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Enrollment Matters

Keys to a more effective enrollment strategy

Predictive modeling, demographic data, and some common sense can fine-tune planning
University Business, December 2013

It is a given these days for enrollment managers to be well aware of the national, regional, and state high school graduation demographic trends that shape the U.S. higher education landscape.

The eighth edition of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s “Knocking at the College Door,” for example, paints a clear picture of projections in aggregate numbers and race/ethnicity patterns. If you have studied the maps developed by WICHE, you know that:

  • Texas is largely carrying the South’s increase in students, while Pennsylvania is shouldering much of the Northeast’s decline, similar to Michigan in the Midwest.
  • Projections for the state of Texas, for example, indicate a 10.4 percent increase in public high school graduates between 2014 and 2019. Over that same five year period, the percentage of white/non-Hispanic graduates in Texas will decline from 35 percent to 30 percent, while the percentage of graduates who are Hispanic will increase from 48 percent to 55 percent.
  • An additional component of these demographic changes relates to the expectation of increased financial need based on historic family income patterns and race/ethnicity.

What other demographics should be on the radar screen of enrollment managers as they decide whether to ramp up recruitment efforts among certain subpopulations or in states where they have never recruited?

Although the projection of the number of high school graduates is a key metric, it should also be viewed in light of extremely important college-going rates. Here are some examples:

Again, using Texas as example, while the WICHE data project a 20 percent increase in high school graduates between 2008-2009 and 2019-2020, the college-going rate for 2008 graduates was 57 percent. That is below the national average of 63 percent, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

  • Many states publish not only county-level summaries of high school graduates, but also county-level college going rates. The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, for example, found that, in 2012, counties with college going rates of less than 40 percent were surrounded by counties with rates of 50 percent and higher. In addition, West Virginia provides county-level college-going rate estimates of students for both two- and four-year institutions.
  • In October, the National Student Clearinghouse released a study called “National College Progression Rates.”

Although not based on a nationally representative sample of schools or of high school graduates, the study looks at a broad sample of more than 2.3 million students over three years—roughly a quarter of all U.S. high school graduates from all 50 states.

The report showed clear differences in college-going rates between low income and higher income high schools for the class of 2012. (A low-income high school is one where at least 50 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.) Low or high income mattered more than the minority status of the high school or whether it was rural or urban.

For institutions considering the demographic changes taking place nationally, understanding these additional metrics will be important to determining the “where” and the “why” of future recruitment plans.

Religious considerations

Some institutions have special subpopulations of religious denominations that are critically important not only to mission but also to their enrollment stream. Consider private Catholic institutions, for example, and the declining number of both elementary and secondary Catholic schools.

Data from the Center for Applied Research for the Apostolate show a disconcerting trend for Catholic colleges and universities that rely heavily on enrollment of Catholic students. The number of students in Catholic elementary schools declined 20 percent between 2000 and 2013, while the number in Catholic secondary schools declined about 10 percent.

The number of schools also shrank. In its “Annual Statistical Report on Enrollment, Schools, and Staffing for 2012-13,” the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) said, “While enrollment has declined in all regions of the country, the largest decreases have been centered primarily in the Mideast and Great Lakes, areas that were populated by high concentrations of Catholic immigrants in the late 19th and 20th Centuries.”

Although NECA does not publish projections for enrollment at elementary and secondary Catholic high schools, the organization does provide recent enrollments by region, state, and diocese.

Another metric for Catholic colleges to consider is from the Higher Education Research Institute’s CIRP freshman survey. The report, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2012,” indicates that slightly less than 15 percent of freshmen traveled more than 500 miles from home to attend college. However, for Catholic colleges, the percentage was even smaller, at only 12.4 percent.

This means Catholic colleges that do not have a well-recognized national brand—such as Notre Dame and Boston College—should think long and hard about setting up shop to recruit in states far from their own, unless there is some other compelling reason to do so.

Migration patterns

Institutions should also keep an eye on state migration patterns—that is, the percentage of a state’s college-going high school graduates who opt to attend college out of state. IPEDS publishes those data, although not annually.

Connecticut and New Jersey, for example, are well known as “exporters” of their high school graduates. More than half of their graduates who attend four-year colleges do so out of state. In Florida, on the other hand, where there is a large college-going population, only about 12 percent attend college out of state.

Because Texas already has a large and increasing number of high school graduates, it is often targeted as a new or emerging recruitment market by institutions located in far away states. It is tempting for recruiters to look at a WICHE map and ask, “Why not Texas?”

Marjorie Hass, president of Austin College in Texas, says recruiters should first understand that many Texas students are bilingual, bicultural, and eager to pursue innovative careers that incorporate their diversity of experience and culture.

“Given the demographic shifts in student populations nationwide, many colleges and universities have begun recruiting efforts in Texas,” Hass says. “The old adage of everything being bigger and better in Texas translates in this case to high school students accustomed to a diverse culture and a varied demographic landscape within reach of the robust economies of our state’s largest cities.

“These students now find themselves ready for college adventures—and they expect to continue those opportunities in multicultural communities that enjoy the same rich diversity.”

Clearly, having an understanding of both the demographics and the “big picture” culture of a particular state is important in deciding whether to unleash a recruitment effort there.

Strategic decisions

So, what is a chief enrollment officer to do with all this information?

  • Ask yourself if your institution has a subpopulation—like the Catholic school example—that needs additional research.
  • If you are considering new markets for recruitment, use data and demographic information to determine if it’s the right market.
  • Monitor trends in your primary market. For example, is your institution prepared to invest in additional financial aid and academic support that an increasingly underprepared and needy population might require? Do you own your own backyard—that is, have you and your admissions team developed relationships with local guidance counselors and influencers to ensure that students in your local market understand your desire to have them enroll at your institution?

It is no wonder that many colleges and universities use predictive modeling and SAT/ACT services to assist with enrollment and recruitment planning to refine and target their approaches. However, enrollment managers should consider information from such approaches within a broader context of available demographic data and other research, and triangulate all the available information to fine tune planning and decision making.

Mary Piccioli is an enrollment management consultant at Scannell & Kurz, a RuffaloCODY company.