“Enrollment Is More Than Recruiting. It’s Also Retaining Those Who Already Chose You.”

Scott JeffeVice President, Research (Graduate and Online)August 26, 2020

Adam Binkerd is director of student success at Indiana Wesleyan University, and he has some ideas on what institutions need to do to not only stabilize but grow during the pandemic. He spoke at the RNL National Conference, and the session was just too good not to share with our blog readers.

Adam points out that while student retention has been hovering on the fringes of recruitment strategy for years, it has now become a central part. In fact, it is one of his more emphatic beliefs. He said: “Enrollment is more than recruiting. It’s also retaining those who already chose you.” To this end, one of IWU’s successes—and one of the specific focuses of its strategy—since March has been a near 20 percent DECREASE in permanent withdrawals. In call after call, students told Adam and his colleagues, “I am home/I am out of work, and I want to add a class. This is a great time to focus on my education.”

Note that it all started with the calls. Leadership realized that all their “outside sales” recruiters suddenly had far less to do. Rather than furloughing them, they set a goal to personally call all 9,000 students—no script, just ask what the students were up to and how they were feeling. By July, the recruiters had called two-thirds of them. This was instrumental to their retention strategy.

Authenticity > perfection

The calls also confirmed something many had believed for some time: today’s student craves authenticity more than perfection. Adam links this to what he calls the “YouTube Movement.” As tough as the transition was, it is what American higher education has needed for years. Admittedly, it isn’t perfect, and it isn’t right for every student, but for an ever-wider segment of the audience, solutions that are more organic, more truly student-centered, and less “perfect” are what institutions need.

It just so happened that IWU was on to this idea prior to the pandemic. In fact, they were coming to the end of an 18-month planning process aimed at being more responsive to emerging student needs, with a goal (strange as it may seem) to create systems and processes that would allow IWU National and Global to be responsive easier and quicker. Some of the principles that underpinned this initiative include:

  1. Be responsive to your audience. Always listen for their needs and concerns. We have too long been too transactional: “We have something you want/need. If you meet our criteria we may allow you to have it.” This just won’t attract today’s students who are used to customized services.
  2. Recognize a need for change before its thrust upon you, and have processes in place that will allow that responsiveness to happen quickly.
  3. Don’t make any changes without hard data—from both employees (faculty AND staff) and students. Too often, “student-centric” means what internal stakeholders think students need rather than asking them what they need.
  4. Iterate on an idea and put it in place—knowing it is likely imperfect. Actually use the imperfect to seek feedback and then continuously improve the “product.” Never wait for the perfect, there is no time to lose.
  5. Build your strategies understanding not only those students you retained, but also those you did not. More often than not, you’ll realize that you can learn much by analyzing the students you lost—and often you’re realize that their reasons for leaving are more about a situation and less about a mismatch.
  6. Value relationships and humanity over policies. This has become even more important during the pandemic. You needn’t discard your policies (minimum GPA, minimum attendance, etc.), but you need to apply them with care and understanding. If you do, your students will appreciate it.

This may sound like a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of effort. It is, and Adam doesn’t try to imply otherwise. But one of his last lines of our conversation sums it up with “if we put in the work now—build new systems to facilitate easier change and responsiveness in place to rigid policies—we will be the ones who stay in the game the longest.”

Listen to my RNL@Home discussion with Adam and catch the RNL National Conference on demand.

I talked with Adam at length during our RNL@Home episode. You can also hear Adam’s session and all the other presenters in our on-demand sessions from the 2020 RNL National Conference. These are available to all who registered for the RNL National Conference in July, or you can purchase all of the sessions to watch now. Visit the RNL National Conference page to learn more.

About the Author

Scott Jeffe

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

Read more about Scott's experience and expertise

Reach Scott by e-mail at Scott.Jeffe@RuffaloNL.com.

Read More In: Enrollment, Student Success
Read More Blogs By: Scott Jeffe