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How to Boost Yield in a Digital-First World

Episode 67

August 17, 2021 34 minutes


EAB’s Anna Masica is joined by Wellesley College Dean of Admission Jessica Ricker to discuss a growing challenge for enrollment professionals everywhere, how to boost yield in a digital-first world.

The two explore ways to blend the best of traditional, face-to-face recruiting events with newer alternatives like virtual tours and digital welcome centers that enable many more applicants to have authentic and meaningful exchanges with university leaders and current students. Finally, they urge admissions teams to shed old-school recruiting tactics that have outlived their usefulness.



0:00:12.0 Speaker 1: Predicting yield. Never a fun or easy exercise for admissions teams, became a lot tougher when COVID-19 turned the world upside down in 2020. Today, schools are scrambling to convert admits to enrolled students as they always do this time of year, and many aren’t sure how to blend traditional on-campus events with newer tactics, like virtual tours and digital welcome centers that proved highly effective during the height of the pandemic. Our guest shares strategies for creating authentic experiences for applicants, whether in-person or online, that help prospective students picture themselves living and studying and thriving on your campus this fall. Thank you for listening and enjoy.


0:01:02.4 Anna Masica: Welcome everyone to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Anna Masica, and today I’m here joined with Jess Ricker, Dean of Admission at Wellesley College. Jess, it’s so great to… How are you doing today?

0:01:14.8 Jess Ricker: I am happy it’s a Friday. It may not be Friday when they listen to the podcast, but I’m glad to be here today with you, Anna.

0:01:23.2 AM: Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining. So just a background, I joined EAB a few months back through the acquisition of a product called Wisr. And for those of you listening, if you have never heard of Wisr, it is a platform that helps to connect students with campuses across the country, and help them figure out what their next steps are, whether that’s where they’re going to school, what their orientation is looking like, or how to find a job after college. In that job, I actually… That’s how I met Jess here. I worked with her as one of my partners at Wellesley, working on a few different projects to help prospective students and admitted students get to know the campus. So again, just so great to be able to talk to you, Jess, today and talk about all the different… Excuse me, digital engagement you’ve been able to do over the past few years.

0:02:09.3 AM: So I wanna start out and just introduce what we’re talking through today and define some things that maybe some of our listeners don’t know exactly what that means. So first off, Jess, can you tell me a bit more about what yield actually is and why improving yield is a big challenge and a big goal for admission, it seems?

0:02:29.8 JR: Yeah, so yield… Let’s just go back to baking cookies when you were a kid. You know, yield is you put a bunch of ingredients together and you do certain amounts of this and a dash of that in the hopes that it will come together and you will yield or be able to bake a certain number of cookies. And so in the admission and enrollment world, yield is really putting together a bunch of events, experiences, types of engagement for an admitted student to get to know your institution, so that they will choose your institution for their enrolment choice over any other offers that they have. So that yield season, where we do a lot of different things, because what each person needs… Some people like chocolate chip cookies, some people like walnuts in theirs, and others do not. But what it really all comes down to is that it’s important to get yield right in the enrollment world, because if you’re a residential college, you usually only have so many bed spaces. If you’re an institution that relies on tuition revenue, you usually have goals in that regard. So there are a lot of different enrollment goals, so you really need to be thoughtful about how much flour, baking soda, chocolate chips and sugar to put into your cookies so that you get the right number of students enrolled in your class so you can meet those goals.

0:03:55.0 AM: Yeah, absolutely. Anyone who’s ever baked before knows that trying to perfect the chocolate chip cookie recipe is not the easiest, so that is completely understandable. In years past, what has Wellesley done to help raise their yield numbers and help students to find your campus and choose to go there?

0:04:11.5 JR: Yeah, that’s a great question. And the pandemic has been such a long year and a half, it actually feels more like a decade. But as I think back pre-pandemic, we certainly had students who didn’t have the opportunity to visit our campus. We’re an institution with a global applicant pool, and there were barriers in the form of miles and distance, dollars, to be able to get to campus, as well as time. But pre-pandemic, our biggest yield event each year was an admitted student open house and… Our open campus, we called it. And 50% of the students who attended that and got to know Wellesley, ultimately enrolled. So Wellesley is certainly known for being an academic powerhouse, but we are a women’s college, and sometimes students aren’t quite sure what that means, and how that makes our community a little bit different. So really having a chance to visit campus and connect with members of our community, it normalized the women’s college experience, it showed them that this was going to be a place that they would be empowered and dedicated to their experience and they would learn and grow. And it really solidified their decision to enroll. And so this was really the crux of our yield, along with our really strong financial aid packages. And then the pandemic rolled around and that changed things. But really, prior to the pandemic, that was something that we spent a lot of time and a lot of resources and budget on.

0:05:46.0 AM: Yeah, absolutely. I know when I was looking at colleges, a lot of my friends, and myself even, the admitted student day on a campus was one of the big reasons why I chose where I went to school, so I can imagine that it does that for a lot of the students that come to visit Wellesley. So that’s definitely an important thing, and like you alluded to, the pandemic completely shifted that. So let’s back up to February, March of last year. I know it’s not a time that we all love to relive, but as things started shutting down on campuses, what was going on through your head, what was your thought process for next steps from that point?

0:06:20.4 JR: Yeah, yeah, the pandemic, it truly changed the game and it really forced us… We’ve been dabbling in virtual engagement, but it really forced every institution to a digital-first strategy. And so we felt lucky that we had a little bit of experience with that. And we certainly had always recognized that this was a challenge, that we always had wonderful admitted students who weren’t going to have a chance to get to campus for our big open house or for a visit earlier on in their search process, so the pandemic actually forced us to look at these issues and address them and think about how we could have broader reach, and how students could get to know us in a way that would still lead to the same outcomes of being comfortable with making Wellesley their enrollment choice.

0:07:14.0 JR: So we asked ourselves a lot of questions about what it was in our previous yield efforts, whether that was emails, or we had done a few online webinars, and what it was about that big open house that a student needed to experience so that they could be comfortable with making that choice to enroll at Wellesley. And so as the pandemic hit, we had to figure out how everything we collected and amassed about what we knew students needed to experience, and figure out how to transcend devices and have that same impact, in a very different way. And there can be a knee-jerk reaction to just suddenly take everything you did, the exact session or a panel from your previous open house, or the same tour guides who’ve been walking backwards across campus, just have them do it on Instagram. But it actually… I think you’re missing out in really benefiting from these digital opportunities. And I know we’re gonna talk about that more, but our big question was, how do we convey an authentic sense of Wellesley without these in-person events? So we spent a lot of time figuring out how to blend the old and the new to have that broader reach and impact in this new digital world.

0:08:31.6 JR: So we asked a lot of questions, and I think that’s a really good thing that we did as we went along. We didn’t assume that we knew how to do this, we worked collaboratively, and we brought the expertise of the students who were working for us that semester and asked them what they thought about the ideas that we were coming up with. And so we really… I think we took a really creative, innovative and collaborative approach on how we could best utilize some digital resources. And I don’t know if this is the point in time where you want me to sort of share some of the specific things we did, and maybe tell…

0:09:09.9 AM: Absolutely.

0:09:10.5 JR: How I got to know you, Anna.

0:09:11.8 AM: Yeah, absolutely.

0:09:13.3 JR: So when the pandemic hit in March, we had already done a bunch of planning for our open house, and we had heard from another institution about how they had used Wisr’s engagement platform or Wisr community to help with anti-melt, students who enroll, keeping them connected over the summer before they arrive on campus, and that there might be a way to use that for yielding and engaging with our admitted students. So we learned about it, and we had said, great, let’s give this a try. This seems better than just piecing together with duct tape a bunch of disparate events and emails.

0:09:55.4 JR: And so we had nine days. We had nine days from the time we signed the contract with Wisr to build out this online engagement community and to set the stage. It’s not like a Facebook community, it actually really… It really is a place to advertise virtual events, to have distinctly different communities where a student can pick and choose what resonates with them. “I wanna be a part of the first-generation college community, I wanna be a part of this identity and access community for under-represented students of color, I’m really interested in varsity athletics, I wanna know about STEM and research opportunities on your campus.” So students could really choose their own adventure and select from amongst all the different opportunities to hear questions asked, to see faculty lectures, to get answers about a research opportunity directly from a faculty member they might engage with, to, we had a community where students could ask questions of our current students and not at all have to worry that there were adults or admission officers lurking in that community, and so they were asking the things that they were maybe shy to maybe call the admission office and ask over the phone, but they were definitely asking that in the student real talk community.

0:11:21.5 JR: And so, basically, we were providing through this platform so many wonderful ways to get to know Wellesley that replaced the overnight on-campus that they would have done on the open house, where they would have sat and had coffee in the campus, the campus student center, until 2:00 AM, baring their souls and getting to know each other. And so we found all of this was happening through the public communities, through the one-on-one engagement and the private chat function through Wisr, and it was amazing. It really blew us away how much engagement there was.

0:11:57.9 AM: Yeah, and you’ve hit on all these points, but one of my favorite things about working with your team and with Wellesley is you think about student experience first. So it might not be exactly, “Let’s translate the exact experience they’d have on campus online, but how do we find ways to give them that same feel and that same value when they’re interacting online with each other?” And you’ve always thought about that end user and that perspective or admitted student, first off. You bring up a great point of, we started this out with your admitted students and really starting to build out having them find affinity to campus, and helping them decide where to put their deposit down, but we also started working with your prospective students too, and I remember…

0:12:40.3 AM: I think you were one of our first campuses that gave us the opportunity to help interact with prospective students, which I will always be so grateful to you all for. But can you talk a little bit about the differences and how you interacted with those students who were choosing where to put their deposit down, and then those students who were just choosing on where they wanted to apply?

0:13:00.2 JR: Yeah, yeah, it became very clear that campus visits, which for admission offices and enrollment managers are a really great way to get students interested in applying to your school, and we call that building out the front end of the funnel. If we think of admission as a funnel where you have lots of students who maybe have heard about your institution, and then the funnel get smaller as they actually go to your website and explore, and then they engage by signing up for your mailing list or joining to visit campus, and then that smaller number applies. So as you think about each phase of the funnel, it’s a different kind of relationship. Whereas yield is getting them to choose to enroll after they’re admitted, the recruitment side of things, they’re less aware of your institution, they don’t necessarily know all the details.

0:13:52.4 JR: They may only be looking at your institution because their aunt or their school counselor or a parent has suggested it or is making them look at it. So you have to do a lot more to get them engaged. So when we decided to build out a Wisr community for our prospective students, we knew that these would be students who would be interested in learning about Wellesley, and about the college search process at the same time, and about financial aid. So one tactic we took, and we did use this a little bit in our admitted student community, we had short little videos and snippets. So we had folks from our financial aid office give a three to five minute snippet on what’s the FAFSA. And it was recorded videos, so you actually get a face and you can sense enthusiasm and commitment to affordability when someone records that and then leaves it in the Wisr community. We did how to choose whether or not to submit test scores during a test optional moment in the pandemic, and lots of little… Just short segments, because we knew that those prospective students who hadn’t decided for sure to apply to Wellesley, might not spend as much time as an admitted student would spend on a full 45-minute webinar. So these little bite-sized pieces.

0:15:10.8 JR: It’s all about meeting students where they are. And so having those shorter snippets that are still personalized, and in many ways, it was still sharing the Wellesley community; our faculty, staff, alums, with prospective students, but it was a different way. And we noticed immediately that they were less proactive and active in engaging with the site, they were a little bit more passive. So we knew we had to curate more content and provide more information to them, because they didn’t always know exactly what to ask or how they wanted to gauge or what they needed to know from us. So it was just a different approach to that engagement and relationship-building experience.

0:15:52.2 AM: Yeah, absolutely, and I don’t know if I explicitly said this at the beginning, but like I said, we now work with you all in three different capacities. So we’ve created that admitted student space to help admitted students connect with current students; we’ve created that virtual digital welcome center to help those prospective students connect; and even more so outside of, I know your department, but we also work with orientation to help students connect with their orientation leaders and build affinity before they even make it to campus, which is fantastic. And we’ve done all of this over…

0:16:23.1 AM: Like you said, it feels like it’s been so long, but it’s been about a year and a half going on two years now. You’re talking about some great strategies that you’ve done in both of those different virtual welcome centers and admitted students spaces; what are some of the things you have learned over the past year and how have those different digital engagement strategies changed as the world outside has changed, but also as you’ve learned more about how your students want to interact online?

0:16:49.4 JR: Yeah, yeah, I really think that this gave us the push to take a little bit more risk than what we had been used to doing at Wellesley, and to really… Because we could have offered many of these things, we could have just had an admitted student Facebook group and a couple of online webinars, either for the prospective students or the admitted students, but we really had to trust that there was a special synergy that you could create. So synergy being a fancy way of thinking about how the different pieces when put together are more than the sum of their individual parts. So one plus one equals three. There’s something about creating a community that students can keep going back to and get to know each other in a more deep and meaningful way that you just can’t get when you just offer the session and you have an admitted student Facebook group and these other different strategies that a lot of admission offices have used during the pandemic to create that sense of community, and it works so well.

0:17:50.8 JR: As you said, we offered the prospective student center or Wisr platform. And then for orientation, because we had done so well with helping the students get to know each other and developing some class pride in those connections. I mean, we even hosted game nights and trivia nights through there, that the transition to the class dean’s office and their orientation Wisr site was such a natural transition. It was so clear that students were comfortable with this, and in fact, in our admitted student questionnaire, which we do every year, students… It definitely resonated with them. They told us it was so difficult to think of choosing an institution without having had a chance to visit campus, and yet, our yield the last two years, that first summer after the pandemic hit and this past summer, we’ve met our enrollment goals, and with a cushion, more students than we had even anticipated, and it’s because they feel connected.

0:18:54.9 JR: During the pandemic, I feel so many of us felt isolated, untethered. It was really disorienting for a lot of students. And because we could use this very intentional way of bringing forth the community to our students, it became clear that if you don’t have that synergy, that something special that brings it all together in a meaningful way sort of like curating a full set of experiences that’s comprehensive, that’s personalized, that lets them choose… It’s most important for me to see myself represented in the Wellesley community this way, so I’m choosing this session and I watched the students video and I asked this question about student life.

0:19:33.0 JR: That we realized not only was it important to provide, but it met a need for the students who couldn’t visit campus in pre-pandemic times. So I know it really helped us start to think about digital first, taking risk, and looking at the analytics. One of the great things about the platform is we could see what posts and questions were getting the most attention and response, and it helped us understand, like our admitted student questionnaire, these analytics helped us get a sense of what really matters to the students, so we could be in a constant iterative process for evolving our content and the way we were engaging and adapting it to the kind of student. Was it an admitted student, was it a prospective student?

0:20:19.8 JR: We even let parents into our perspective student Wisr community, and they had different questions and expectations than the prospective students, so lots of different ways to evolve. You’re thinking about how you go about engaging with students.

0:20:39.6 AM: Yeah, and you keep bringing up this idea of having students see themselves on campus and helping them define that they have a place at campus. Switching gears a little bit, but in a similar sense, one thing that we’ve seen, especially over the past year, is that FAFSA filing has gone down significantly, especially under traditionally underserved groups, and groups that may not always see themselves at a college campus, and so I guess I pose the question to you, and I know this is a little bit of a tougher question, but how have you seen digital engagement helping to impact those who don’t typically see themselves at a college campus, and what do you recommend to other admissions offices or financial aid teams on how to meet students where they’re at and help students who don’t typically see themselves on a college campus long-term find and get the financial aid help they need so that they can make it there?

0:21:37.3 JR: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I would say our office had been… Even the pandemic was a two-fold pandemic. There was the global health crisis of COVID-19, but then there’s the racial inequity of the world around us that came to the forefront, not just with George Floyd, but with Breonna Taylor and so many other issues that prospective students and admitted students and our current students and our alums are all really, really passionate about.

0:22:14.9 JR: Wellesley for a while had already been looking at our admission practices and policies from a racial justice and an equity lens, and one of the areas that we hadn’t quite tackled was, okay, we do offer financial assistance for students, admitted students to fly to campus and visit us if they didn’t have a chance and didn’t have the means to do so, but that still wasn’t reaching everyone, so this fact that we haven’t been able to provide an authentic Wellesley experience to students who didn’t have a chance to visit campus before they applied and/or to students who maybe hadn’t originally thought of Wellesley. There was this missed opportunity, and Wellesley is known for being one of the most diverse institutions in the country, where 49% identify as students of color, 17 first generation college, 14% international from 83 different countries.

0:23:14.4 JR: And so how are we going about really not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. And so I really think that being able to do this digital-first approach provides more opportunity to provide equity. Really and truly, it is a privilege to have the means to have the guidance and resources to visit a campus, and we all know it’s a great way to get to know a college, but the reality is, there are so many students where that’s not an opportunity. I’m a first-generation college student myself, financial aid determined my enrollment choice, that there was really no other choice about it, and I just had no idea what I was doing. With these digital-first platforms, we can start pulling resources and reaching out to students, and so if the one shy student who has admitted asked a question about how to read or understand the financial aid award, well, we started including tips and advice like that through the prospective student Wisr platform, and that’s where those little bite size, for example, financial aid videos or personalized outreach having access to a financial aid officer, telling students that if they’re admitted, they should ask questions about their financial aid award, telling them that there is an appeals process, which so many students would never have known about if you hadn’t given that information to them.

0:24:38.4 JR: So I really think these digital-first resources have an opportunity to help us to democratize and provide more access to the fact that many admission and financial aid offices, they want to provide the help, you just need to facilitate the connection that makes a student comfortable to either ask the question or the benefit of a platform like the one we use with Wisr. One student asked the question, and then everybody who’s on that platform benefits from seeing that bold question being asked, and the response being given, so the crowdsourcing, I guess you could call it, has been really helpful because we all know if one student has that question, a lot of them have the same one, so it really helps guide our resources.

0:25:21.8 AM: We always use the analogy here of no one likes being the first person at a party, and I feel like a lot of times when you put students in a capacity where they’re supposed to ask the questions, they’re always intimidated to be the first one to do it. I mean, I look at myself who I was at 18 years old, I absolutely would have felt the same way, so I think you’re really hitting the nail on the head with you offer them all of that access to all that information right off the bat, and it makes the conversation a lot easier and it makes them feel a lot more comfortable to start having those what seem to be tougher conversations at that point in time. So again, one thing I always… Oh, go ahead.

0:26:00.1 JR: I said you’re so right, Anna. And I think these students, this generation, they’re asking really tough questions. When I said we need to make sure that our commitment, diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, they’re asking these tough questions. And so, as you said, one student starts to ask, “What’s Wellesley doing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder to address this, what’s happening on campus?” And really having transparent and authentic ways for students to ask those questions and get answers is, I think, imperative for every institution’s future because…

0:26:36.0 JR: And I really hope this isn’t going to go away as an issue, that we’re going to all see this forward, so we’re really grateful that the one bold question that someone asks them leads to others, so… You’re absolutely right, Anna.

0:26:49.7 AM: Absolutely, I think we touched on a lot of incredible points today, especially with how digital engagement can affect yield strategies and prospective student strategies, and just how to bring students more into the fold and give them more of a voice on campus and with their college choice process, but I wanna make sure that anyone listening to the podcast today can walk away with a few very actionable pieces of advice or next steps for their admissions offices or for their program. So if you could wrap up all that we had talked about today into your few top insights or top pieces of advice that you’ve gotten with your digital engagement, what would those be?

0:27:32.3 JR: Great question, Anna. So, hopefully, we’ve relayed some tips and advice along the way, but I would say my top three might be innovate, don’t replicate. It can be easier to just try to take what you have and square peg, round hole. But you’ve gotta take a little bit of risk and you may even find that what you need to do is assign people and give them permission to be creative, to think out of the box, to set an environment where you say, “We need to fail and we need to fail fast.” We’re gonna make some choices here, but the great thing about some of these digital tools is we can pivot, we can change things. You don’t get the full benefit of these digital virtual engagement options if you don’t use it differently than you did your in-person events. So you have to think about what’s the end goal and product? When Wellesley asked all those questions, what are we trying to do here? What does someone need to know to feel comfortable and confident in the decision to join the Wellesley community, and then we work backwards with a very open… What are our ideas? What do we have here? Lots of brainstorming. So innovate, don’t replicate. I would say benchmarking, because things in this digital world change fast and there’s access to so much great data and analytics.

0:29:00.0 JR: So as you think about your end goals, like I said in the earlier point, how are you going to sort of measure and benchmark and track your progress? And I think there’s a pitfall of saying, “Great, we’ve turned this on,” and you just let it go, but these digital tools and virtual tools, they need monitoring, they need adjustment, and they need work along the way. It’s great that they’re iterative and you can keep tweaking and retooling, but you need to know what’s your strategy for keeping that boat on course and on track and making progress towards the goal. So identifying and making some attentional 10-day, two-week, three-month, depending on what’s appropriate for what you’re trying to do, opportunities to step in. And so you keep stepping into the nuance and the details and the data, and then step back and being creative again, so it really is iterative innovation.

0:30:00.8 JR: And then I would say things are starting to open back up, and I think the other on the flip side, there is a possibility for everybody just going back to the way things were, and I really think if we are going to grow, and for Wellesley, we don’t wanna suddenly go back to our on-campus in-person open house and lose the students that we had been engaging with prior to… During the pandemic. The students who are in rural locations from further away who are never going to be able to get to campus. We’re thinking about lots of new and different things, so obviously, even as we’ve started to open up to some limited campus visits, we’re still moving forward with our Wisr engagement platforms.

0:30:48.7 JR: We’re actually looking at taking it a step further and doing virtual tours. So you have… Well, we didn’t have any student tour guides this summer, we just didn’t know when we’d be back open, and so they’ve been working for us remotely during the summer, but when we go back to the fall campus, when we open back up in the fall on campus and we do have some students, we’re actually gonna do virtual tours because we don’t have student tour guides every moment of the day. What about evenings and weekends? What about academic breaks? And so as we think about equity and being able to provide the same wonderful tour experience, whether you’re on campus or off, we’ve actually just started working on a self-guided tour platform that works on-campus or off, that provides the same consistent information.

0:31:37.4 JR: So we’re not privileging students who already are privileged enough to get to campus that we can… For that first-generation student from a rural place in the Midwest or a student who just doesn’t have the funds to get to campus, that we can still reach them, and I don’t know if our thinking would have been there if we hadn’t gone through the thought process during the pandemic and that huge pivot we did and what we’ve really learned with Wisr. So I’d say those are my biggest take-aways for thinking about being more digital forward or digital-first.

0:32:11.7 AM: Jess, I think that’s as good a recap as any for all that we were able to talk through today. And while I know we could talk about this for hours, I do wanna make sure you can get back to your day, and I just wanna thank you so much for being so open and being so willing to talk about all the different experiences you’ve had over the past year. I know it’s been a tough one, but you all have been doing some incredible work and I’m just really excited to see where all of this digital engagement can go with Wellesley. So thank you again so much for your time today.

0:32:35.0 JR: And thank you, Anna. We’ve really enjoyed partnering with you. It’s been an adventure as we’ve opened up new doors and new opportunities and ways of using these tools, but with the platform and the support and service from your team, we’ve really done a lot of great things together, and I’m really excited to continue partnering with you all and to have other people learn from our experience, so they don’t have to start from a nine-day turn around, let’s launch this, but can really engage in some thoughtful planning for their digital experiences and virtual opportunities. So thank you for having me today.

0:33:12.5 AM: Absolutely, and again, everyone that is Jess Ricker, Dean of Admission at Wellesley College, joining me, Anna Masica, here at Office Hours with EAB. Thank you all so much for listening and we look forward to hearing you back here again soon.


0:33:29.9 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Join us next week when our guests review data that show why you might want to pay a little more attention to how your school is doing relative to local competitors at growing market share and what you should do about it. Until then, thank you for your time.

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