Rethinking is a theme that most of us utter daily, at least under our breath. As a road warrior whose existence is split between airplanes, counseling campuses, and the occasional kid’s soccer game or concert in one city or another, life in this pandemic has become a surreal and tiny fraction of a formal reality—too long ago to be a dream and too recent to be forgotten.
Over the past few weeks working from home, I’ve been talking to dozens of institutions about their situations, their responses, and their plans moving forward. Nobody has all the answers, and everyone is thinking and rethinking. And no one has mentioned the “demographic cliff.” Whether we like it or not, higher education is in deep trouble—but that doesn’t mean it’s time to quit; it means it’s time to get busy. For those willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work, the state of the industry presents an opportunity and for the rest, a gateway into a very different and darker world.
For years now, plenary lecturers, articles in the industry rags, presidents and provosts, data geeks, and enrollment leaders have been sounding the demographic alarm. “Look at the WICHE data,” they’d say. “The clock is ticking and our numbers don’t look good.” In reality, the cliff already arrived like an asteroid (nicknamed “COVID-19”) that accelerated and exacerbated the chronic demand-compression condition facing higher education. What was supposed to take years happened from the time the groundhog did not see his shadow to the time the first flowers sprouted in my Oregon yard.
Have you ever realized you were behind in a class or behind in a contest and needed to catch up? That’s higher education today. As a sector, we had been slipping into a market share economy from a growth economy for the better part of a decade. In February 2020, we time-warped five-years-in-five-weeks into a new normal. If you’re feeling behind, trust me—you are not alone! The key question is: what are you going to do about it? Here are a few ideas to get you going…
Step 1: Take a step back
No, this doesn’t mean stop, pause, or slowdown; this means elevate. Get out of the daily numbers and take a 20,000-foot look above the campus. We are in a market share economy—what does that mean? It means competition is real…and you need a winning strategy. NACAC deregulated and demographics don’t lie. If you are like most institutions, you need to stabilize or grow enrollment to survive. Only some will, so it’s important to recognize that winning means beating your competition. Does your current strategy have what it takes strategically, tactically, or otherwise to win? Keep in mind that you’ll find better strategies going down the beverage aisle at the supermarket for how to do this today than looking at your historical data or picking up competitive flyers at the next college fair (whenever that is).
Step 2: Bottom’s up
For years, the main strategy for many institutions has been to buy names by the thousands to fill up their funnels at the top to the brim. At many institutions, the more names, the better—resulting in the mentality that whatever the staff can manage, whether realistically or otherwise, has been the volume to achieve. Rankings criteria factored volume in selectivity, which further drove the trend. And while the top of the funnel was king a decade ago, the economic realities of market share have since slowly degraded the integrity of the high-volume and low-yield strategy as a viable method for matriculating a class. The degradation, of course, affected the weakest institutions first, while the middle class of institutions implemented CRMs and began in earnest to manage volume. And then, it all changed…
Today’s reality: COVID-19, testing delays, and demand compression are intersecting into the perfect recipe for shifting strategies from the top of the funnel to the bottom of the funnel, where it probably belonged in the first place. Yield and conversions are driving the strategies at the most successful institutions today, period.
Before COVID-19 and after, the strategic focus has needed to shift toward conversion and matriculation. That means recruiting people who will plausibly attend your institution and attracting them with amazing content. That means knowing your market position and owning it. That also means beating your competition for students with better strategy and communications, and measuring your results (i.e., using data) to drive decisions all throughout your cycle.
Step 3: Marketing is a thing
If you have to win, familiarity and reputation will have to be part of the equation. That means real marketing strategy and integration with all the key functions throughout the cycle. It’s amazing to see how many university marketing and enrollment operations are not collaborating, and equally amazing to hear faculty and staff bristle at the idea of marketing in today’s industry situation. This isn’t a growth sector anymore—you have to message the market, strategize your content, and personalize (i.e., segmentation) to prospects or risk falling further behind.
Step 4: Follow the data
In the old days, there weren’t as many risks to making mistakes. Growth was a foregone conclusion at many institutions, and data was helpful to guide selectivity or financial aid strategy of one type or another. Those days are long gone, yet it amazes me how many institutions still use intuition and hunches to drive their strategy. Academic research and rigor are what most institutions do for a living, while they rarely fund the required research to drive a data-driven decision for enrollment or reputation. Why? And while I’m on the soapbox: California and Texas aren’t growth markets for most institutions, and hunches aren’t often correct! (Off soapbox now.)
The reality is that the modern enrollment operation uses direct data (via IR and CRMs) and high-quality research to drive strategy, identify new markets and programs, and guide decisions. The new data frontier is in psychometrics versus demographics. If a yield-focused strategy is a winning one in this economy, then knowing what to say to someone to authentically attract them is going to win every time. In short: guesses are costly, and knowing is winning.
Step 5: Segmentation can save you or kill you
As communication technologies and Gen Z’s communication expectations have become more customized and personal, segmentation of specific messages to specific audiences has become a requirement. CRMs and other tools have improved the efficacy of segmentation, but many schools still do relatively little in the way of understanding which segments actually improve the conversion rate. To that end, it’s important to note that testing is the key criteria in more than just the COVID-19 virus! Running parallel content tests in your CRM can be the quickest way to understand what works and what doesn’t. Not doing this could make for tons of work in segmentation with little payoff in conversion. Also, focusing on segments that convert will be key. If you’re targeting undergraduates, limit the temptation to put specific program segments together as a category. Most students change their major several times, and this is the quickest way to remove yourself from contention if you miss the mark. Instead, focus on authentic psychographic factors that differentiate specific audience attractions to your school. The college decision is highly emotive for families, so there’s a much greater chance that tapping into emotions, desires, personalities, and aspirations will lead to greater yield.
Step 6: The communication flow is moving year-round
Comm-flow is changing and changing fast! COVID-19 and NACAC and demographic shifts saw to that. Many schools are in a position where they have a light communication strategy if any after May 1 until matriculation. Others transition the responsibility to student affairs from enrollment or marketing. Make no mistake, after COVID-19, things will be different. One real possibility is that recruitment will move into a more annual process. Summer melt communications and digital attraction will still be required, even after a student deposits, signs up for orientation, and picks their fall housing. The most successful schools are already planning for more robust and frequent communications and marketing. Bottom line: it’s not over until the student’s on campus.
Step 7: You cannot save your way into growth
Most schools have the concept that they want to grow in one way or another (total enrollment, specific populations, etc.). The COVID-19 and demographic cliffs are changing the way we have to obtain that growth. Today and for the foreseeable future, growth will be successful only through winning those students away from a competitive school. And growth isn’t an actual percentage either. Most schools will have to “grow” their market share to stay the same in raw numbers. It will take strategy, research, testing, and resources to accomplish this. My marketing 101 class back in college taught me that the biggest mistake you can make is chasing a larger percentage share of a shrinking market. Rule #2: You can’t save your way into a growth objective.
It’s time to develop a winning strategy
In these incredible and surreal times, it’s opportunity seekers and determined strategists who will rule the future of our industry. The time is now to rethink…everything. Too many variables have shifted to push the same strategy concepts for another year. All of this was already in motion before COVID-19 and will continue after. To win in this environment, you need to have a winning strategy. That means adaptation, flexibility, data-driven decisions, and a focus on what actually works on yield, like a strong brand and precise content segmentation strategy. Either way, this isn’t a bury your head in the sand moment. On the contrary, this is a moment to dig in and invest in your institution’s future. You can do this, and we are here to help if you need it.
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