How can colleges increase enrollment while also raising their academic profile?

Craig Engel

January 23, 2012

Colleges and universities often struggle with what appear to be two opposing goals: Increasing enrollment and maintaining or improving the academic profile of their student body.When it comes to setting enrollment goals, many colleges and universities often wish to both increase the number of students they enroll while also increasing the academic quality of their student body. Unfortunately, drastically raising student enrollment while simultaneously raising the test scores and GPAs of new students is extremely challenging.

The highest ability students—say those in the top 10-25 percent of the class—have many more college options available to them than other students. That means that in order to increase enrollments of high ability students, campuses need to increase merit scholarships. Even if a campus has significant resources to commit to merit scholarships and achieve this growth, it will come at a cost—usually a high cost that will have an impact on discount rate and average net tuition revenue.

There is, however, a great way to improve your class profile without incurring the significant cost of pursuing the top quartile of students: growing enrollment in the second and third quartiles.

Before I address how to grow enrollment and raise the class profile, I want to discuss the challenge of raising the academic profile. Years ago one institution decided that the best way to raise the academic profile of the class was to simply cut off the bottom 10-15 percent of the entering class. Over three years they accomplished their goal of raising the profile. They moved from being a U.S. News and World Report regional liberal arts college into the national liberal arts category while also improving student retention slightly. Unfortunately their enrollment shrank by more than 150 students (about 15 percent) in those same three years, which also came at a significant cost for the institution. It took several years before they were able to reach the previous enrollment marks of 1050 and 1100 students.

It is critical for a campus that is interested in drastically raising enrollment and academic profile to use an aggressive yet balanced approach, focusing on growing the mid-quartiles. This means aggressive enrollment strategies for growth and some changes to the academic profile.

The institution should conduct research to determine the impact of raising standards on their previous class or two (how many students that were admitted and/or enrolled would consequently not be admitted/enrolled by raising the standard). In addition, research should be conducted to determine how retention will be impacted (typically increased) with a change in standards. Other data I would review would be the ACT EIS (Enrollment Information Services) or The College Board EPS (Enrollment Planning Service) to see what their current market share is for students who are in the new ACT range, and how that will need to change in order to grow new student enrollment.

Once these first two steps are completed, strategies must be designed and implemented to increase the funnel with additional inquires, applicants, and admits. Strategies that can help include:

  • Segmenting search to target upper profile students with different messages
  • Increasing scholarship levels (while still maintaining net revenue needs)
  • Targeting out-of-state students or students outside of traditional markets
  • Targeting high school honors programs
  • Holding a scholarship recognition day
  • Placing more emphasis on academics and faculty in recruitment communications and on the Web site
  • Stressing off-campus opportunities such as internships and study abroad
  • Promoting graduate school placements and outcomes
  • Developing high profile academic majors, pre-professional programs, or new majors and programs to support enrollment growth

Keep in mind that implementing these approaches can also raise additional challenges and concerns:

  • Increasing the admissions criteria will likely change your competition.
  • Increasing your admissions criteria will likely result in lower yields.
  • These changes could affect referrals from high school counselors, as students they have referred to your institution in the past may now not be admissible. This could affect alumni referrals as well, and both instances highlight the importance of communicating changes in admission criteria to key groups who provide referrals.
  • If you focus on raising the academic profile by focusing on the middle two quartiles, this will eliminate students from the bottom quartile. Also, this could affect certain student populations (legacy and full-pay, to cite two examples).

Despite these challenges, enrollment growth and academic profile increases are possible. I have a colleague at Noel-Levitz who, as director of admissions over a seven-year period, grew enrollment from 1080 to more than 1200, raised the average GPA a tenth and the average ACT a full point, increased diversity from 8 percent to 23 percent, and lowered the discount rate for six of those years from more than 63 percent to 53 percent.

Finally, it is important when making such a significant enrollment shift that you research the situation and make all decisions after analyzing the data. Examine your market, your financial aid and net revenue, your academic program demand, and your funnel management so you can not only uncover strategies for accomplishing these goals, but uncover potential challenges. Your campus will also need a strong strategic enrollment plan; aggressive marketing of your programs, majors, and scholarships; and an institutional strategic plan that will support the student body as it grows with appropriate academic advising, student services, residence halls, and other vital resources.

If you have any questions about how to start down this path toward a stronger academic profile, please e-mail me. It can seem like a daunting prospect, but with the right research and planning, it is a very achievable goal that can ultimately position your campus more strategically in today’s competitive college marketplace.

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