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Survey Reveals Top Concerns of Admissions Leaders

Episode 193

April 23, 2024 30 minutes


EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer and Lorianna Mapps discuss the top concerns shared by admissions leaders as they begin to hear back from accepted applicants. From dealing with the revised FAFSA to navigating their involvement with various direct admissions programs, admissions teams face significant change and uncertainty. Madeleine and Lori discuss the challenges and offer advice on ways to adapt while supporting staff who are feeling the pressure.



0:00:13.7 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB, with decision day looming and admissions teams across the country working feverishly to hit enrollment targets, a new EAB survey reveals the top challenges keeping them up at night. Our guests are veterans of the enrollment wars and offer insight into how today’s admissions teams are adapting and working around these challenges. So give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:46.4 Madeleine Rhyneer: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Madeleine Rhyneer and I’m the Vice President of Consulting Services and the Dean of Enrollment Management at EAB. In case you recognize my voice, it’s probably because I’ve recorded several of these podcasts in which we dig into the inner workings of recruitment to explain and sometimes demystify that area of university operations. I’ve worked within and led several enrollment teams myself, and now I spend my time talking to senior leaders at colleges and universities across the country discussing the challenges and opportunities of admission efforts today, it’s a tough job, and for most, it’s getting harder all the time. I’m not telling you anything that you don’t know, but one of the things we do at EAB is research what’s happening at individual campuses across the country to identify common pain points that may point to larger trends. And then we work to identify potential solutions to share with our friends, like you, the listeners of this podcast. And among the diagnostic tools, we use our surveys, we collect responses from individuals and analyze them to spot patterns and trends, and then we develop actionable advice. And with me today to talk about one such survey is my great professional colleague and my friend Lori Mapps. Lori, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your role at EAB?

0:02:05.1 Lorianna Mapps: Absolutely, Madeleine, and thank you for having me today. I’m a senior consultant and principal with EAB, and so my role includes providing consultative services to partners from various types of different institutions. So I can help partners decide recruitment strategy, but also how to reach more students, how to impact admissions office staffing when there’s high turnover. And even more important this year, how to yield students in a time wind forecasting enrollment has become increasingly difficult. So I spent 23 years total in enrollment management with institutions like the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas Emory University School of Law, the University of Houston, and Howard Community College. So I understand the very many different problems that different types of institutions can have. And that’s a little bit about my role here at EAB.

0:03:01.8 MR: Awesome. Well, thank you. It’s a broad portfolio and that gives you kind of a great perspective to comment on our topic today. So Lori worked on our annual survey of admission leaders. And tell us… Can you tell us our listeners, what it is that we set out to learn in this year’s poll?

0:03:18.2 LM: Yes. Every year our marketing and enrollment division conducts an annual survey and we survey enrollment leaders to help identify the top concerns of today’s enrollment leaders. So we use the results of this survey to guide our research for the upcoming year, because we wanna bring research to you that’s relevant, that’s timely and that’s important to what you are dealing with as enrollment leaders. This year we explored 10 potential focus areas and they ranged everything from international student recruitment to what the ongoing mental health crisis means for recruiting students. And we wanted to find out what enrollment leaders see as their top areas of focus. So I recently wrote a blog post that highlighted the four top highest ranking challenges enrollment leaders face. So I’m excited to talk to you about this today.

0:04:13.1 MR: Well, awesome. Well, let’s jump right in. What is the number one concern that enrollment leaders say they’re facing?

0:04:19.7 LM: Yeah. At the top of the list is non-consumption. And to explain that term in case you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s the term we give to high school graduates who opt to not attend college after graduation. So 54% of our enrollment leaders had interest in non-consumption and were concerned about it. And so non-consumption, but also how to attract students who are deciding against college. It’s a major concern. Can we still grab the attention of those students who are opting not to attend college? If we could enroll the students who decide against college, maybe we could counteract the declining enrollment rates that may be due to demographics and market share. So big, big concern for enrollment leaders. I wasn’t necessarily surprised that non-consumption was at the top of the list. There’s so many articles out right now, so many sentiments, statistics out about students and their families questioning the value of higher education. So that’s at the top of the list.

0:05:21.0 MR: It doesn’t surprise me either, Lori. And one of the things that I’ve often thought and shared with friends in conversations is, as an enrollment leader, your job used to be you were talking to students and family supporters of students who were going to college, and your job was to help them understand why your specific institution may be a really great fit for them and their interests and their aspirations. And I think the job has gotten a lot more complicated. And this trend really started pre-COVID, although it was exacerbated, I think, during the COVID years of non-consumption. Now we have to talk to students who may well be on the fence, and they’re trying to counteract a lot of negative media that they’re hearing. And there’s just a lot of, frankly, skepticism in the market about the value of a college education and some false narratives. So two pronged, you have to talk them off the fence into believing that potentially going to college is a very good decision for them, and then talk to them about your institution. So I think it just, it feeds into this notion of it’s not getting any easier to be an enrollment leader, is it?

0:06:22.2 LM: Absolutely not. Yeah. I talk to partners and enrollment leaders all the time and that’s the conversation we have. Yes, we have to convince them to come to our school and that our college is the best fit for them, but we gotta start at a much lower foundation and say, “Hey, you need to come to college, period” And so yes, that is increasingly difficult. I would say it’s more of a concern for our less selective colleges. They tend to see it as a greater challenge than our highly selective schools. But it is a concern amongst all institutions at this point.

0:07:01.9 MR: Thank you. Okay, so let’s move on. What did the survey say was the second top of mind concern for enrollment leaders?

0:07:08.2 LM: Oh Madeleine it’s the benefit of FAFSA. I am thinking that if we had conducted this survey in January or February, just a few months later, we might’ve seen the FAFSA as the number one concern. Since that FAFSA has been a moving target since December, we were all kind of anticipating this past summer, oh this fall, it’ll come out by December 31st, it’ll be open to students. We went from that sentiment of will it open in time to, okay, now it’s open, but just for this small window or it’s open, but we’re getting a lot of errors. And so I tend to a college in the Northeast who received seven ISIRs in their first delivery. So they’re a little bit apprehensive about what that was gonna look like a 1000 in their second delivery. But they’ve had so many issues with data integrity and corrections needing to be made.

0:08:03.3 LM: So it’s definitely, definitely a hot topic for many institutions. And just for clarification an ISIR is the report that the Department of Education sends that summarizes the information submitted in the FAFSA, and it’s what helps schools and colleges determine what type of financial aid package as students will get. So very important to get that data from the FAFSA. And then when we think about FAFSA and its impact to yield, we could probably talk Madeleine for 30 minutes just on this one topic, but there’s still more decisions that are being made even as we speak in regards to FAFSA and how it’ll impact yield. Do we move our deposit deadline? Do we make our deposits refundable until the majority of our offers have gone out? So a lot, a lot going on with FAFSA this year. And just the many uncertainties that our enrollment leaders are going through right now.

0:09:00.5 MR: Yeah, I completely agree with you. Honestly, I think if we did the survey now, the only item on the survey would be the FAFSA. People are frustrated, people are frustrated on behalf of their students and the families that they serve there. Every time there’s a rollout, then there’s kind of a new thing or a new list or new guidance or advice. It’s been an extraordinarily difficult year, and I have a technical term for it. I just call it a hot mess. Yeah, it’s just a hot mess. But people are… Budgets are created on expectations about enrollment. Student futures are created or dreams are dashed based on their ability to afford going to college or their ability to actually complete the form when you can’t even go in and make corrections yet. I just, I think it’s extraordinarily difficult. And I think all of us at EAB have been advising to try and just lead with high empathy because you actually can’t do anything about it. Everyone is a victim here.

0:09:53.3 LM: Absolutely. And our leaders are having to be, flexible of course. But thinking about how flexible can we be in the amount of not having information? And so I talked to a director of a college in the southeast, and their admissions team was training on how to answer very explicit, or not explicit, but very intense financial aid questions because they’re down to one financial aid counselor. And so the staff turnover in the midst of FAFSA uncertainty. Absolutely. Madeleine, I’m in agreement with you. It’s a very trying time to work with financial aid this year.

0:10:39.8 MR: Yep. Well, okay moving on. What else is keeping enrollment leaders up at night?

0:10:49.2 LM: Yeah, Madeleine, I think the resounding sentiment and I can even say the third highest concern for enrollment leaders is actually how to manage the parent relationship. So we know that parents are the number one influencer in where a student will attend college, right? And so that number one influencer, colleges are trying to figure out how to engage with parents, what to tell them how to recruit the family in addition to recruiting students. So engaging parents in this new era when students are not only actively including their parents in the application admission campus visit process but even at times we are finding students relinquishing the decision of where to go to college to their parents. And so colleges are trying to grapple with that. Our smaller schools chose the increased influence of parents at a higher rate than at our medium and larger colleges.

0:11:49.9 LM: And that may have to do with the increased competition they face to attract students. But our parents of today are not that different from our students of today. They want direct communication from colleges. They want it on various platforms and they want information that is relevant to them. So not only having to manage communication plans and outreach to prospective college students, but also their families is a challenge for our colleges. Getting that right amount of messaging we don’t wanna annoy the parents, right? But getting it at the right time with the information that parents will actually use to help influence their decision to attend college at at our institutions is the challenge right now.

0:12:38.3 MR: The role of parents is really interesting. I know you’ve heard me say, I am so old that I would never in my generation have said, we are going to college. I said, I’m going to college. And I was extraordinarily fortunate because my parents supported that and were able to provide some financial support for me to go to college. But this generational shift in mindset of we’re going to college, it is a family decision and it’s a family fit decision, a family financial decision, sort of all the things that family members think about in terms of what’s right for the family in addition to what’s right for the student. I also wonder a little bit we know that students are sort of delayed in their adulthood in many ways. Students are later to learn to drive and get a driver’s license, which can be one of the lines of demarcation of emerging young adulthood.

0:13:26.7 MR: And I also wonder if some of the role of parents is influenced by students delaying their decision making and not feeling comfortable, honestly making decisions without strong parental influence. And this is not a criticism of students or where they are emotionally, it’s just acknowledging that they actually may feel less emotionally and intellectually prepared to make those decisions. And they really need the support of their families. And so then the challenge, again, as you pointed out, is how do enrollment leaders actually effectively engage their parents with the information that they need in the form that they’re looking for it so that the parents can feel good about whatever decision it is they’re supporting their student through?

0:14:07.3 LM: Absolutely. And I think there’s this type of shift that we have to have as institutions. I talk to colleges all the time where a faculty will say these students just aren’t prepared as they were five years ago. And that’s statistically true. We’re seeing that in exam results, standardized test results as well. And then I talked to those who have been in the admissions profession for a while, and they say I used to not talk to students or talk to parents. I would only talk to the student. And when a family comes in, I’m only gonna talk to the student. I’m not going to address the parent. And so there’s a cultural shift that it has to happen and a shift in the way that we think about students.

0:14:51.5 LM: You are correct Madeleine. There is a bit of confidence missing in that coming of age into being a college student. One of the biggest transitions is going to college, but also equipping students with being able to make decisions on their own. We have… Once students come to college, they do have to make decisions on their own. And so it is a bit difficult if you can’t make that shift in, okay, it’s a family decision. This is a family endeavor. But I think this year and the last five years there’s been a shift in, okay, how do we cut the cord when the student eventually comes to college and has to make those decisions on their own. So a lot of shifts happening there. But parents, increasingly important colleges are acknowledging it. And we know that it’s one of the things that we have to focus on if we want to influence a student to attend our institution.

0:15:53.7 MR: Awesome. Well, and Lori, as if three aren’t enough, what is the fourth thing that we’re gonna talk about that rounds out those concerns of enrollment leaders?

0:16:02.0 LM: Yeah, rounding out is the fourth highest concern or top of mind topic for enrollment leaders, and that is direct admissions. I’m going to guess that there’s a number of reasons why it’s at the top of mind of our enrollment leaders. First there’s kind of this fuzziness, vagueness around the term direct admissions. Everyone’s hearing about it, right? But what exactly is it? How is it different from reverse admissions? Are state mandates like the top 10% rule in Texas considered direct admissions? Is automatic admission considered direct admissions? I mean, there’s so many different versions of it out there. And I think enrollment leaders are just trying to grapple with what it is, whether it will be effective for them and whether it can be a game changer for enrollment. It’s really grown a lot in the past couple of years.

0:17:00.4 LM: And again it’s frequently brought up as a means… Could this increase our enrollment or impact our enrollment or help us potentially reach a new market that we haven’t sought out before. So just as a point of clarification, the gist of direct admissions or the intention behind it is that it is making it easier for students to get admitted to colleges many times without the barrier of completing a traditional application for admission. And again, getting colleges names and brands out there to students who may not be familiar with your institution. So many college enrollment leaders are seeking guidance. Should I pursue direct admission? Does it actually work? What is it like to offer direct admission? How does it change my recruitment plans? How does it change what my staff’s doing? Really, really big, huge topic. And I think those are some of the reasons why our enrollment leaders, that direct admissions is at top of the mind for them.

0:18:00.0 MR: Yeah, I think you’re completely right. It’s interesting, I think it’s 27 states. So states have instituted a direct admission program of one kind or another. Again, as you so adeptly pointed out, direct admission can mean many things. And I’m often thinking about private institutions that are in the states where the state has launched a direct admission program. What is my response? And maybe I’m moderately selective, so I’m not sort of… I’m not the lowest rung of selectivity, and maybe I’m feeling relatively comfortable about meeting my enrollment goals. But if this is a thing in my state, and it’s a thing that students and families are hearing about, is this a thing that we should be… Do we need to even consider it? Do we need to look at what are the implications for us if others are doing it and we should decide not to do it necessarily ’cause I think your advice was spot on about is this a potential lever that we could use to be successful in gaining access and reaching more of those wonderful, worthy and needy students? Or is it not gonna be appropriate for us given who we are? What do you think about the impact of those state mandated plans versus the ones that private independent schools might be choosing.

0:19:17.0 LM: Yeah, this is interesting you bring this up, Madeleine, because I was talking to someone yesterday about direct admissions and this is someone who lives in an area where, or in a state where the state mandate has just come down. So we talked about it and it kind of feels like an invitation to apply instead of a direct admissions program. And so private institutions still have the opportunity to pursue direct admissions, especially in a state where there is a direct admissions program, because there’s still fuzziness there, and it’s still is direct admissions adjacent, but maybe not direct admissions in its true form. And so we were talking about the different forms of state direct admission programs and how they could be viewed kind of as an invitation to apply, not necessarily a here’s your offer of admission with a scholarship offer.

0:20:12.8 LM: And again, it just speaks to the many different forms that direct admissions is presenting in different states, but definitely an opportunity for private institutions. I think the concern is we don’t wanna be left behind if there’s this lever that we can pull, we don’t wanna be the institution that’s not doing it. And so that FOMO or fear of missing out impacts all of us. But yeah, I think it is definitely worth exploring for our private institutions, even in states where there are state mandated programs.

0:20:47.1 MR: What do you think about Match programs? The kind where it’s an affirmative offer of admission when a student wouldn’t even know, so I’m not a state resident, so it’s not a state mandated program. An institution knows enough about me to think, Hey, we think you’re a really good fit and we’re gonna offer you admission through a Match program. What do you think about that as one of the potential versions of direct admission?

0:21:13.5 LM: Yeah, what I’ve seen so far is that there are certain groups that it’s having more of an impact on for admission purposes. Most recently, I read about underrepresented students or traditionally underserved students and their increased admission rates, because of direct admission programs. I’m not sure that we have enough data though yet to say, oh, this is a game changer and it’s going to increase enrollment for students who may not have known about your institution. But the trend there, the KPIs that we have so far are speaking pretty positively, especially to that population, so it’s promising. Madeleine, I think really, taking the burden out of, okay, which college do I apply to? How do I keep track of the deadlines? Which colleges need essays? That’s a big support or advantage of these Match programs is not having to do that. Maybe filling out an abbreviated form, and then getting an offer of admission and of scholarships.

0:22:27.5 LM: So again what the success of them, so far, our KPIs are looking great but I think over time, we’ll be able to tell, okay, how does it work, and how successful is it? I think one of the things that I spoke, and Madeleine, I might have actually spoken to you about this recently was even if you have a Match program or a direct admission program, don’t abandon what you are doing with your traditional search efforts. There are a couple of schools out there who put all of their eggs in the Match basket, and that’s okay too, but really thinking about getting your name out there with Match is one of the tools in your arsenal. But really thinking about not abandoning that traditional search function yet is really important. And then there are some institutions that are like, we wanna do Match. We just don’t know what to do. We need help. And there are a variety of folks out there willing to help you with that. And so there’s a lot left to learn.

0:23:40.8 MR: So one of my big hopes for Match is we’re well aware of that phenomena of underrepresented students under-matching in their college choices. We also know that it’s sort of DEIJ neutral or can be. And so these for institutions that are still very interested in not just meeting enrollment goals at large, but about special populations that they care about serving. I think Match programs are a great option. But I also think you very appropriately point out everybody needs a broadly diversified portfolio of everything. Sources from which you gather names or prospective students, it’s as you use the phrase, they put all their eggs in one basket, you can do that, but I think that’s a much more risky proposition today, both in terms of how you’re sourcing your prospective students and getting information about them so you can communicate with them about your school, and then also about application programs that you might have.

0:24:37.7 LM: Absolutely.

0:24:38.5 MR: Well, Lori, it’s early spring. The flowers are blooming. We’re hoping for great weather for those final admission yield programs. And we know that some of our friends have already scheduled yield programs in May, because they know with the delayed financial aid awards that they’ll need to continue to create those opportunities for students and their family supporters, but it’s really crunch time for admission offices and enrollment leaders. So based on what you learned from the survey, what advice would you offer them and their institutional colleagues to achieve their goals over the next few months, and then as they’re making plans for the next cycle?

0:25:12.1 LM: Yeah, I think first and foremost, over communicate this year, both internally and externally, a lot of our enrollment leaders are facing challenges or concerns among things that are unknown still. And so we’re all hungry for information, students, the staff that are working with students, enrollment leaders, and that information sometimes is just not available to us yet. I’m talking to you FAFSA, but how well those delayed FAFSAs and decrease in FAFSA completions impact enrollment? We don’t know that yet, Madeleine. It’s a little nerve wracking for us. Are students going to deposit in mass once they receive their aid awards and there’s so much unknown. No one likes surprises, but if there’s anything enrollment leaders have come to expect, and have come to be very good at, it’s change in uncertainty.

0:26:09.1 LM: So I would say over communicate to the students you’re serving, Hey we just received your financial aid report. We won’t call it an ICER to students, but and we’re gonna start packaging you and/or internally, hey there’s now a student aid index instead of an EFC. So if you’re basing anything on need within the college, there may be a different way to look at this. So really thinking about that over communicating, I’d say continue to be flexible. If COVID taught us anything, it’s that we can be flexible and we can do it really quickly. I talk to leaders all the time where I say, when are we gonna have a normal year again? And I cannot not predict that at all yet.

0:26:57.3 LM: I would say a third piece of advice, take care of your teams. As much as we are not certain about what’s happening, they really aren’t, and they’re frontline with students. And then hand in hand with that, celebrate the wins. They may happen later this year, but celebrate the wins as you have them. We can focus so much on that uncertainty and the challenges that are before us, but thinking about those wins and celebrating them when we have a good, great morale booster, but also keeps your eye on the details, the day-to-day, as well as the big picture. So hang in there, enrollment leaders, we’ve gotten through things before. We can definitely get through this. And last piece of advice, I know I said I would just give a few, but one thing that I just thought of as well, Madeleine, connect with your peers. The surveys like this help us determine what concerns are out there and knowing that these sentiments are shared among enrollment leaders, talk to your peers about what they’re doing. I know we’re all in competition with each other at some point, but your fellow enrollment leaders have the same concerns you do. So depend on your friends, hang in there, and fingers crossed for a normal year sometime soon, but I don’t think it’s coming.

0:28:22.5 MR: Lori, you make me laugh that there is no normal in enrollment. I will say, people would say to me sometimes, how do you do the same thing year after year? And I said, ’cause it’s never the same. At a minimum, it’s new students, new families, new opportunities, but often the institutions we represent, there are new buildings and new academic programs and new off-campus study programs, and there’s all… Colleges and universities are organic. They’re always changing and growing, and so it feels like a revitalization each year. So normal is, yeah, and what I would hope for is a year of less disruption than this one next year. I think we can reasonably hope for that for our enrollment colleagues.

0:29:07.1 MR: And the only additional piece of advice that I would offer is enrollment leaders, as you’re taking care of your team, take care of yourself. I’m talking to a lot of people that are leaving it all on the playing field, and they’re exhausted. And I value you and salute you for the hard work that you’re doing, but this is, it’s both a sprint and a marathon, unfortunately, this year. And so to the extent that you can take a moment and celebrate the incredible great work that you and your team have done, and celebrate them for their work, but internally, I want you to be thinking about how much you’ve contributed, how hard you’ve worked. And I know because enrollment’s a numbers game and I’ve been there, how hard you worked doesn’t always equate to the result the institution is looking for.

0:29:53.3 MR: But I think internally, we have to be able to honor ourselves and the good work that you’ve done and everything you’ve done to create those windows of opportunity, you’ve opened the door for wonderful students and their family supporters to build better futures, build better lives. And that’s the thing that I hold on to when I’m thinking, oh my goodness, I’m just, I feel downtrodden. So I hope that this maybe has helped you knowing what your friends are concerned about, all across the country, and Lori’s excellent elucidation of some thoughts about it. So thank you Lori, so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure talking with you about these topics. And thank you all so much for joining us on Office Hours with EAB.


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