Do your enrollment goals include enrolling better-prepared students? 3 factors to consider before raising admissions standards

Jim Hundrieser

May 12, 2011

Strategic enrollment planning requires careful and deliberate data analysis to determine what strategies are best-suited for an institution in the long term.This is the first part of a two-part blog post on strategic enrollment planning. Watch for the continuation to be posted soon.

Is the enrollment MO (modus operandi) at your campus to basically just fill seats—or are you also seeking to enroll students who are better prepared academically and a better fit for your academic programs?

In 2009, a survey asked several hundred campuses for their top priorities related to enrollment management. The results were no surprise. Administrators wanted to recruit students with higher academic abilities and students from more diverse backgrounds. Most respondents also wanted to increase their incoming class size. (Source: Next Step Magazine, Volume 7, Number 1).

However, based on our consulting experience, we know that these aspirations are generally not connected to a continual review of Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) which could serve to resolve competing priorities and guide goal accomplishment. Performance indicators provide a thorough understanding of the complexity to making such decisions. Further, we know that the aspirations are often not aligned with potential fiscal, resource, physical plant, curricular, technology, or co-curricular impacts resulting from increasing or shaping the entering class.

3 factors to consider before raising admissions standards

There are many things to consider when exploring the question to raise institutional standards while setting goals to increase student enrollments. A best practice, rarely followed, is for the institution to first conduct a thorough examination of how well its current market is aligned with the institution’s current state through a comprehensive, data-informed situation analysis. This analysis must include a thorough review of current institutional and state data provided through College Board’s EPS (Enrollment Planning Service) or ACT’s EIS (Enrollment Information Service), as well as other demographic and market penetration data to analyze the number of possible students available to meet the desired enrollment state.

If the institution desires to have more students who enter better prepared, campus leaders must answer several questions. First, do the demographics and current market level of preparedness indicate that there are more students who will meet the increased entering standards? That is, if the campus desires to replace students who will no longer be admissible with more prepared students, are there enough students at this level of preparation within primary markets to ensure enrollment remains or grows as the institution makes this transition? Also, given that even stronger students often have need for remediation in one or two sub-scores, will the campus be able to provide the support needed for these better-prepared students to maintain the level of rigor expected in all subject areas?

Another factor to consider in the situation analysis is the impact on net tuition revenue linked to a higher profile. Entering a more competitive recruitment market for higher-ability students may (and likely will) necessitate an increase in discount rates via merit awards or other incentives. In a time of struggling endowments or for institutions with small endowments, these scholarship dollars come from only one place: current operating budgets.

If the strategy is to enroll more and better students, what is the five- or potentially ten-year plan and costs to move the institution in this direction strategically?

The situation analysis should compare opportunities, challenges, and threats of making these decisions particularly if the strategy is to only replace students with lowering entering scores. Drastic decisions without a careful situation analysis may lead to dramatic decreases in enrollment and/or dramatic decreases in operating revenues.

The other cost assumption to avoid is that better-prepared students retain at higher rates. Don’t assume that better-prepared students will remain enrolled and thus revenues will increase. While for many campuses better-prepared students do persist and complete their programs at higher rates, each institution needs to examine what its net tuition costs are, i.e., if higher-ability students cost you more to enroll, how much more revenue will you actually gain?

Numerous campuses have been surprised to find through thorough data analysis that they lose their top-tier students to attrition and thus the dollars spent do not yield the expected results. Other campuses find the inverse: The best (and most expensive students to keep) stay while the lowest-tier students leave, increasing the overall discount rate over the four years rather than lowering the rate, which puts a further strain on campus resources.

Bringing better prepared students also brings higher expectations. Many campuses struggle during this transition to match the needs and expectations for high-impact/highly-engaging pedagogies expected by better-prepared students while continuing to service lower-prepared students. For this and other reasons, we strongly encourage the active involvement of faculty committees who share a role in setting admission criteria (typically through shared governance models) as an institution transitions to higher standards.

Read part two of Jim’s post: 6 more types of data to explore before raising admissions standards

Questions? Want to discuss your institution’s plans to adjust admissions criteria? Contact me by e-mail at jim-hundrieser@noellevitz.com.

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