitted, however, they’re often searching for answers to more specific questions. And for that purpose they prefer to interact with a person, be that via email or phone calls or other means.

Channel Preferences by Question Type

If you had a question about a college or university, what channel(s) would you prefer to use?

















This is a conundrum for admissions teams. Your professional staff are often working with large numbers of admitted students and therefore lack the bandwidth to give fast, comprehensive responses to one-off inquiries from students and parents. 

Forward-thinking colleges and universities have responded by adopting more scalable ways of fielding specific questions. Chatbots fall in this category. But there are also less-expensive, lower-tech options that can be more agile and quicker to implement.

One example is livecasting on social media. This approach entails the admissions team hosting a live event on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, or similar network. Students and parents are invited to send in questions, which the school’s staffers then answer—like a radio call-in show. This creates an opportunity for other livecast attendees, many of whom will likely have the same questions, to learn from the answers you’ve provided.

One strength of this format is its flexibility—it can be used to address any number of topics that students and parents might have questions about, from financial aid to student athletics to international students. 

4. Involve the campus community

First and foremost, choosing a college means choosing a community to call home for four years. Students will favor schools where they expect to be with peers and faculty they admire and respect. One important way of showing students that you fit the bill is to give them greater exposure to the people who make up your organization.

Campus visits remain a crucial way of doing that. But as the profile of who’s going to college continues to broaden, encompassing more students who are less likely to visit in person, many schools are making creative use of other channels to showcase the campus community.

One obvious option to consider is social media. Gen Z places a lot of stock in social proof and user-generated content, which is exactly the sort of thing they find in your current students’ posts to their personal accounts (for better or worse). Some schools are harnessing this dynamic, creating school-owned but wholly student-curated social media accounts, which deliver the authenticity of student-generated content while also protecting the school’s brand. Others get similar benefits from sharing student stories in a more closely managed way—for example, through detailed and relatable school-curated student profiles, hosted on the school’s website.

Perhaps most relevant in this regard are admitted-student Facebook groups. They’re commonplace these days, and undeniably impactful when done right, but these groups are not always executed to a high standard (and correspondingly variable in their effectiveness). 

Youths rate user-generated content:

Opinions regarding UG versus non-UG content among individuals 18–36 years of age. Source: Ipsos Media, “Social Influence: Marketing’s New Frontier.”

The next few enrollment seasons will be key for seeing how all the recent marketplace developments impacting yield shake out. But don’t internalize all the recent headlines—including “the end of admissions as we know it” or “a game of ‘enrollment chicken.’” Yield success belongs to the intentional, the thoughtful, and the bold—those who are willing to identify shortfalls in their performance and implement known best practices to address them.

Related tasks facing enrollment leaders across the near future will include refining the predictive models and other tools used to assess students’ likelihood to commit. It will also be important to coordinate your yield-management and melt-prevention efforts, since the recent changes to NACAC’s CEPP guidelines are sure to boost competition over already-committed students at both ends of the enrollment season, early and late. But, getting the fundamentals right, as described in this post, is the most important formula for effective yield management. And there’s no time like the present to get started. 

More resources to engage admitted students

As colleges grow their applicant pools, it can be harder for admissions teams to remain responsive to incoming students and their parents. Social media can be a low-resource tool for solving the problem.

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