By Richard Garrett, Chief Research Officer and Eduventures Analyst Team
The NACAC 2017 National Conference, held here in Boston last week, says something about the essence of higher education. Thousands of high school and college counsellors and other recruitment professionals travel from all over the country – and the world – to spend most of their time not going to sessions. Contacts, relationships, networking, and yes, socializing, is what it’s all about. That’s how you get ahead, hit your enrollment number and build your class.
But there is also an anxiety about the art of recruitment.
High school graduating classes are shrinking in many parts of the country and questions of fit, debt and value for money circled the conference hall. Hallway banners proclaimed that NACAC membership has grown by about a third since 2011, but that’s precisely the period during which higher education enrollment has been flat at best. The latest Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions director reported at the conference that only a third of institutions had met their enrollment target by May 1. Shaun Harper, a professor at University of Southern California, and NACAC keynote, argued that minority students often lack the relationships to navigate college admission, and that at many colleges established recruitment networks hinder equitable enrollment.
Many companies exhibiting at NACAC want to automate, personalize and predict enrollment to the point that it becomes more science than art, beating the bushes for previously invisible prospects and crafting individualized messaging for traditional and less traditional students alike.
The co-location of smart, diverse people in a semi-structured environment sounds a lot like college. A mix of technology and interpersonal interaction will define the future of college and college admissions. Getting the balance right is the billion dollar dilemma.
Here are personal takes on NACAC from three of our analysts.
What is NACAC all about? It’s hard to say with so much going on: legions of high school guidance counselors, hordes of college admissions officers, herds of exhibitors, and more. All told more than 7,700 attendees came to Boston this week to convene on all things related to the recruitment and admission of college-bound high school students.
Some may find it hard to get the most out of an event that serves so many different stakeholders. But those who do benefit from attending NACAC come with one overarching purpose – to maintain and build relationships, new and old, in an ever more complicated world. For a college enrollment professional this means attending to the old-school tried and true personal relationships that colleges have with the high schools that send students and the vendor partners who have assisted them in the past. It also means exploring the potential of innovative future relationships with those same stakeholders to help your institution move forward in a dynamic enrollment environment.
To that end, the work of attending NACAC, is much like the work of college recruiting and admissions. It requires the thoughtful and strategic nurturing of relationships at its core.
Functionality v. Effectiveness
The NACAC exhibition hall was full of companies touting some kind of student-focused admissions technology, many of which sounded very similar. The key to developing any successful technology product is ensuring that you understand your users to such a degree that you move from “we can build our product to do X” to “what would this person need our product to do.”
At NACAC, many vendors try to address this “keeping up with the Joneses” problem in two main ways. Some simply assume one or two student personas – traditional student, millennial, etc. – and design their products accordingly. Others avoid the messiness of different student types and focus on functionality, such as receiving information via social media, communicating with currently enrolled students or CRM integration.
Both approaches, while simple from a product development point of view, run the risk of missing the larger goal: ensuring that technology meets students where they are and empowers them in the selection and application process.
What About Adult Learners?
The education enrollment management industry was on display at NACAC in Boston last week. By most measures, it is alive and well.
However, there was a notable absence of attention to the complex enrollment needs of non-traditional, “adult” students. Granted, NACAC is the go-to place for innovation in traditional undergraduate enrollment services. However, a quick test with vendors was revealing: how would you help a 27 year old, single parent with a ragbag of credits seeking an online or blended program to earn a computer science degree?
This query was met with a wide assortment of shoulder shrugs, head scratches, forehead slaps, and general confusion. Whether they offered a helicopter enabled virtual tour of campus, or a proprietary algorithm to “predict” enrollment, the answer was generally the same: “sure, we know there are millions of these ‘adult’ learners, but we don’t know much about them, how to reach them or whether schools would invest in managing their enrollment”. Ouch.
One exception was VisitDays, a company that helps colleges maximize the value of visits by prospective students, widely seen as a strong predictor of enrollment. VisitDays help schools fashion an experience for adults distinct from that offered to their younger counterparts, focusing more on the career ROI of particular degree programs and credit transfer assistance. VisitDays also enables schools to customize the types of data collected for different types of participating students. With online students often living near their school, a campus visit might be the counterintuitive thing that clinches enrollment.
For our take on the art and science of recruitment and admissions, access our latest Prospective Student Survey report, 2017 Prospective Student Survey: Mindsets During Search, on Encoura Data Lab, in which we highlight our six student mindsets. If you’d like more information on access to Encoura Data Lab, please contact our Client Research Team.