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Outlook on Access & Enrollment: Proving higher education's value

Educating students' families on admissions and financial aid frightens some administrators
University Business, January 2016
A majority of campus leaders surveyed by UB expected graduation and retention rates to increase.
A majority of campus leaders surveyed by UB expected graduation and retention rates to increase.

Higher ed leaders continue to seek ways to prove their institution’s value to a shrinking pool of college candidates.

In addition, a huge financial aid cloud hangs over everyone’s heads: the one with that odd moniker of “prior-prior.” While the hope is that FAFSA modifications will ultimately benefit students and institutions alike, 2016 is the big transitional year when changes go into effect (for the 2017-18 academic year), and it could make for a bumpy road. Or worse: It has the potential to turn admissions and financial aid offices into a land of confusion.

This new sense of urgency will require higher education leaders to start thinking about the 2017 admissions season as soon as possible—even while they’re still making decisions for the 2016 incoming class. This big issue and more lies ahead in the world of college access and enrollment.

Getting ahead of prior-prior

Here’s a quick crash course: Students will be able to file a 2017-18 FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, 2016, and they can do so using the family’s 2015 tax returns (so instead of the prior year’s tax figures, it’s the prior-prior year’s, hence the name).

Trending/Fading

What’s trending

  • Throwback to quality print marketing materials as a way to stand out
  • Targeting community college students as potential transfers
  • Better transfer orientationss
  • Providing access to top-tier institutions (via the Coalition for College Access and Success’ new application platform, coming in April 2016)
  • Marketing robust academic programs to potential students, including more practical and professional studies at liberal arts college

What’s fading

  • Unlimited social media marketing experimentation (some schools are scaling down efforts where there are uncertain results)
  • Ramping up amenities or discounting tuition to attract students
  • Access to prospective students’ college selection lists
  • MOOCs as the ultimate solution to college access

This could lead college-bound families to expect that an earlier FAFSA filing will result in colleges sending award letters out sooner. Or, at the very least, they’ll want to see a school’s published tuition price before they apply.

One thing’s for sure: Institutions will have to do financial and enrollment planning much earlier than in the past, says Jerry Lucido, executive director for the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California. “They’ll have to set tuition earlier, understand housing rates earlier, do projections earlier.”

While it’s uncertain how long it will take for schools to acclimate to the changes, the first year will be the problematic, Lucido predicts. But managing the transition well could present a big opportunity for the colleges that aggressively get out in front of the changes. “Prior-prior can be used as a fulcrum to get out better information about aid, indebtedness and value,” he says, adding that the wisest administrators are already beginning to plan.

And as you’ll see below, such information campaigns will become an increasingly vital recruitment strategy.

Another big FAFSA change is that colleges will no longer be able to see students’ college selection lists, says financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz.

In the past, having access to this information helped in predicting class size and getting a read on the competition. It even helped admissions offers prioritize which students to contact (applicants who listed their institution first, for instance).

Attracting students, making college affordable

Increasing enrollment will be the second highest priority for top campus leadership in 2016.

Three- quarters of the approximately 100 chancellors, presidents and provosts surveyed named that goal as one of the four highest priorities among 10 items listed. Increasing selectivity, however, was named by only 4 percent as a priority.

Among the 95 admissions, enrollment and marketing readers responding to a separate survey, almost two-thirds expect enrollment to increase modestly or significantly; about one-third expect no change.

First-generation students, non-traditional students (such as older adults) and students from other states are a few populations that schools are focused on growing.

Top admissions and marketing actions for the coming year include focusing more on data to track the entire student lifecycle, as well as creating new articulation agreements to make transfer to or from the institution easier.

In the area of financial literacy, 80 percent of respondents have a formal initiative. Popular actions for the coming year include plans to expand outreach to current students and more actively counsel students about the financial implications of academic decisions such as choice of major and course load.

These programs will focus more on student loan debt as well as on broader financial literacy issues.

“The FAFSA changes will make it more difficult to predict what the yield is going to be,” says Kantrowitz, who has written extensively about financial aid policy and has testified before Congress about student aid on several occasions.

As prior-prior rolls out, schools will not only have to plan earlier, but do so without the predictive benefits of students’ college selection lists. A bumpy road, indeed.

Targeting students in new ways T

he changing demographics of college students means that schools might be forced to handhold more families who haven’t experienced the admissions and financial aid processes at all. “The only growing segment in the traditional U.S. college-going market is made up of low-to-modest income students, most of whom are likely to be first-generation students,” says Lucido.

With staff already stretched thin, the prospect of having to educate families, too, frightens some administrators. There’s even pressure on higher education facilitators to go out to middle-schoolers to talk about curriculum, and how to save money for college, says Luke Schultheis, vice president for admissions and enrollment management at AACRAO.

The problem? “There’s a real gap in ability, in skill level, and who’s available for what,” he says, resulting in “lots of talk, but not lots of action.”

That’s where you’ll start to see colleges and universities forming new partnerships to disseminate information. For example, he says, “Some colleges partner with nonprofits like The Posse Foundation that prepare first-generation students with much needed social capital like knowledge about the admission and financial aid process.”

College Advising Corps is another like-minded group; its strategy is to send recent college graduates, who are often first-generation students, into high-needs high schools to counsel students on admissions and financial aid.  

“Starting earlier than senior year is helpful,” says Jaye Fenderson, co-producer of the documentary First Generation and co-founder of the newly launched Go College Now initiative with Wells Fargo. “The more schools can work with community-based mentoring organizations—the boots on the ground—to get that information out there, the better.”

Arizona State University has had success with this approach, essentially using ambassadors to spread the word in the local community that the school is affordable and that it offers a quality education. Working with organizations in the metro-Phoenix area, ASU has increased the number of first-generation and low-income students by a large percentage, Fenderson says.

Playing defense

As families grow increasingly price sensitive, they’re beginning to ask higher ed institutions about return-on-investment, Kantrowitz says. He predicts administrators will need to talk more about things such as net price, as well as the intangible benefits of a college education such as learning life skills and cultivating relationships, if they want to convince families that a post-secondary education is still a worthy investment.

In other words, says Schultheis of AACRAO, institutions must be proactive about explaining how their pricing will pay off in the long run—almost from a defensive position—to address negative media messages about indebtedness and post-college outcomes.

“We’re stuck in the cyclone of noise. Instead of touting the wise investment in higher education, the media really hammers home this linear relationship between owing money and how much you’re going to earn on the job,” he says. “Many of my colleagues struggle with this.”

For the next year or two at least, colleges will have to promote outcomes, says Lucido, as well as be empathetic to families who are facing financial struggles. “It’s important for us to continue to make our value proposition.”

Dawn Papandrea is a Staten Island, New York-based writer.

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