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College Decision Day Has Come and Gone. Now What?

Episode 57

May 25, 2021 35 minutes


EAB’s Kathy Dawley and Brett Schraeder discuss the significance of National College Decision Day and share initial thoughts on successful strategies colleges are using to meet enrollment targets during one of the most challenging recruiting cycles of all time. They stress the importance of virtual engagement with admits as a means of reducing summer melt.

Kathy and Brett also share findings from EAB’s most recent survey of more than 15,000 high school students and break down the implications of those findings on everything from the design of your school’s website to how and when to engage parents in the recruiting process.



0:00:12.7 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. This episode features enrollment experts, Kathy Dawley and Brett Schraeder, who offer initial thoughts on the recruiting strategies and approaches that appear to be working for schools this year. They say that flexibility has been key during this recruiting cycle, meaning that schools willing to embrace things like test optional policies and who are willing to go that extra mile to help students complete FAFSA forms, are seeing those efforts rewarded. Thanks for listening and enjoy.


0:00:52.1 Brett Schraeder: Hi everyone, welcome to the Office Hours with EAB. My name is Brett Schraeder, and really thrilled to be joined today by my colleague and friend, Kathy Dawley. Kathy, welcome.

0:01:05.1 Kathy Dawley: Thank you, Brett, it’s great to be here with you. We have lots to talk about today. [chuckle]

0:01:10.1 BS: Yeah, it’s definitely lots to talk about. We’re recording this just a few days after the big May 1 deadline, which anyone in enrollment knows is an important date, but we also know that a lot of schools recruit, well after their May 1 date. Isn’t that right, Kathy?

0:01:31.5 KD: They do, and that’s long been true, but certainly even more so, starting when the pandemic hit last year. So the question really is, how do we finish out the fall 21 class? But you and I are eager to take learnings or key takeaways from this cycle to support the start-up really for what comes next.

0:02:01.4 BS: Yeah, absolutely, and so we’ll definitely plan to deconstruct a little bit of what happened over the last several months, and then really thinking ahead as we come out of a pandemic, hopefully, and move to the Fall 2022 and Fall 2023 classes. But Kathy, just a quick sense from you as you think about how schools landed over the last few days, and what worked and maybe what didn’t work, any key things that come to mind for you?

0:02:35.4 KD: Well Brett, as you know, as we all know that the dust is just beginning to settle, but our EAB enrollment services partners, financial aid optimization partners, are for the most part doing quite well. There are lots of successes. There are some, maybe more than just some, who have some work to finish for the Fall 21 class. Some of the takeaways for us had to do with what the pandemic taught us about being flexible, and so that flexibility seems to have prevailed. Another commonality to the successful partners has to do with proactive welcoming of discussions about cost and financial aid, recognition that this is a year of all years with respect to family, family’s ability to afford college. So I know we’re going to talk a bit about the fallout of the pandemic, particularly on underrepresented and lower income students, but I think this applies largely to across the board, and it seems that those partners who were able to begin immediately to send awards to admitted candidates, earlier the better. It allowed more runway for personalization of those aid awards in the context of everything else that students and families are considering as they make this really important choice.

0:04:28.5 BS: Sure, that’s an interesting point. I know that this year, some of our partners were challenged by the Pell tables being out so late, as we all know that Pell tables can come out any time between about October and February. And this year, it was a nice Valentine’s gift of February that they came out, and so it’s hard for some of our schools to get in to that early financial aid offer situation. But it’s so important for students, and we know that their ability to weigh some of those ways, some of those financial aid offers is just really, really important.

0:05:11.7 KD: Absolutely, and you know, I know, collectively at EAB, we know that there are partners who decided, “Well, if the Pell tables are going to be late, then we’re going to make estimates and deal with the consequences of having to adjust those.” Often that’s an on the margin adjustment, when everything’s said and done, and there were partners who had flexible, again, that word, of strategies about those students who were selected for validation. Well, what does that mean? Can we send a preliminary award with all the right caveats or do those need to wait? So again, some other characteristics, some learnings from this year that we can use in the upcoming cycle.

0:06:08.8 BS: Yeah, I think that flexibility came up again…

0:06:11.0 KD: Again and again.

0:06:12.6 BS: It is gonna be key this year, I think. I sense… One of the things I sense from this year is students were a little bit… The timetables were turned, because they were so… They went… Largely students were online in the Fall or more online than they were in-person. Then things started opening up, but we know some of the biggest districts in the country just recently opened up. Boston, Los Angeles, Charlotte, Denver, they all recently just opened up. And so as students… Students were turned around with, “Is it time to apply? Is it time to fill out financial aid?” And those social cues that they get by walking down the hallway maybe weren’t there. So schools that really had to just figure out how to… How best to work with each student faired pretty well this year. Speaking of that, just a question on what are we seeing. We know the Fall was devastating for lower income students and even underrepresented students enrolling. How did they do… How did we do this year, at least as far as we can tell now? And how did Test-Optional play into that? Curious your sense of that.

0:07:32.4 KD: Well, one of the things we seem to know, and it’s in the mainstream press a lot, is that students, underrepresented, lower income students, went big with their application set choices and probably reached a little higher up in the selectivity bucket than they might have in a different year, and I think there are winners there. Something that you and I work a lot on, underrepresented student recruitment and enrollment, and this was a big year for those students. And yet we do know that there are partners whose lower income students, they may have been admitted, they may have deposited, but some are lagging in terms of their FAFSA submissions.

0:08:30.6 KD: And that’s going to be a problem, could be a big problem for melt over the summer. There are some latent admitted students. And again, the word flexible, lots of institutions are prepared to work with them way past these candidates’ reply date to get them in a good place for the Fall. But so it’s a mixed story. My takeaway is that it’s a wonderful story at the Ivy League, for instance, but we still have some work to do over the spring and the summer. So we’re here partly to talk about the ’21 cycle, Fall ’21 cycle, and what we’ve learned that will apply to ’22. But Brett, you and I have some results from a student survey to share with folks today. And I wonder if you might kick that off and tell folks a little bit more about when we did this, how often we do it, and the significant learnings there about what students had to tell us about FAFSA filing.

0:09:45.5 BS: Sure. Yeah. The… So one of the things that EAB does that many folks know about is about every two years, we survey a significant set of student and parents. In COVID time, we actually short circuited our usual every-other-year cadence and did some special surveys as well. And so we really ask students across the spectrum, so seniors, juniors and sophomores and their parents, all kinds of information about how they’re searching for colleges, how they like to be communicated to and various other questions. And we have lots of great things to share from that. But maybe along the lines of this year and really future years straddling those, I’ll kick off with some of the things we saw around FAFSA filing. So this is… This year, we asked seniors… Obviously juniors and sophomores wouldn’t have filed a FAFSA, but we asked the seniors, “Did you file a FAFSA? And if you did, what were some of the challenges? What were… Who helped you?” those kinds of things. And I… A couple of really important takeaways that I’m not sure were surprising but I think are telling and that point about just the challenging year that students had, we know it was a challenge for this last Fall, the Fall ’20 enrollment.

0:11:08.1 BS: When we asked students… Students who were first generation or low income, over 30%, pushing 40% said that it was difficult to complete the FAFSA, and that’s 10 to 15 points more than their higher income peers. Almost 40% of first generation students and low income students said they did the FAFSA themselves, they didn’t have help, which is just a really important thing for us to remember. We know that the… That FAFSA out there has a reputation for being difficult, and when students are having to do this on their own and thinking about how they ask and answer some of the questions… For example, one of the questions is, “How much money is in your parents’ checking and savings account?” If you’re doing that on your own, what a challenge.

0:12:01.6 BS: Do you feel comfortable asking your parent, who may not have a lot of money in their checking account, how much is in there? So you can see just some real fundamental level challenges that are in there. And then the other thing, to the point about students being late and maybe some opportunities to recruit over time, is the percentage of low income students who hadn’t filed yet, and this was in a survey we did in February and March. The percentage of students who planned to file a FAFSA but hadn’t yet was much higher than students who are high income. And so there’s still a lot of running room out there, I think, to recruit students and to make sure that we’re in touch with low income students so that they can get across the finish line, because we know the likelihood of them enrolling without having a financial aid offer in front of them, even if they’ve said they’re coming, is pretty low, so just staying in front of that. Any reactions to that? Kathy, any things that you would add?

0:13:09.6 KD: Well, it’s just a bit sad, more than a bit sad, Brett, that we’re chronicling a dimension of the pandemic year for these students, underrepresented, low income. Their safety nets of support were just not there. And as you suggest, it’s a… It’s an awkward question one must ask a parent, especially if that parent’s struggling financially, to declare… To potentially have the first conversation in a lifetime between them about how much money is in their checking account. Beside…

0:13:52.5 BS: What is the… Oh, sorry.

0:13:53.2 KD: Okay. [chuckle] Sorry, Brett.

0:13:55.5 KD: Beside the fact that this… There are some cultural issues that go with it, asking that question, which makes it even more awkward. Now, we both know that lots of our partner institutions stepped up there, they had virtual summits for students, for parents, lots of financial aid nights in the virtual capacity. Actually, lots of folks have commented, the would be safetynetters who would have been helping them in their high schools in-person, have said that we should keep a lot of the virtual techniques we used this year across higher education in admission and in financial aid, because these students, underrepresented, low income students, had wider access, more access to these programs than they’ve ever been able to access before.

0:14:56.0 BS: Yeah, that’s a… Those are great points. And one of the things that we saw in that survey too is when we ask students, “Who helped you with the FAFSA if you got help?” For low-income students in particular, parents were number two. And teachers, counselors, and one important point for our partners, college reps, were all in the top four. And so your point about having help and support is huge. And for our students to get over that hurdle to have those support networks taken offline with the pandemic, and then having some others step into the void there was just a hugely important thing. And Kathy, I think you recently worked with the team on a survey of our community-based organizations and heard some interesting things from them about how things came together this year.

0:15:57.6 KD: We did. And headliner there, Brett, had to do with the virtual techniques that were used this cycle more than ever before. They urged us to make sure that those techniques continue in the plans post-pandemic, that their students had more opportunity and access to programming in and around campuses that they might have missed otherwise. So a keeper with that. And certainly the need to personalize the experience for students, and we don’t mean that it should… That it can’t be personal virtually, that it has to be on campus or in-person to be personalized, there are lots of techniques that we use to make however the mode of communication, however the mode of programming for events, it can be and should be rather personal. So the headline also from that survey and the work with our community-based organizations was, “Keep it up! Our students need you, and they want to hear from you.” That was a headliner in the student survey as well, and it was a big headline with our version of this survey within the parent audience, and most especially among underrepresented families.

0:17:38.4 BS: That’s a great point. And maybe as we turn our attention to what students want and think about as we pivot toward recruiting our 2022 class and our 2023 class and back to that survey, which I don’t think I said I was probably about 15,000 students when we got it all said and done, so a significant set, students told us a lot about how they like to receive information. And I guess maybe the biggest headline is, “Keep doing what you’re doing and do more.” [chuckle] But what are some of the things that struck you about how sophomores and juniors, students who are rising seniors and juniors, and really thinking about those future years, what struck you, Kathy?

0:18:32.0 KD: Well, it’s striking and not surprising at the same time how much they rely on their website experience. So our “.edu” programs are absolutely important. And they’re digital natives, therefore their patience is very, very slim. And so all of us need to look at the website experience from this notion of ease of use but also personalization. So the survey also indicated that sophomores especially, but also juniors and seniors, really wanted us to track them so that “.edu” knows their name, or at least knows what they’ve expressed interest in by virtue of their visit to specific areas of the website.

0:19:35.2 KD: Remarkably, and we learned this in the parent version of this story as well, the website experience matters in terms of what they think about you as an institution, so bad experience, ooh, that must be a bad institution. [chuckle] And the opposite is true. Good experience, oh, that must be a great institution. So you and I are not sharing here anything that our listeners don’t know, but letting this sink in for the full force about what this means, I think will serve all of our partners really well. Secondly, the students use majors as a driver of their search in many ways, particularly on the web, and yet we all know from ongoing research and experience as practitioners that you can’t assume that a student who’s seeming to select interest in engineering will continue [chuckle] to be selecting engineering by the time it’s time for them to apply. So it’s a little fluid but they do search that way, they’re using a lot of voice search, which is important to realize. And then we said…

0:21:03.8 BS: What is voice search? So like, “Hey, Google, tell me the best engineering program in the state of X, Y, or Z?”

0:21:13.1 KD: That’s right. And I can’t pretend to know what that might mean at a ground level to a student, but just saying out loud in the living room, I’d like to go to California and study Biology. Well, let’s do some work about understanding for one institution versus another, what kind of stuff gets served up to them. And again, I’m sure our listeners are all over this, but coming fresh off, probably one of the most challenging enrollment cycles we have ever experienced, it’s important to be reminded about all the stuff that we need to continue to pay attention to. And then lastly, I think the role parents play… And you mentioned it, Brett, that the students admitted that their parents this year were their primary helper, their biggest influencer in this process. And so parents, what they need, when they need it, is something we need to be very mindful of. Again, the headliner from their survey, we almost can’t communicate enough, it’s not too much with parents, they want to hear from our institutional partners.

0:22:46.6 BS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Interesting. Yeah that… And is it… I wonder… One of the things that I think we often talk about, and I noticed in that survey was, when do you communicate financial information? When do you communicate major and program information? And I guess my… Well, we’ll have some details of this survey released on our website in the coming weeks, so you can dive in if you’re a data wonk. I guess I would say that my general take is parents are happy to have the financial conversation early, they’re happy to hear some details early on, even just to get their own frame of reference. So they’re thinking, well, I may not need to know the penny to which I’m gonna pay for this college but it’d be good to know the range. Is it gonna be a $10,000 investment? Is it gonna be a $20,000 investment? Excuse me… And then how does that play out into my list creation with my son or daughter, do I put parameters on their list? Do I let them look far and wide first? And how that all sort of fits together.

0:24:02.2 KD: Absolutely. And so you cued up the high proportion of students who said they had trouble as seniors with the FAFSA, arguably some are still having trouble. What that might mean for junior student communication. Let’s think financial literacy for a minute, and as you suggest, Brett, cuing that up early to a FASFA toolkit which listeners can find easily on our website, you need these six things and 23 minutes in English and Spanish for those who need an alternative language. What… Wouldn’t we be well served to cue that up for juniors and make sure that they’re feeling a little bit more confident about that part of the process when they rise into their senior year and get knee deep in into the financial details.

0:25:09.1 BS: Yeah, that makes good sense. And I think the interesting challenge now, and what we’re, I think we’re seeing in our research, and one of the reasons we’ve expanded the role the DA plays in recruitment of students, is the circuitous way… We always know students have sort of circuitously found institutions. But maybe even more so now with the pandemic, where you might check out 20 colleges on a website that lists the best colleges for engineering, and then you might travel over to a virtual tour and then you might actually show up at a self-guided campus tour now in COVID times, or a real campus tour as they come back now. And so how students create their list just continues. It’s always been a little bit circuitous, but it’s probably gone from a slightly straighter line to a completely curvy spiny line, would you say?

0:26:13.6 KD: Absolutely, Brett. And with a call… Clearly, the students were making this call to personalize their experience more, so its complexity is just increasing and yet a default to some simple things, and of course, virtual tours are a thing and not a pandemic solution, they’re here to stay. We, of course, experienced the EAB virtual tour spiking of visitors. And it’s leveled off, but if you asked a student will they look in that circuitous search, however they choose to make it, at a virtual tour, they’re not gonna say no, so we have that learning. Virtual tours are here to stay as a supplement, as an enticement in many cases, to come to campus, and an essential hole that we’re filling for under-represented students who visited campus personally in far less numbers, even pre-pandemic. We have WISER in the EAB family now, and this is a very rich, robust personal community for admitted students and driven largely by student ambassadors at the campus. So it’s authentic, it’s rich with information, it’s tailored, personalized, customized to individual students. So there are many partners who thought they brought WISER into their portfolio of enrollment service tools and realize now, “Well, that’s never going away.” That that’s a great addition, that, it’s a keeper.

0:28:19.0 BS: Mm-hmm. Well, it helps with melt prevention over the summer…

0:28:23.7 KD: Absolutely.

0:28:24.0 BS: Too which even for our… I know for our partners that maybe have fallen a little shy of their goals, and obviously they’ll keep working over the summer toward them, we had several conversations just in the last few days about melt prevention. So…

0:28:40.6 KD: Yeah.

0:28:41.4 BS: If you normally lose 100 students, and you’re able to only lose 70, you’re plus 30. And if you’re 30 short, now you’re flat, so melt prevention. And I know Wisr helps that, because it helps students feel like they’re part of the institution after they’re admitted and as they decide to enroll over the summer. I wonder how do you see… Along those lines, how do you see this summer playing out? We know a lot of orientations are still gonna be online, we know… Or maybe pieces of them online. What are some other ways… Back to the summer communication, what are ways you can balance the needs of your incoming… Immediately incoming class, and then the desire of maybe juniors and sophomores to start getting you on their list for the future classes?

0:29:36.6 KD: Well, it’s toggle time, as I’ve been saying for many, many years in enrollment. [chuckle] And it probably started a month or two ago in terms of recruiting the next class. Our partners and their teams know how to do this, but there’s absolutely a very mindful, intentional plan that needs to be or is in place for landing the class, helping all of those students move in to campus in the fall. Partners exist on the campus for that purpose, and so there’s this larger set of colleagues on a campus department’s activities that can be very supportive in that effort and need to begin receiving a hand-off. And then simultaneously, there’s all of the start-up for early application marketing campaigns, and August 1st is very big for rising seniors coming up and so forth. So it is that moment where we’re almost doubling up on what is critically important.

0:31:00.3 KD: But I think all our partners are very accustomed to that. And so here we go again. And, Brett, you and I came together today to record this for our listeners, May 1 has come and gone, now what? And we’ve spoken, I hope in helpful ways, about, “Now what?” for the fall class, as well as, “Now what?” for what have we learned that informs the next cycle? I think we… I’ll point to a few things, and then let you bring us home here. But flexibility prevails, I personally hope that we’ve learned through this pandemic how appreciative, valuable and productive from a recruitment sense it is to be very flexible. So there’s that. Personalization in a variety of different modes, whether that’s on a Zoom or on campus, that very, very much matters. Parents matter a lot, and so planning out, adding to, refining a conflux and a flow of events for parents is really important. Digital engagement is here to stay in so many dimensions of what we call digital these days, and financial literacy for upcoming classes, as well as getting out ahead in the next cycle as early as one possibly can with financial aid awards, that really helped this year.

0:32:53.1 BS: Definitely. Yeah, I think that’s a great summary of our talk today. I know we touched on a lot of topics. And I think the adage with all these new tools, I think some things haven’t changed and that you have to focus on each individual student. You do, to some degree, recruit them one by one, and every student comes to it from a different place, and so you have to be ready to meet them where they are, and then take them through the process that you have. And I think your point about flexibility, if there’s no other learning from today, understanding that flexibility helps you do that. And I think it’s why you and I are excited about all the things that we’re seeing ahead for our partners who work with some of the tools that EAB has to help recruit classes, because we really see them as opportunities to be flexible and to meet students where they are and hopefully land those classes right on the button on May 1, or a little after if you have to.

0:34:07.0 KD: [chuckle] Or a little after, or whenever.

0:34:09.3 BS: Or whenever. Right. Well, we are really excited to have everybody join us today. Thanks, Kathy, always fun talking with you, whether we’re recorded or not, so definitely happy to have you today. And we will sign off and thank everyone for coming.

0:34:30.4 KD: Thanks everyone.


0:34:38.0 Speaker 1: Thanks for listening. Please join us next week when our guests share strategies to help women working in higher education push through barriers to reach their career goals. Until then, thank you for your time.

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