It’s a harsh reality for many colleges leading up to the fall – no matter how much innovation and energy went into recruitment, you may be forced to wait until September to find out if marketing and admissions will look like a band of superheroes saving the day or a horde of zombies struggling to survive.
Leading up to fall, it’s natural to form theories about the places where the enrollment effort went awry, or to even have a list of areas you believe underperformed against expectations. It’s always difficult—but necessary—at times like this to take a step back and evaluate everything anew with the help of the team who led the charge. Naturally, the true heroes on your team will shoulder the burden of defeat, but don’t act too hastily in restructuring your teams based on perceived shortcomings. Unless you are able to commit a significant amount of time to sweeping changes in the short-term, it’s best to take a measured approach and make any necessary changes over time.
My CEO learned this approach from the military. After every exercise, teams assemble to evaluate the success of the endeavor and make iterative improvements going forward. While this is very helpful throughout the year, it becomes critical at key junctures such as right after an enrollment window. Bring together internal marketing and admissions leadership as well as support team members who are “on the front lines” as well as agencies/consultants. Make sure everyone has a voice and permission to share their analysis without fear of repercussions. Ask them to come to the meeting armed with opinions and data points (quantitative and/or qualitative) that provide context. Allow time for everyone to share their ideas without challenges or conjecture about each phase of enrollment. Log the ideas, then set aside time in the meeting for critical analysis to determine which points are most impactful. Based on the severity of challenges that lie ahead, you may elect to hire a research consultant for further validation.
Sometimes biases (good and bad) can inadvertently set your team up for failure. As an example, you may believe that your institution has a strong reputation in finance degree programs. While that may be true in certain industries, the campaign data may be telling you that the reputation you believe the school trades on may not be ringing true with your target audiences. This creates a situation where, if you are not actively messaging your school’s reputation in campaigns, you are essentially “selling upstream” to prospects who don’t have a strong knowledge base to compare your programs to competitive offerings. It’s important to critically evaluate test messaging in campaigns, identify biases and be open to challenging your own team’s assumptions about what is working.
Once the team has identified critical focus areas and established performance benchmarks based on past efforts, the next step is to set both realistic goals and stretch goals to keep stakeholders focused on improvement. When activities don’t have a benchmark for improvement, it creates an environment where people can lose focus.
There are many ways to improve performance without adding staff, time, money or outside consultants. But depending on the issues, you’ll have to be honest with yourself and leadership about whether improving performance requires outside help or additional funds. Having input from an outside consulting team may give you the perspective you need to validate the direction that comes out of review meetings. Sometimes the data may show the current budget allocations aren’t delivering the pipeline required to meet enrollment goals based on your school’s historical conversion percentages. If the situation calls for acting boldly, the most scary scenario awaiting you is not learning more about the challenges you face and dealing with a monstrous situation again next year.