The 2021 Landscape for Enrollment

Anne MonroeSenior Vice President, Client Experience and EngagementFebruary 11, 2021
The College Enrollment Landscape in 2021
Looking at the college enrollment landscape in 2021, it’s more important than ever to have a plan…even if you’ll need to pivot from time to time.

As I consider the work I have done over the years, both as a campus professional and at RNL in helping our campus partners overcome enrollment challenges, 2020 was certainly one of the most formidable years ever. The pandemic, social and political unrest, financial crises, record severe weather incidents…we all have had plenty to work through, and campuses were not immune.

Even considering the chaos of the past year, I have found that campuses with plans in place—strategic plans, enrollment plans, financial plans, technology plans, curricular plans—were better equipped to execute a response than those caught in a place where every day was a reaction to the previous one. Even though many of those plans were disrupted, having a direction to follow made it much easier for those campuses to pivot to a Plan B because they had a plan B.

Setting goals without a plan is an exercise in wishing

Now as we look at the college enrollment landscape in 2021, my question to our campus partners remains what is your plan? In my work with campuses, I have been continuously amazed at how many institutions do not do a great job at this. There are many legitimate reasons for this—time, resources, capacity, competency, leadership—but having an enrollment goal without a plan to support it is really just an exercise in wishing.

How should you start for 2021? By looking at your data and the current landscape, then developing goals and strategies to address areas of concern for your institution. It’s okay to still think about “the funnel” and make sure your fundamentals are in place before trying to grab on to the next perceived “magic bullet.” Then you can execute, monitor, and make changes where needed. It’s ok to pivot, but you cannot pivot for everything—sometimes staying the course is necessary.

Lead and inquiry generation is going to remain a concern in 2021

With fewer juniors able to take the test in 2020 and many institutions going test-optional, the names from traditional search methods and follow-up communications are not as robust. Increased competition for the attention of your audiences through website and digital platforms also means you have to ensure your outreach is reaching the students you desire and that your messages are relevant, timely, and spur action. This is why attention to search modeling as part of the name purchase process (intent to enroll) is even more important, and why website search engine optimization and a digital engagement strategy are critical moving forward.

How can you grow or at least maintain a diverse student population on campus?

2020 saw a sharp decline in enrollments from some of our most vulnerable student populations. The National Clearinghouse report shows the number of high school graduates going straight to college decreased by 22 percent in fall 2020, driven mostly by losses of lower-income and urban high school students. This along with the decline in community college enrollment are not good signs for ensuring this group of students has access and opportunity for postsecondary education.

How are things faring for 2021? While many selective colleges and universities are seeing an uptick in their applications (also due to a number of them going test optional), this is mostly from students and families with the financial resources to do so. Most other institutions, community colleges included, are seeing a decline in interest and applications. In addition to engaging students and families, working with high school and transfer counselors along with your communities is going the be important to ensure we don’t create a lost generation of students in 2021.

Affordability, student financing, and financial aid

In addition to strategy to drive the top of the funnel, campuses will need to be even more focused on yield efforts—and for a longer period of time. While not the only mechanism to improve yield, scholarship and financial aid packages are a key element of helping students and families understand their investment and move closer to yes.

Unfortunately, filing rates are down from the prior year, so a two-pronged approach to encourage families to file, along with a timely and informative financial aid packaging process, will need to continue through the spring and summer for 2021. Institutions are also re-thinking priority dates given concern about the applicant and admit pool strength. Students and families have always shopped around and will continue to do so this year, especially those students with options. This means communicating the award letter itself in multiple ways (paper, email, portal, phone calls, video) to both students and parents will be of utmost importance (think parent email communication, parent portals, parent phone calls).

Affordability, value, and outcomes have always been important as well. But in a time when students either have more options because of increased applications and acceptances—or where a subset of first-generation, low-income students are in great need of assurance and understanding that college can be affordable for their family—these messages are even more vital to the process.

Digital learning is a key part of the college enrollment landscape in 2021.
Even after the pandemic subsides, digital experiences will remain key components of searching for and attending college.

Continue to re-craft your campus visit experiences for students

The campus visit experience has always been a hallmark of the college selection process for students and families—and remains a great opportunity for campuses to showcase their best features and students through the traditional visit and tour process. Pre-pandemic, many campuses already had some version of a virtual visit, though it was often for international students or buried somewhere on the website because of the low quality of the experience.

2020 increased the need for a strong virtual visit, and this is likely to continue in the current college enrollment landscape. But aside from making sure we have a high quality, authentically representative virtual experience, many campuses have gone back to the in-person visit, so ensuring families the best experience while following safety protocols is a must. For those campuses that will be open to in-person visits:

  • Communicate the protocols of the visit from the beginning
  • Emphasize how you are following safety guidelines
  • Be ready to provide families with masks, sanitizer and other protections as your guests while on campus

Supplement the visit experience with follow-up communications from a current student or current parent to help provide assurance of campus safety and learning support services that are part of the student experience as well.

There will be a continuation of virtual learning and virtual student services

While many institutions were not prepared initially to make a full switch in this area, now that we are a year in, we are improving. Even with the promise of an ideal state to many students (and campuses) of fully face to face, a number of the things we learned about the virtual and online environment will carry into 2021 and beyond.

The flexibility and convenience provided to students through the virtual and online environment is still something students will desire going forward. Think about your physical campus set up. How many campuses have a “hub” for student services to conduct transactional business, or meetings with counselors or advisors in a face-to-face environment to work through course selection? This had to be re-imagined this past year, moving to online advising sessions and the adoption of portals, e-signatures, and other online options for students to conduct their business with the college. While some may want to return to seeing the friendly face, others will take advantage of the time and energy savings and continue to do this online.

Watch my discussion about the college enrollment landscape with Dr. Boyd Bradshaw of IUPUI

Boyd is the associate vice chancellor for enrollment management and chief enrollment officer at IUPUI and a respected higher ed veteran. He joined me for a LinkedIn Live discussion where we dove into these key topics facing all of us.

Having issues viewing the video? Watch it here.

2020 showed us anything can happen, so let’s be prepared for anything in 2021

The bottom line is none of us really know what 2021 has in store for us. I am an advocate of planning and strategizing for the short and long term and have helped many campuses do just that—before, during, and likely after this pandemic is over. There will always be disruptors and we will always need to be ready to make adjustments, but having a starting point and an end goal can help provide the parameters we need to guide us on this ever-changing journey through the college enrollment landscape.

We’re also here for you. Contact us and we can set up a time to talk about your goals, your plans, and how you can achieve greater success in an increasingly uncertain environment.

Talk with our enrollment experts

Let’s talk about how you can find the optimal strategies for digital marketing, inquiry management, financial aid awarding, optimizing yield, and other key actions.

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About the Author

Dr. Anne Monroe has been with RNL for more than 10 years, now serving as the senior vice president for client experience and engagement at RNL. She previously led the recruitment consulting division at RNL, and...

Read more about Anne's experience and expertise

Reach Anne by e-mail at Anne.Monroe@RuffaloNL.com.

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