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Research Report

Eliminating Enrollment Pain Points

Five strategies to increase applicant conversion rates

Liz Rothenberg, PhD, Managing Director

The applicant conversion challenge is exacerbated by the increasingly risky profile of incoming students. Over the past decade, more community college students are entering with remedial needs, applying for financial aid, and enrolling in college after years out of a formal educational setting (age 25 and older). These three factors place greater demands on college resources to help students navigate the enrollment process.

The five practices featured in this study offer guidance for college leaders to redesign administrative processes or introduce initiatives that eliminate the most severe enrollment pain points. The first three practices help students self-serve, and the final two outline strategies to serve students who require or prefer live support from professional staff on campus.

Strategy 1: Provide student ID numbers immediately

At most community colleges, students must present a college-issued identification number (ID) at each step in the onboarding process. During on-campus visits, our research team could not sit for a placement test or speak with an advisor until we could present an ID.

In 2012, Laredo Community College began to automatically admit all applicants to the college. Any student who submits an application, either in-person or online, is issued an ID number immediately, effectively enabling students to proceed through the rest of enrollment.

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Strategy 2: Create a sequential student web portal

A second barrier students face when trying to self-serve is navigating the sheer amount of information available on institutional websites. While the proliferation of online content is the result of well-intentioned initiatives, it can cause students to feel lost.

In 2014, the staff at Harper College redesigned the student portal internally as part of their Project Discover initiative, incorporating student feedback and optimizing for ease-of-use. Once prospective students submit an application to the college, they immediately receive a student ID number to access the web portal. The new web portal now features the most pertinent information for students based on their place in the enrollment process.

In the first year of launching MyHarper 2.0, call volume to the college’s registrar, financial aid, and business offices decreased by 12.8%.

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Strategy 3: Reduce higher ed jargon

Once students find the right content online, it is critical for them to comprehend the information. Unfortunately, higher education as a sector often uses foreign, industry-specific jargon, which students struggle to comprehend— especially first-generation college attendees, who make up over one-third of community college students.

Consider including website audits as part of staff training exercises and professional development retreats. New staff who enter higher education for the first time are well-suited to identify and translate jargon into easily understandable language.

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“We realized that we were explaining things from the point of view of the college, but new students don’t know that language yet.”


Dr. Joyce Romano, Vice President Student Affairs

Valencia College

Strategy 4: Recommend the right channel for questions

Most community colleges now offer students a multitude of options to communicate with a staff member directly: phone, email, instant messaging, and of course, on-campus support.

By explicitly making recommendations for the optimal channel for problem resolution on college websites, students will be more apt to pursue the appropriate communication channel for their enrollment question, without exerting excess effort.

To decrease incidences of channel-switching among their customers, MasterCard introduced a website feature we named a “problem resolution nudge.” Though MasterCard provides several channels for resolving problems, MasterCard recommends a single channel for customers who have questions beyond the information on the FAQ page.

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Strategy 5: Use a registration case manager

Many community college leaders have recognized the enrollment maze new students encounter and created onestop student services shops in response. Over half of all the colleges we visited for this study have one-stop shops on their campuses that centralize student services in a single location.

However, once students step into a one-stop shop, they still move from office to office to complete each step in the enrollment process—standing in lines at financial aid, walking over to advising, and waiting within one building.

Rogue Community College improved upon the traditional one-stop shop model in 2001 by introducing Rogue Central, an enrollment case manager model in which new students seeking in-person support come to a central location and receive help from a single, dedicated staff person.

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