A New Day For Higher Ed Admissions

March 03, 2020  

At its 2019 national conference in Louisville, the members of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) voted to remove three provisions from the association’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. Two of these provisions dealt directly with incoming freshman populations (specifically, they were about offering incentives for early decision, and recruiting students who have already committed to other institutions). The third provision removed was one that prohibited colleges and universities from recruiting students who are currently enrolled at other institutions. If you’d like to read more about these provisions and the NACAC decision, EAB recently released a great report on the matter.

It’s not that the first two changes won’t have significant consequences of their own. But it’s this third issue — which will now allow schools to actively recruit already enrolled students — that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Here are a few reasons why:

The impact of negative press

Last month, I wrote about the spate of incidents relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion on campuses across the country. You can pick up any paper on any day and see that occurrences like these show no signs of abating. The biggest problems on campus aren’t only about race, though: some colleges are dealing with sexual assault, others with affordability, and still others with access — there’s no shortage of crises. But when one of these issues flares up on your campus, will the new NACAC rules put a target on the back of your institution?

Hear me out: Let’s say University X is currently dealing with some race issues on campus. There have been sit-ins, social media posts, and even suspensions, and articles about the campus climate and race relations at University X have made the national news. Could other institutions use these incidents to launch a strategic campaign that targets students of color enrolled at University X? While an approach like this raises questions of its own, it could look something like this:

Dear Chris:

We believe that the greatness of our campus lies in the richness of the many races, ethnicities, countries, beliefs, and abilities that are represented. Here at University Y, students don’t just belong: they are supported, they are empowered, and they are heard. Being who you are should never get in the way of a quality education. In fact, being who you are should inspire a quality education — just like it does here. Take a look.

And just like that, those students might start weighing their options — all because of a single negative news article about a very important issue.

HBCUs on the defensive

HBCUs could find themselves on their heels in this new world as well. These historically under-resourced institutions might have a hard time retaining their enrollees if larger universities with bigger budgets come calling, hoping to attract a more diverse class of students. How? With offers of larger scholarship packages and other incentives. And as competition in the enrollment and retention space continues to heat up, especially among diverse students, HBCUs could find themselves in the crosshairs. Consider this example: A rising sophomore at an HBCU, with excellent grades in a STEM program, might receive a letter like the following:

Dear Amanda:

We can see your future from here. Can you? With 125,000 square feet of state-of-the-art lab space, coupled with unparalleled instruction, University Z doesn’t just prepare our students for their fields; we prepare them to lead in their industries. And you could study here for less. How much less? We’ve enclosed information about our President’s Scholarship (for which you certainly qualify), which would bring your total out-of-pocket costs each year to under $XX,XXX. That’s a full $X,XXX less than what you may be paying now. Take a look.

Since there are only about 100 HBCUs left in the country (and new ones can’t be created), these institutions may have to work even harder to create strong affinity among their enrolled students. Otherwise, their very existence may be endangered.

The shift in marketing budget

To navigate this new admissions landscape, higher ed marketers will need to think about how they stretch their current recruiting budgets over a longer timeframe, while finding new dollars to make students stay. Smaller institutions will need to identify new, creative ways to get the same outcomes — or even better ones.

That might mean allocating more scholarship dollars, launching more intense marketing campaigns, and improving the student experience. It could also mean coming up with (and paying for) new ways to communicate with currently enrolled students to remind them why they picked your school in the first place. Maybe it looks like this:

Dear Brad:

Remember how stressful the college application process was? Remember coming to this campus from Miami, Florida, for the first time and finding your second home? We do. We also remember how you came to campus as an undecided major, but quickly found your path after excelling in English Literature. We remember when you declared your major in education. Think about how much more you know now, how much more confident you are, and how incredible your experience has been. Awesome, right?

We’re glad you’re here, Brad. We can’t wait to see what you do next.

One of the best ways to keep students from leaving: making sure the experience is so sticky that they don’t want to. And that has to start from the first moment they step onto your campus. We’re not talking about superficial perks like climbing walls and lazy rivers; this means truly customized communications, along with excellent advising, substantive support, and campus life programming to build a strong affinity for your institution.

It’s still too early to know what will happen in the aftermath of the NACAC changes. Some have already suggested that we’re entering a new “Wild West” for recruitment. What does seem clear is that campus marketing departments will have to carry much more water. But this isn’t just a problem for marketing to solve. This new world will force every corner of an institution to improve every single aspect of the student experience – because once a student starts looking at other schools, you may have already lost them.