Why More Applications Are Resulting in Less EnrollmentTerry Babbitt | Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management, University of New Mexico
The college admissions process has been called unwieldy at best and deceitful at worst. The primary reason for this is an overall lack of consistency and transparency of which some of the harshest critics are professional insiders.
This doesn’t mean colleges and universities are dark places with promises of false hope for a better future. To the contrary, despite sustained criticisms of higher education costs and value, it has become increasingly apparent that completing a credential beyond high school is the way to a better future for individuals and society. It’s clear that crossing the finish line of college completion is worth whatever it takes to be in the race, but the starting line, a multi-year process for some and a few hours for others, of searching, identifying and applying for admission to college may be more brutal than the race itself. Colleges are pursuing more applications, students are obliging by applying to more places and confusion reigns as to who ends up where and how they got there.
Let’s try to make sense of the madness and prescribe some practical remedies.
It’s no secret that today’s admissions directors and enrollment managers have a new set of challenges on their hands. Fewer students, more competition and for the first time a questioning of the value have closed some institutions, reduced enrollment at others and put everyone in the industry on notice that disruption lingers. Even so, the number of applications for college has increased approximately 75 percent in the last ten years and students submitting seven or more applications have doubled. However, more applications and fewer students have caused the average yield rate across all institutions to decrease from 40 percent to around 35 percent. It could be said that technological advances that have facilitated more student activity at the beginning of the enrollment funnel also provide potential solutions for colleges to address the aftermath. For example, nearly infinite access to the internet allows a vast amount of college choice information to be harvested by prospects without ever being on the institution’s radar. In fact, the most important marketing tool for colleges and universities is their website so why not make the information exchange two-way instead of one? The pathway to university information for prospective students 15 years ago was a response to a massive search or inquiry leading to a string of materials including viewbooks and countless other direct mail communications that looked very similar. We’ve gone from one-way institution to student to one-way student to institution but today’s process can be better for all if technology is deployed to make the communication a two-way process.
An unhelpful rankings arms race has contributed to the application boom where the most selective institutions that accept less than 50 percent of their applicants compete for higher levels of interest to occupy the same number of seats. These colleges enroll only 20 percent of all students in the U.S. but receive more than one-third of the applications. They are the upper class neighborhood everyone wants to get into but also receive the most criticism about admissions practices that favor legacies, do not favor high need, thrive on opacity of the process, and expand demand for self-serving purposes among other purported transgressions. On the other hand, those with selectivity between 50 percent and 85 percent admission rates enroll 70 percent of the students. We will focus on this segment where most students enroll to consider why fewer who are admitted actually end up attending. At the University of New Mexico, we have experienced a 28 percent increase in applications over the last two years, and a slightly decreased admit rate. Fortunately, we have had success in targeting good fit throughout the cycle and maintained a consistent yield of 42 percent. Keeping yield level with a slightly decreased admit rate allowed us to slightly increase our draw rate. What this really means is that we were able to target good new prospects leading to increased overall admits and a stable yield resulting in meeting an increased enrollment goal. The keys to steady yield for those of us in the middle class neighborhoods is to focus less on blindly increasing applicant pools, apply analytics to refine prospect search and personalize the engagement for those interacting with us.
We had a declining yield rate each of the previous five years and needed to change what was taking place in our enrollment funnel. To perform the analytics necessary to determine better search successes, we utilized a combination of approaches to produce what we needed including the use of internal sources where skillsets permitted, smaller vendors with turnkey tools that don’t cost a first and second born and limited scope consulting. Subsequently, Provost Chaouki Abdullah created the Institute for Design and Innovation under the direction of Professor Greg Heileman to centralize a resource consisting of highly skilled staff and graduate students who can quickly respond to the fast changing demand for advanced analytics at UNM and other higher education entities. The result has been rapid advances in large scale application of analytics driven by reasoning engines and data warehousing frameworks with custom visualizations. Our current endeavors focus on combining digital marketing innovations to connect a vast amount of prospective student behaviors with analytic tools to learn even more about activity throughout the funnel and its predictive meaning. Our experience of moving from basic to advanced demonstrates that there is an opportunity for action at every level of college and university.
It may be that admissions practices in the United States are on the verge of reform that improves the process for students and institutions including increased transparency of what it takes to be admitted and a decrease in the drive to emphasize admissions data as a variable of quality. It is more likely that there will be some version of the status quo amid a very slow transition to the former. Given that circumstance, colleges and universities must continue to improve their understanding of and influence on prospective student behavior throughout critical decision points. Technology has helped create a monster and can help tame it through marketing automation, multichannel strategies, website personalization and nearly limitless collection and analysis of associated data. You don’t have to be moving into machine learning, the Semantic Web or the Giant Global Graph but you do have to be moving.
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 Papandrea, Dawn (2015) Outlook on enrollment: Perfect storm of challenges ahead University Business, January 2015. Accessed at http://www.universitybusiness.com/article/outlook-enrollment-perfect-storm-challenges-ahead
 Hanover Research (2015). 2016 Trends in Higher Education Marketing, Enrollment, and Technology
 Clinedenst, Melissa (2015). State of College Admission, National Association for College Admission Counseling
 Institute of Design and Innovation Showcase (2015). Accessed at http://showcase.academicdashboards.org/
Author Perspective: Administrator