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How to Convert More "Undecideds" to Matriculants

Episode 88

January 25, 2022 32 minutes


EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer and Lex Ruby-Howe share strategies to help admissions teams boost yield by identifying students within their admit pool who are highly likely or highly unlikely to enroll, versus those who are genuinely undecided. By leveraging simple surveys and more advanced analytics, schools can focus their resources and tailor their outreach efforts to greater effect.

Madeleine and Lex also touch on the importance of being nimble in adjusting financial aid strategy as another critical lever for converting the undecided. Finally, the two discuss the value of virtual tours and other digital platforms your institution should be using to help applicants make authentic connections with other admits, current students, and faculty before they ever set foot on campus.



0:00:12.2 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we explore ways to marry analytics with authentic human connections to motivate more admits to enroll at your school, a process referred to in more clinical terms as boosting yield. Gone are the days when admissions teams could throw a bunch of calls and emails and letters at their admitted students and hope for the best. Today, they need data and analytics to focus yield efforts where they will have the greatest impact. Our guests today share five important steps that any school can take to boost yield and help applicants make authentic connections with current students, other admits and faculty before they ever set foot on campus. Give them a listen and enjoy.


0:01:03.8 Madeleine Rhyneer: Well hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Madeleine Rhyneer, and I’m the Dean of Enrollment Management and manage our consulting practice in the enrollment side of the house. And I’m joined today by my great friend and colleague, Lex Ruby-Howe. Lex, how are you doing today?

0:01:20.2 Lex Ruby-Howe: I’m great. I have to admit, Madeleine, that I am missing the sunny shores of Marco Island, where you and I were exactly two weeks ago at the CIC Conference, and the white sandy beaches and the sunshine on my skin is meaningfully different than the snowflakes falling from the sky here in DC. So, I’m a little wistful for the fun that we had down in Florida two weeks ago, but certainly glad to be with you today and thank you for having me join you in today’s Office Hours.

0:01:52.1 MR: Well, thank you for joining me, Lex, ’cause we’re gonna have some fun today. And really, I’m excited about the insights we have to share with our listeners. So, all of you listening understand that this is the time of year when enrollment teams really go into hyper-drive to convert their admitted students into matriculants, because, of course, they are really focused on yielding that class to meet headcount and net tuition revenue goals. I also think that most of you listening understand how important these yield activities are to actually achieve your goals and you appreciate that this is a part of the enrollment process that can either go very, very well or could go terribly wrong. So today, Lex and I are gonna talk about the difference between some high impact and data informed tactics to boost yield, versus what, unfortunately we see too many colleges and universities doing, and that is throwing everything they have up against the wall and hoping that some combination of things will work. And they hope for the best.

0:02:49.9 LR: Yeah, that’s right, Madeleine. And I think the advice that we’re gonna give folks today that hopefully helps as they stare down the barrel of yield and melt season falls into sort of two main categories. The first is, use data to focus your yield efforts where they will have the greatest impact, and second, eliminate barriers to getting those admitted students engaged and build meaningful connections with current students, faculty, staff, alumni, so they get even more entrenched and excited about an experience at your institution. Take it away.

0:03:24.8 MR: So, I think we wanna just dive right in. Time is precious. So, we have actually five key tactics, so let’s start with number one. Ask your admits, just flat out, ask your admits if they plan to enroll. And I know for many of you, this is gonna sound ridiculously simple, but you would be surprised how many schools actually take the most elemental step, which is simply asking students, “What’s on your mind? Where do we stand? Do you intend to enroll?” So, there are all kinds of ways you can do this, but you could think about creating a very simple survey with not many questions because they won’t answer a lot of questions. And the simple survey is, “Do you intend to deposit?”, or, “Do you intend to enroll?” And as you’re thinking about your survey, the range of possible responses might be yes, probably, maybe, or no. And you’re probably thinking what is the difference between probably and maybe? Well, there’s incremental. And of course, I don’t wanna say, “Yeah, likely no”, so we’re hedging on the more positive side of the house.

0:04:26.5 LR: It sounds like teenagers. The differences.

0:04:30.1 MR: Many qualifiers are always good. But some students will say yes, because they’re just ready to click the button and then make their enrolment deposit today. And what you’re really trying to figure out is where people stand. And I will tell you that in general, our experience at EAB, is that about 40% of students, so 40% of the people in your admit pool, will respond to a quick survey like this. So, lest you think “Really, why go to the effort? Kids, they don’t wanna do it”, a surprising number actually are gonna answer you. So, why are you asking these questions and what are you gonna do with what you learn? Well, let’s start with no, because a substantial percentage of the respondents in that 40% are gonna tell you, “No, I don’t plan to enroll”, and although on the face of it, this sounds kind of demoralizing, like, “Why did I wanna know that?”, you actually really do want to know that. Because in many cases, your admit pool is large enough that your admissions staff doesn’t have enough time to really do high impact and personal recruiting with all of the students.

0:05:31.4 MR: So, for those who say, “No, I don’t plan to enroll”, you actually can quickly move them into… It doesn’t mean you necessarily withdraw their offer of admission and make them inactive, but it means you really can just put them back on kind of your standard, whatever communication you’re launching out of your Slade or your CRM, because what you wanna do is you wanna focus on the students who are essentially in play and those families. The thing I love the most about teenagers is they don’t have a ton of guile. And even though it kind of breaks your heart, they really are willing to tell you no. And, again, from our experience at EAB and then my experience in enrollment, no very, very rarely becomes yes. So in case you’re thinking, “Well, maybe they just are having a bad day, and they said no”, the survey says, actually that is very unlikely to occur. So the benefits of this are, first of all, you’ve eliminated a number of students for whom you realize that putting out a lot of personal attention isn’t going to make a difference, so you don’t need to. It allows you to prioritize your very scarce human resources on the families that are still in play. This is also generally a big win for your team emotionally, because as you know, it’s very hard to be reaching out to student after student who’s going, “Yeah, no, I’m not coming,”.

0:06:47.0 MR: And what you’re doing is you’re allowing your staff to spend most of their time with people who actually have the potential to be influenced, and they can share information and be effective as recruiters to try and get those students and families to yes.

0:07:03.0 LR: Yeah. I think that’s gonna be so valuable, given what we saw across last year’s yields and melt season where there was just so much movement, so much disturbance and so much vulnerability. I guess, as we think about those cohorts as the yeses, the noes, the probablys, the maybes. How do you think about tailoring some of those communications or outreach strategies to those meaningful, what, 25% that enrollment teams can inflect? Are there specific best practices that you think can have outsized impact, Madeleine?

0:07:34.4 MR: Yeah. Lex, it’s a really good question, because of course, it’s not enough to ask. You actually have to do something with the information that you get, particularly for those students and families that are still in play. And remember that we’re just dealing with Gen Z, who are used to instantaneous answers to virtually every question online all the time. So as an enrolment person, you’re thinking, “Oh my goodness. What if they answer that survey at 11 PM? Are they really thinking that I’m going to answer them?” I don’t think you have to answer at 11 PM, but what you wanna try and do is hardwire, whether you’re running this survey through Slade or some other mechanism, you need to be able to get word back to the appropriate admission counselor, so some sort of tagging, so that when the student says, “Probably”, but then you’ve given them the chance to tell you what it is they need to know more about to kinda get ’em over the fence, that your team member or you, if it comes back to you, can actually be apprised of, “What is it I want to know?” and be ready to respond to that.

0:08:36.7 MR: Another potential best practice is to ask in the survey, “How do you wanna get this information? Do you want an email? Do you want a phone call?” No one wants a phone call. “Would you like a text? And when might be a good time to reach you?” We wanna be respectful of students. But the key is hardwiring in the response, and being ready with your team, so everybody is prepared to be nimble. Because, if you wait 48 hours or longer to respond, I think it’s kinda game over. They’ve forgotten that they’ve asked. So, you wanna yield within 12-24 hours. That’s sort of the gold standard here. The other thing is…

0:09:11.1 LR: Helpful. So that’s the… Sorry, go ahead. I didn’t mean to interrupt you, Madeleine, I guess that’s the 25% or 30% you think you can inflect. What do you do with the noes, the hard noes, or the firm yeses, those 60% of students that either don’t get back to us, say no or don’t respond? Do we email them again? Do you leave them alone? Do you hammer them with 17 emails? [chuckle] How are we thinking about approaching them?

0:09:40.7 MR: Well, so, if you do respond, I think with the noes, you just move them into a lower priority, more automated kind of communication. If someone says yes, I think the immediate follow-up is to say, “Amazing. I’m so excited to welcome you into our institutional family. And what is it that I can do to help your family with next steps, as you’re preparing? What support do you need?” Answer the questions of people that are in the probably and maybe category, or if they don’t give you a question, reach out to ask what it is that would be helpful to them to know. But really, I think what you’re also asking me is, “Okay, so if 40% of students respond, what does that mean? What about the other 60%?” The other people who are are like, “Yeah, no. I didn’t pay attention to your survey”, or, “Yeah, no. I’m not answering you.” So that kind of leads us to our next piece of advice about really doing a great yield job. And that is to have a robust predictive model, and also to hardwire your response with whatever data it is you’re capturing from a predictive model.

0:10:41.4 MR: So, our research at EAB has definitely demonstrated that statistical models that incorporate data from recruitment-related and recruitment-marketing interaction. So, it could be a visit to campus, I open an email, I was on your website in the political science academic program web page, I was looking up about off-campus study. If you are able to track and collate this information and be able to track it over time, remember, it’s not just a moment in time, it is over time, that the statistical models that underpin that can be highly predictive of actual student behavior. So, having said that, I will also say that statistical models are only as good as the inputs that they’re tracking, which means, are you actually tracking the things that are material for your student population? And certainly, their accuracy can vary over time. COVID would be a great example of… You’re leaning on your statistical model, but all of these are built on what happened the year before and the year before that. And there can be big shifts. However, you’re really flying blind if you don’t have some kind of a predictive statistical model.

0:11:51.3 LR: So, if we have folks who are listening in, and they’ve got a predictive model and they’re trying to think, “Okay, is this good or not?” Maybe it was built by a predecessor, maybe it was built by somebody in institutional research, maybe it’s 20-years-old, and it’s been passed, to your point, generation to generation of other enrollment leaders. How can they tell whether their model is good enough or not?

0:12:14.2 MR: I think it’s a great question. Of course, the CFO would tell you, “At the end of the year, if it said you were gonna get 647, didn’t you get 647?” [chuckle] Yeah. I’ve lived that life, and I bet some of you listening today are living that life right now. We live in a tuition-driven, mostly enrollment situation across the country, and we need to get as close as we can. So, what you’re really talking about is, “Do I have an excellent model, do I have a good enough model, or could it be better?” And at EAB, we’ve identified a couple of hallmarks that we think really are the sort of gold standard. So think about these things. First of all, the model needs to be specific to your school. You definitely can purchase predictive modeling out there, and it comes out of a box. But out of the box isn’t gonna help you, because the inputs, although we may all be tracking the same kinds of behaviors across institutions, the ones that are material in your population will be different, and the weighting will be different than they would be at a different school. The other thing is critical is that it’s dynamically updated.

0:13:13.5 MR: So remember I talked about observations over time. You wanna be capturing student behaviors over time and be able to sort of… These are usually doing some kind of internal scoring, be able to modify scoring on the fly. ‘Cause it could be that a student has a pretty low predictive score, meaning low likelihood of enrollment, and then all based on behaviors. But then all of a sudden they make a campus visit, and they spend a bunch of time on your website, and they have emailed a couple of times with their admission counselor and maybe they’re part of a social network to help them connect with current students on campus. And that when you’re tracking that, their predictability score ought to be increasing. So that’s what I mean by dynamically updated. We’re also very interested in diversified variables. Again, there are so many things you can track. Sometimes I think, “So many trees, where is the forest?” And you need to be able to figure out or have help to figure out, of all the potential things that we could be measuring, and of all the potential things that are actually material with our prospective students historically, what are the things we ought to focus on the most attention on and give the greatest weight to?

0:14:22.7 MR: And then, finally, I would say that what really helps is if you continue to update your model every year. Because Data science is exploding as an area of expertise, and you wanna continue to bring in the latest advancements that will help you get as close as you possibly can to accurate.

0:14:43.1 LR: Helpful. I think if I were somebody listening in, I’d say, “Okay, now I’ve got a sense of how I can assess my model, and figure out if it’s good enough and make sure I’m keeping it sharp, but that will give me a ton of data.” What about the insight? What are we getting, gleaning from that data? I guess the question for you, Madeleine, is what do we do with the insights that we gained from our model and actually use them to benefit our overall enrollment operations and processes? So, take it from there. I know, hopefully, I haven’t stumped you. It’s probably obvious. But go for it.

0:15:22.2 MR: Well, it’s kind of interesting. I’m gonna reprieve some of the advice that I had related to just ask people what they intend to do. So you’ve asked people what they intend to do, but then for the 60% we didn’t tell you what they intend to do, you actually can lean into the data that you get from this predictive modeling, because the sort of likelihood to enroll scoring, however you calculate that in your model, is gonna provide you the same insight about “not a chance”. There’s also no category, even though they didn’t tell it to you directly, statistically, very unlikely to enroll. And then there are sort of these gradations that move up to those who are very likely to enroll but have not made the commitment yet. And again, this is about allocating staff time, thinking about staff morale, using your internal resources as efficiently as you can, because you’re charged with both effectiveness, or efficacy and efficiency, and again, your staff can’t reach out to everybody. So, this sort of scoring, it just adds on to information that you couldn’t get from that direct survey that I had, that I have referenced.

0:16:26.0 MR: And then once you have this information that comes from predictive modeling, you would use that to actually reach out to students, who are the most likely to enroll. To just say, “Hey, we’re so excited about you, we’re really looking forward to potentially having you as a member of our community, and I just wanna connect with you and your family to find out what information you need, what support and help could we provide to help you as you’re thinking about your final decision?” So that’s where I’d go.

0:16:54.7 LR: Super helpful. Alright. We’ve given them a lot, a lot on modeling. What else have we got? [chuckle]

0:17:01.4 MR: So, I just keep talking. So now, we’re into number three, but I promise this is my last and then I’ll be turning to Lex. No surprise to any of you that you really wanna leverage your financial aid, both your need and merit-based aid, to maximum effect. Because of all the available levers that you have to convert admitted students, really, there’s not much that’s very more powerful than institutional aid. And I don’t mean that to suggest that you need to give people money to cause them to enroll. But we know that these are uncertain times financially, that the cost of college has risen much more dramatically than family incomes. You have the economic disruption and an employment disruption of COVID, and I think there’s just a lot going on and everybody wants a bargain. This is America. So, whether it’s need-based aid, merit aid or both, what families are usually looking for the polite way to say, “So what can you do for me?”

0:17:55.4 MR: And what you need to think about is, I’m not gonna be offended by that because college is expensive, it’s a big investment, and we wanna make sure that both are value proposition, and then the aid that we’re offering will be sufficient to actually get enough of those commitments to meet that headcount and that tuition revenue goal. And I would just remind you, you all know this is a one-zero equation, right? You either get all of whatever tuition money that they’re going to pay you, or zero. [chuckle] And so you have to think really carefully. So, one of the best ways to think about this, I think, is everybody sort of goes into an admission season and they kinda make a financial aid awarding plan. Everybody, you need to plan, and it’s often based on what’s happened most recently, and it also is based on what your enrollment revenue headcount goals are for the coming year, what’s gonna be the most effective way that you can allocate your aid resources to actually achieve that goal. And so, in the most effective enrolment shops, this is a dynamic process. So you create a financial aid awarding regime, if you will, and you follow your regime as you’re awarding.

0:19:01.0 MR: But as time is passing, as deposits are coming in or, frighteningly, if not enough deposits are coming in, sort of based on your historic pattern, you can actually go back to the awarding regime that you’ve created and look for, are there opportunities where, if we increased aid, if we bumped up aid a bit for this group of students, would that inflect the positive results we’re looking for, and given the additional cost, does that still get us to the revenue goals that we’re looking for? So, bottom line, what I’m really saying is, don’t think of this as a “set it and forget it”, and wait, we created a policy and a rule, and now we’re just going to blindly follow our rule, because in most cases, it is a dynamic enrolment situation. Competitors can rise in various years and they decline in others. And you really wanna be able to be nimble throughout the admission season. And, in this case, I think it’s super important for admission and financial aid teams, if they’re not very close, to be really close in this process to collaborate together. It isn’t like one group working at odds with one another.

0:20:07.8 MR: And I would just finally say, because I spent most of the end of my career talking to parents, and I spent most of it talking about finance, that in any of those conversations, it’s very important to amp up your empathy. I think empathy and caring concern for families in whatever situations you know they’re facing or you don’t know they’re facing is important. But I think, given what’s happened over the last couple of years, there’s no greater language than empathy. And even if it doesn’t work out for the student to enroll, the family will feel like you heard them and you truly cared. And I believe that that is really important. That’s a big piece of that being the dynamic process, is having care and compassion. Well, Lex, I have been talking a lot, and now I wanna turn it over to you, because you are right on top of some of the most effective ways that we’ve discovered at EAB to meaningfully connect prospective students with students on campus and others on campus to drive those yield results. So, please, talk about that.

0:21:07.3 LR: Yeah. Thank you, Madeleine. I think the nice tie-in that we’ve seen across our time so far in today’s episode is the importance of coupling the statistical or the analytical or the digital efforts. So, doing things at scale, like statistical or predictive modeling or like financial aid modeling, but coupled with that all-important human component. We cannot miss the human component as part of all of this, and I think your point around empathy really drove that home. The next two recommendations that I am thrilled to share with the group is how you couple some of the digital platforms at scale, to scale your campus community, but you keep those human, real-person elements as part of it. I think that’s where that combination can be super, super effective. So, the first recommendation that we’ll bump up to folks’ minds is, obviously, maybe not obviously, leveraging social media to mobilize your campus community at scale. So this might sound like a no-brainer, but we’ve had the opportunity to see and review hundreds of social media presences and platforms, and not everybody gets this right.

0:22:23.5 LR: So, social media is great for generating large amounts of highly relevant content, maybe too much content, if you look at folks’ time spend on iPhones, but tons of relevant content for people, but tons of relevant content for admitted students. So, there’s an opportunity there to leverage the space that these admitted students fit in for your own benefit. We can use social media to provide and promote community and interpersonal connections. And I know that some folks have felt like social media and social platforms can be anonymous, but what we see is it can actually find these really nice human moments to bring folks together. So, I think some of the… No, sorry go ahead, Madeleine.

0:23:11.4 MR: No, I was just gonna say. So, what are some of the strategies? What are the social strategies that you’ve observed that are working? Because I know you’ve seen a lot of them.

0:23:21.0 LR: A lot. Maybe too many at this point. [chuckle] But all kinds of social communities. I think that the first thing that really stands out as a strategy that is effective and scalable for admissions offices that have limited stock time and resources, actively managing your admitted student groups on Facebook and on other social networks. So, that means finding members, a member or members, of your admission staff to serve as moderators and post relevant content with frequency. I think we all know that content is king, and content withers quickly. You think about this as grapes withering and turning into raisins on a vine. But the cycle of time for content drying up is much faster than those grapes drying on those vines. So you’ve gotta have folks who are there, it’s their job, assigned to moderate and post content and manage what’s on there. And that can be admissions staff, that can be student counselors, that can be ambassadors in your Student Ambassador Program, but make sure you’re assigning folks there. Speaking of student ambassadors, let’s not miss the obvious impact that current students can have to help post content, because they are content wizards, but also build authenticity on social platforms.

0:24:47.4 LR: So I think we probably would all acknowledge that the average 16 or 17-year-old can sniff out when a post is from a “grown-up”, as opposed to somebody who is a current student. So, finding opportunities for those near peers, man, that sounds really Australian. It is Australian. Near peers to post content on there would be of great benefit. I think another… And Madeleine, I think this sings to the heart of highly competitive and driven folks like I know you are and I know of myself, but set clear goals and expectations for your social staff. So, student ambassadors, other staff members, those alumni perhaps that you engage in these assets, set goals and expectations. How often you want them to be posting? What are the goals? Number of likes, number of clicks, number of views. Show the impact of their work. Get in front of them the data about how well, or not well, their content and their work is doing. That will reinforce the positive cycle, Hey, this, you saw 200 or 300 impressions, or clicks, or follows, or posts. On this, you’ll be surprised how impactful that is, and that will keep them coming back.

0:26:06.4 LR: One solution that we’ve seen have a really meaningful impact at scale during yield and melt season is the online communities that we’ve built within EAB’s enrolment ecosystem enabled by WISER. This has helped foster a real sense of fit and connection and community between admitted students and other admitted students. “Hey, I’m thinking about this institution”, or “I’m thinking about the Bio program”, or “I’m thinking about living in this rental”. And those same admitted students with current students. “Hey, I’m thinking about this rental. I was thinking about this living-learning community. I’m thinking about being a Bio-major or study abroad or internships”. Finding opportunities to make those meaningful connections has an outsized impact on yield, and we saw that play out to great benefit to many of our partners in 2021. I think the final recommendation, and then I know we’ll be pulled off stage left, is offer students an immersive virtual tour experience for your school.

0:27:08.6 LR: So we talked a little bit about how to scale those human connections and communities. The other is how to foster a sense of place and fit for prospective students and admitted students and their families if they can’t get to campus themselves or need to visit campus again, and travel is difficult. We know that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on travel abilities and will likely continue to do so across, at least, the early part of 2022. So the final point is, you’ll want to pay attention to the online options that you are giving students and families to experience your campus. And the best example of that is having a real, robust, authentic virtual campus tour. And I will offer that not all virtual tours are created equal, and students and families are very discerning when it relates to quality and inspiring a sense of fit. So a flat map or one drone video will not inspire a sense of fit, purpose and place, nor security and safety for those parents who are thinking about their sweet babies going off to college.

0:28:25.7 LR: So, find a format that truly engenders a sense of place, purpose, fit so they can feel themselves in those engineering buildings with those robots, or walking through the campus quad on their way to a football game, or whatever it happens to be. I think we all know this as practitioners, but also as people who use digital media to assess, “Hey, do I wanna go to that restaurant?”, or “Do I wanna stay at that Airbnb?” We assess everything via the photographic evidence, so Google street panoramas or those videos of other people’s food. This is what discerning folks do and this is definitely what your users, those future students of yours are doing, so make it cool, make it immersive, make it not just flat maps, but something that truly connects with those audiences. Alright, I think I’ve waxed poetic about how to couple both the digital and the human elements in these platforms. Madeleine, why don’t you wrap us up?

0:29:34.9 MR: I will. But I’m laughing, Lex, because you said, “Well, Madeleine has shared a number of data things”. You got right into analytics about getting your student ambassadors and I’m like “See, we just up ourselves”, because I really appreciate the best practices that you shared and we all recognize… EAB did a survey earlier where both students and parents have shared that your institutional website becomes a proxy for their assessment of your quality, and so, especially with relevance to what you shared about a virtual tour. If you just don’t have a lot of spot-on tools for them, it, in their own words, reduces their interest in your college or university. So let’s finish up by just wrapping up with a reminder about the five recommendations or, what I would say, considerations for you to consider going forward, to really have the fabulous yield season that you’re looking for. So, for me, it was just simply ask students if they plan to enroll and based on what they tell you, really use your human and financial resources intelligently. I think you definitely wanna have a plan for what you’re gonna learn from predictive modeling, assuming that you’re doing effective predictive modeling, to get to those 60% that aren’t gonna tell you what they think they wanna do.

0:30:51.0 MR: And to always be thinking about financial aid not just as a financial resource to help people make their dreams of a college education come true. But, it’s actually a tool that you can leverage to your best advantage to bring in the headcount and that tuition revenue that you’re seeking. And how about those last two, Lex?

0:31:10.8 LR: Yeah, you can’t miss opportunities to harness the power of social media to engage your prospects and family audience. And don’t leave on the table the opportunity to create real immersive experiences through a virtual tour to meet those digital expectations that tomorrow’s students and families have of your institution.

0:31:32.6 MR: Well, super. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. We hope you found this helpful. Lex and I really enjoyed sharing these insights and we wish you the very best in your dynamic and successful yield season.

0:31:45.8 LR: Absolutely. Thanks everybody.


0:31:54.5 LR: Thank you for listening, please join us next week, when we dispel myths around the practice of Financial Aid Optimization and explain why a smart and dynamic financial age strategy is so critical to the 99% of institutions who rely on tuition revenue for their survival. Until then, thank you for your time.


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