Using Data to Inform Enrollment Management

Will Miller
Age of Awareness
Published in
14 min readJun 17, 2019


Recruiting Students Who Will Thrive

Enrollment managers play a critical role on every campus. While the outside world may focus much of its energy on faculty effectiveness, graduation rates, and career placement, a campus can’t survive without the ability to enroll or retain students. Especially in today’s era of lowered budget allocations and tuition discounting, the pressure is on to continually meet numbers. If a student leaves, he or she must be replaced. For enrollment managers, the goal is simple: use data to admit students who are likely to thrive and then use more data to help assure they are retained.

Setting the scene

As the president of a large, four-year public university looks out at 6,000 incoming first-year students during convocation, she is not just looking at hopeful faces. She is looking at the results of a roughly $3.5 million dollar enterprise. Between paying salaries to admissions counselors to cultivate relationships with students and their families, sending staff across the country to recruit prospects, hiring consultants, and producing marketing materials, her institution has made a substantial investment in every incoming freshman before that individual ever steps foot on campus. Far from being unique, it’s a scenario that reflects the majority of colleges and universities today.

As much as we hear about the escalating costs of higher education for students and their families, the costs of recruiting and enrolling students also remains high. According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s 2016 Cost of Recruiting an Undergraduate Report, the median cost of recruiting a single enrolled undergraduate in 2015 for a four-year private institution was $2,232 and for a four-year public it was $578. And this doesn’t account for tuition discounting used to lower student costs and boost enrollment.

In an era where enrollment numbers drive budgets at many (if not most) colleges and universities, a non-retained student represents more than just a missed opportunity. There is a significant cost to finding a replacement — in terms of both money and time. Education professionals sell a service — an educational experience, a degree, a career path, or ideally, all three — and the student as consumer is becoming increasingly informed in a sea of options. Regardless of some faculty frustration with the concept, students are consumers, and they signal their satisfaction or unhappiness quite openly. In fact, they may carry their federally guaranteed loans and tuition checks with them from institution to institution until they find the place they want to be.

As parents, legislators, and students alike lambast higher education for increasing prices, institutions continue to cannibalize each other in the interests of gaining the one additional student who they believe will complete their incoming class. In a 2003 New York Times article, Clare Cotton, then president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, described a situation that has since become the norm: “It’s exactly the psychology of an arms race. From the outside it seems totally crazy, but from the inside it feels necessary and compelling.” Institutions cater to students they hope to dissuade from attending other institutions, and by doing so, they make the product more expensive.

Mass mailings from the admissions staff lead to more applications, and that leads to more decisions for a high-school senior to make. Tools like the Common App and Naviance have made the art of applying easier and more efficient. The economic downturn and constant discussions about potential debt have made financial aid dollars far more valuable to prospective first-year students. This has led students to push the boundaries in terms of geography and consider different types of institutions. Rampant media speculation regarding the difficulty of getting into college pushes students to panic and apply at increasingly more institutions. Ironically, this becomes a perpetual cycle, as students apply to more schools — getting rejected from many — and further deflate admission rates for the next year’s class to worry over.

Students thriving — not merely succeeding

A thriving student is one who engages in all aspects of their higher education experience. In the classroom, through meaningful co-curricular pursuits, and even in social settings, thriving students find ways to focus on their own intellectual and emotional growth. Their commitment to holistic development makes them prime candidates for becoming proud alums with degrees in-hand. Yet, as those in higher education know, every college and university is different, based on the mission, academic focus, reputation, location, and other factors. An environment where one applicant may thrive could lead another to merely survive (or in a worst-case scenario, fail.) As an admissions director, how do you determine the qualities that suggest a student is prepared to thrive at your college or university?

1. Take a holistic look at your current students

No college or university will have a single profile of a thriving student. Different personas of those likely to thrive will emerge on a campus over a period of time. Your job when combing through the data (dare I suggest even data mining to help you not miss any possibly unrecognized connections?) is to find the students who are academically successful, are engaged with co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, report satisfaction when surveyed, and become loyal alumni and donors after they leave. Ask faculty, advisors, and student services personnel to name students they believe represent the vision you have for your campus. Then use this data to figure out what these ideal students have in common. Most importantly, try to determine what you knew about them based on their initial application (beyond the simple cognitive metrics) and how to identify more potential enrollees who are like them. In short, look past SAT scores and high-school GPA and think about high-school involvement, volunteer activities, and the content of admissions essays.

2. Make use of the right data

National reports may be useful in suggesting avenues of exploration. Even so, while you seek to determine what kind of learners thrive on your campus, remember that no outside report takes account of your particular student body. A report composed of generalizations about eight elite liberal arts colleges likely won’t have useful ideas for a large community college, for example. So, look at what expert reports are saying — but be sure to test their findings against your own data before blindly moving forward with initiatives just because a particular organization suggests you do so. Remove the data silos on your campus and work with everyone to get as complete an understanding of students who thrive, succeed, and fail to succeed. Only by assessing the strategies that work at your own institution can you hope to enroll the type of student primed for well-rounded success.

3. Keep new students motivated throughout the matriculation process

Colleges and universities must do a better job of helping students so they don’t second-guess their decision and think about the schools their friends are attending. Even with the wooing process over, institutions must still prevent a Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) mentality from dominating accepted students’ thoughts. If new students are stimulated and engaged, they will have less time to stew over the attractiveness of unchosen options — which will increase their happiness and willingness to explore new experiences. According to the 2016 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), 18 percent of graduating seniors and 16 percent of first-year students say they would definitely or probably not go to the institution they are currently attending. If first-year students feel this way, problems have arisen more quickly than a college would hope. Students are excited when they choose where to attend during the spring of their senior year of high school. But if you don’t capitalize on that enthusiasm as they approach the start of classes and even well into the first semester, you risk them being vicariously excited for (and with) their friends who are going somewhere else. Colleges have such intricate communication plans for incoming students, yet they’re haphazard at best when a student matriculates and officially steps foot on campus. Always ask yourself what you are doing every day to remind students they made a good choice in attending your institution. Getting them to enroll is not the end of the journey; it is merely a start.

4. Set clear expectations on what college means

Institutions should be more upfront with students about what the college experience will be like. Instead of focusing solely on enrollment numbers, focus on attracting the right student from the start by shaping expectations and helping them to better anticipate the need to adapt. Most importantly, remind students of the constant dangers in making social comparisons with their friends and peers from home. The viewbook can show how beautiful campus is and how happy students look, but there is a reality that can be lost behind glossy, vendor-created publications. And remember that all of their peers are experiencing the same scenario, regardless of which college they are attending — and more to the point, what they are posting on social media.

Admissions is asked to fill a class, but that should not involve enrolling just any applicant. Increasing the volume of mailing lists purchased from vendors, waiving application fees, increasing institutional aid, and accepting poor-fit students can help alleviate immediate budgetary concerns. But these decisions will ultimately cause even greater headaches in the near future. Academic success, student engagement, and retention will all suffer as a result and will lead to even more pressure to fill future classes. By studying the profiles of students who thrive on your campus, you will make more effective use of recruiting dollars, lose fewer students, and graduate more successful, engaged individuals.

Working Together to Ensure Students Thrive

Enrollment managers play a critical role on every campus. While the outside world may focus much of its energy on faculty effectiveness, graduation rates, and career placement, a campus can’t survive without the ability to enroll or retain students. Especially in today’s era of lowered budget allocations and tuition discounting, the pressure is on to continually meet numbers. If a student leaves, he or she must be replaced. For enrollment managers, the goal is simple: use data to admit students who are likely to thrive and then use more data to help assure they are retained.

Setting the scene

When an accepted student chooses to attend an institution, everyone should be cheering for them to succeed. But what classifies as success in higher education today? And does success actually matter more than the journey to achieving it? To some, graduating in four years is the sole measure of success. After all, the tangible reward at the end of college is a degree. Traditional metrics for success focus on retention rates, graduation rates, licensure exam passage rates, and post-graduation employment. But there is far more that occurs during four years of college than classes, grades, and graduation. Rather than merely persevering until commencement day, students should be encouraged to thrive.

A thriving student is one who engages in all aspects of their higher education experience. In the classroom, through meaningful co-curricular pursuits, and even in social settings, thriving students find ways to focus on their own intellectual and emotional growth. The ability to thrive will also be defined within the mission of the particular college or university in partnership with individual students. For a two-year technical program, success and thriving may include a student leaving without debt and being able to work full-time while fulfilling the degree. For a faith-based institution, thriving might center on students developing deeper spirituality and commitments to their religion. For a traditional, four-year liberal arts college, thriving will likely involve students growing academically and as individuals through curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular involvements.

Charged with fulfilling enrollment goals, admissions officers can find themselves torn. They may be forced to decide between enrolling the number of students a campus has budgeted for and making sure an incoming class contains only students likely to do well at the college. While an admissions director may struggle to advocate for an applicant who, on paper, seems like a less than ideal candidate, budget realities and pressure from board members and other senior administrators may lead to more borderline matriculants. Yet such decisions can ultimately cost a campus even more than the lost revenue from enrolling a freshman class of 799 instead of 800. Academic success, student engagement, and retention will all suffer if you end up having to recruit and enroll the replacement for a student who is a poor fit.

It is the work of an entire campus to make sure the student remains as happy as they are on the day they make their decision and pay a deposit. What makes this difficult is the reality of the situation they are entering. Enrollment managers spend years telling a student how wonderful their institution is to attend. But once the deposit is paid, faculty begin discussing academic rigor and assigning work. Meanwhile, student affairs professionals describe the difficulties of living alone, being away from home, and adjusting to a new community. Unlike what the direct mail pieces may show, college will be about more than student centers and intramural volleyball. But when is the right time to transition from marketer to realist? When does the new arrival stop being a consumer? Or do they? And most importantly, how do institutions balance the academic and social expectations of students while preparing them to thrive?

It is the job of enrollment management to identify and woo individuals who are positioned to thrive. Recruiting students who do not retain, fail to graduate, or never engage with campus life is a costly endeavor. Beyond real money, it can hurt faculty morale, campus climate, and most importantly, the student. In fact, graduating a student who does not engage with campus, does not feel pride in the name across the top of their diploma, and could have graduated from any other campus also bears a cost. Traditional measures of success in higher education are undeniably meaningful, yet students who go a step beyond and truly thrive on campus are the ones most prepared to be successful in the post-college world. If thriving were easier to measure, more professionals would likely turn to it as a telling metric. But campuses that devote the requisite energy to discovering what a thriving student looks like for them possess powerful information. They can benefit from it by making more effective use of recruiting dollars, losing fewer students, and graduating more successful, engaged individuals.

How to help students stay and thrive

Your campus may have a chief retention officer. But this individual should never be viewed as solely responsible for students choosing to remain at your college or university. Retention depends on faculty, staff, administrators, and students all working to create an environment in which students can thrive. This requires campus community members to feel empowered to make a difference. A security officer or housekeeping staff member may hear a student on the phone discussing how they wish to transfer. They need to know there is someone they can tell about this who will reach out and help guide the student through the decision. If everyone views retention as their responsibility, the odds of students succeeding (and potentially thriving) increases quickly and dramatically. As an enrollment manager, how do you work to assure stakeholders that students are well-positioned to thrive on your campus?

1. Put students first — in all you do

Before students ever have a chance to consider leaving, campuses should identify and address common reasons for early disappointment. For example, if a first-semester freshman doesn’t get into a course they really want, it can send them back to the list of schools they opted not to attend. So why do so few campuses not offer yearlong scheduling? A different approach could change the mindset of an otherwise disgruntled student: I may not get into the class for fall, but at least it’s on my spring schedule. The disappointment is more muted. Even better, the student is encouraged to approach the freshman experience as a yearlong commitment versus a semester-by-semester choice. Be innovative in designing policies and procedures that put the student first and at the center of decision-making — even if it makes the lift by faculty and staff slightly more difficult.

2. Be aware of social media

Social media has done little to help enrollment management administrators, as it leaves new students to overestimate the experiences others are having and how these compare with their own. Ten years ago, colleges and universities feared Thanksgiving — the first major holiday where students would travel home and hear about the experiences their friends from high school were having on their respective campuses. Today, the discussion begins immediately, and like all things on social media, the shared posts tend to present only half the story. We brag to our networks; we don’t discuss the negatives as freely. Campuses should monitor what students are saying to the extent that it’s possible. What might seem like a random student airing a personal grievance could merit internal discussion in an effort to ascertain the potential scope of a perceived problem. Likewise, work with the campus community — both in academic and student affairs — to encourage a creative and positive use of social media platforms to engage students. The goal for the first two weeks especially should be to connect with new students in meaningful ways. Continual outreach can discourage students from comparing the choice they made to the opportunities they passed up.

3. Be willing to predict — holistically

Predictive modeling can help us determine which interventions and programming to offer to which students. Rather than reaching out to everyone with broad strokes, campuses should use focused, data-informed invitations to increase the chances of student participation. Imagine a model that produces percentage odds of a student’s likelihood of returning for their second year or graduating on time based on a series of variables, including high school GPA, test scores, demonstrated financial need, gender, major, non-cognitive factors, and distance from home. Each variable is weighted based on past predictive capabilities and allows us to better focus resources on groups of students who are potentially at risk. Through the model-building process, you will have the opportunity to talk through key considerations: balancing information about past students while attempting to determine how your new student profile is likely to perform. The model should be regularly updated to reflect changing realities of your student population. And it should include more than just cognitive and demographic variables. It’s true that knowing a student scored an 1100 on the SAT can suggest possibilities for academic performance. But even better information may be knowing the same student is high in academic self-efficacy and very low in academic engagement. This pattern suggests that the student’s midterm grades their first semester of college may be a little surprising and discouraging.

4. Involve students in the conversation

At the end of the day, students are far more likely to speak with other students openly on why they are succeeding or perhaps struggling than to a campus administrator. Recruit student leaders to conduct focus groups and individual interviews with students to determine what is working and what could be improved. And be sure to cast a wide net; you don’t want to gain feedback from one specific subpopulation and think that you have a campus-wide consensus.

Once students enroll, retention specialists bear ultimate responsibility for assuring students stay enrolled, but it is everyone’s job to help them succeed and, ideally, thrive. By using a framework to identify the thriving students on your campus, you can gain valuable insights that can in turn help shape incoming classes and position future graduates for lifelong success. And your college or university will thrive, too.

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Will Miller
Age of Awareness

Assessment and data guy. Higher ed administrator. PhD from Akron in urban studies and public affairs. Fan of sports, politics, and the Florida life.