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Recruiting Intelligence

The Data That Informs Us Part 1

The Data That Informs Us Part 1

This just in: undergraduate enrollment at the George Washington University fell nearly 25 percent this year based on preliminary estimates. That decline includes more than 600 upperclass undergrads and more than 900 international students. A budget impact of ~$76 million

This is only the start of the pandemic impact figures from institutions set to roll in over the next few weeks. 

But there's no time to wait around for the bad news. It's time to work with the data we have now

Fortunately, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has preserved a crucial record of the last few months that provide a wealth of indicators of what is to come: summer 2020 enrollment numbers.

Today’s post is the first in a three-part, data-focused series in which we’ll be diving into the latest enrollment trends and early indicators of COVID-19’s impact — plus what these findings mean for your marketing, of course.

The web has been rife with clickbait headlines and data from student sentiment surveys since the early spring, each claiming to predict COVID-era student decision-making in the fall and beyond. Despite our love for data around here, you might have noticed that we haven’t given these surveys much attention on this blog. 

Think: when was the last time you accurately predicted your own thoughts and behavior six months in advance? What about the last time you predicted anything in the evolving economic, health, and employment conditions of the COVID-19 reality?

Chances are, many students don’t even know what they want for tonight’s dinner, much less what decisions they’ll be making in the months ahead. And any of those surveys regarding their stated future COVID-era educational plans from six months ago? Well, we hope you took them with a grain of salt.

So much of the planning we see being done by individuals and institutions is based on hoping that things will improve in 2 weeks, 2 months, 6 months. Hope is SO important to developing vision and inspiring the team, but when it gets down to academic and business planning to execute on the strategic vision, stability is what feeds accurate predictions. We are sorely lacking in stability these days, making predictions far less reliable.

We look for data that can support the work – data that is not based on point in time records of hopeful sentiments.

In the National Student Clearinghouse’s newly released report, which includes data from 7 million students enrolled in May-July summer sessions across 2,300 colleges, we have our first look at concrete, behavioral insights on the enrollment effects of COVID-19 across various degree levels, institution types, and demographic groups. This is the type of data that gets our marketing gears turning.

 Read on for these early enrollment signals and a few hints at what’s to come.

These data offer the first opportunity to grasp the full range of effects on students and institutions of the host of disruptions the nation has weathered this summer,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on the new report.

And while some headlines have deemed these enrollment patterns “confounding, ” we’re not surprised by any of them. And if you’ve been reading the blog since February of this year, you’ll understand why.

Let’s discuss.

The Key Findings from NSCRC:

  1. Enrollment at both public, two-year community colleges and private, four-year for-profit institutions suffered compared to last year, down 5.6% and 7%, respectively. On the other hand, enrollments at public, four-year institutions and private, nonprofit four-year institutions increased, up 2.8% and 4.0%, respectively.
  2. Undergraduate enrollment growth in public and private nonprofit four-year institutions grew this year, driven by students aged 18-20, and by high school dual enrollees, with 8% and 17% growth, respectively.
  3. Public and private nonprofit four-year institutions in city and suburban settings had enrollment gains this summer, with the largest gains in private nonprofit four-year institutions where enrollments were up 7.0% to last year.
  4. Black undergraduate student enrollment suffered this summer, down 8.3% from 2019 numbers. That decline at community colleges was even larger, at 10.5%. Male student enrollment overall suffered similarly at community colleges, down 13.6% to last year.

Priority Shifts

If you remember our coverage of Naviance data from last week’s post, it’s clear that program costs and financial aid are the top factor in students’ college decision making. That 7% decline in summer enrollment at private, four-year for-profit institutions is expected given the new realities of family economics and historic levels of unemployment here in the US and many other countries around the world.

In times of economic turmoil, shifts away from longer, more expensive educational experiences (i.e. private, four-year institutions) to more cost-effective options are no surprise — see the growth in nonprofit and public institution enrollments this year.

That this growth in nonprofit and public institutions was driven largely by younger students and high school dual enrollees, is also far from a shock. With high school students’ education and crucial preparatory years disrupted this spring, they sought alternative methods at the college level to fill in the gaps this summer.

But what about that decline in community college enrollments? That typical increase in community college enrollments during recession years as workers attempt to upskill? Well, we aren’t seeing it, yet.

Our prediction? We might not see it at all this time around. At least not in the way we’re used to… More on that in next week’s post.

An Enrollment Gap: Equity Implications

The public health and financial data are clear: communities of color are being hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19.

The enrollment data tells a similar story. The systemic social and economic iniquities that already put strains on educational access for many students have been magnified by COVID-19, particularly at the community college level, where enrollment of black students declined 10.5% this year. Even Hispanic undergraduate student enrollment, which grew at the fastest rate of any racial/ethnic group this year, also declined at the community college level.

Said Shapiro of the findings, “Many of those most affected by the pandemic also appear to be losing access to college classes, even at community colleges and rural institutions that have traditionally served them.”

You already know that a one-size-fits-all strategy to recruit and, more importantly, to retain students is not enough.

Bottom Line: If these enrollment figures show anything, it is that it is now more important than ever to pay attention to the individual (and economic) realities of your student populations to preserve both student success and the diversity of perspectives that is crucial to any learning environment.

Our work has everything to do with securing successfully enrolled and retained student cohorts from diverse backgrounds – helping you build the kind of educational environment your mission statement espouses.

To do that well today, your recruitment efforts need to adjust to address future enrollment AND your on-campus student support/mental health services need to ramp up. From what we are seeing in recent reports and our first hand interviews with both domestic and international students, it is clear that the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic has taken its toll on students’ well being. And while fall 2020 students will tough it out for this semester, some are already considering alternative plans (housing, study or both) for spring 2021.

To retain your current cohorts, pour your resources into student outreach and support starting now. Despite the level of effort you are putting into this area, chances are, your institution is not doing enough. This is where having a predictive modeling system in place that identifies struggling students (that’s a huge percentage this fall), would help you focus resources where they are needed most. More on that in our upcoming ebook. (Our blog subscribers will be the first to know when it is out).

Next week, we’ll discuss exactly how the early enrollment indicators we’ve discussed above can inform your digital marketing strategy. Hint: it involves non-traditional student recruiting tactics. Concrete marketing recommendations ahead!

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