Today’s Chief Admission and Enrollment Officers have access to more student data than ever before. This is both good and bad as it’s a question of whether the right people have the right data at the right time and are able to turn it into something actionable. Additionally, understanding and utilizing this data may require increased staffing and/or budget, which can be difficult to secure in these lean times. 

On top of accessing and utilizing large amounts of student data, there has never been more pressure to execute sophisticated multi-year recruitment strategies. These strategies are expected to yield not only the desired number of students but also students of sufficient quality and diversity, while hitting specific targets for net tuition revenue. In this decade, there is also the much-anticipated cloud of demographic shifts that are already affecting all but the most selective institutions.

As part of these recruitment strategies, most admission operations at four-year institutions have already tried to tap the international student market to the extent possible. In addition, four-year institutions should have streamlined transfer processes and articulation agreements to attract some of the 6 million students taking credit courses at community colleges.

Admission operations responsibilities extend past replacing recent graduates. Typically, the number of graduates is considerably less than the number of first-year students who enrolled. Some of the least known (and seldom talked about publicly) statistics have to do with the often anemic four-year and even six-year graduation rates from four-year institutions. This highlights a “leaky” pipeline in the journey to successful graduation, pointing to an opportunity, as well as an issue that needs addressing.

For example, the most recent statistics from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) offer ample evidence that there are serious challenges for enrollment management after students enroll, specifically pointing to the graduation rates, which can be shocking.

Let’s start with the assumption that most parents are expecting to pay for four years of attendance at a four-year institution. (Certainly, my daughters were aware of that assumption.) However the data actually suggests a longer timeline is typically the case for many. Although graduation rates have improved greatly in the last ten years, they are far short of everyone’s expectations.

The average four-year graduation rate at four-year non-profit institutions has never reached 50%! At four-year public institutions, it has never hit 45% and, the average enrolling at for-profit institutions remains less than 25%. Shocking? I think so. And even more shocking is how few people know these realities and statistics. Since Federal financial aid eligibility lasts for 150% of the degree program, most reported data is for six-year graduation rates. Sadly, even the six-year data are nothing to brag about either. The average graduation rates for the three types of institutions are <68% at private non-profits <63% at publics and, for-profits <32%.

Of course, those fortunate enough to be admitted and who can afford a highly selective institution tend to fare better. That, however, is a very small fraction of those in college. The result of all of the above attrition has caused the creation of a new classification of students – SCNC – Some College, No Credential. The NCES now reports this new group as exceeding 40 million students! And, it is growing every year.

In the meantime, admissions staff are “beating the bushes” to enroll an ever-increasing number of new “replacements” from a declining population. While retention efforts have usually improved on campus, once students leave there is rarely an attempt to re-enroll these students and potential stop-outs are made into drop-outs.

In terms of focusing on retention efforts it’s been said that institutions need to continue to recruit their first-year students into becoming sophomores. Poor retention rates from the first year to the second year students would certainly confirm this. Retention is often everyone’s problem and yet, no one’s problem. If you were to ask ten people on campus, “Who’s responsible for retention?” you are likely to get ten different answers. Or, the answer is something along the lines of, “It’s everyone’s responsibility.” In other words, it’s no one’s responsibility. Is it mentioned in someone’s job description? Are there goals and clear metrics? What gets measured, gets done.

Hopefully, there isn’t an expectation for their admission office to be in charge of retention as their focus is on recruiting the next cohort. Only in some larger enrollment management divisions might you find a “retention czar.” Even then, retention efforts depend on cooperation with offices such as financial aid, orientation, academic advising, residence life, athletics, registrar, bursar, and more. It’s imperative that a discussion at the cabinet level take place if these disparate offices are going to “play nice”. Paramount is the role of faculty, especially in the core curriculum and introductory courses.

You can see the complexity of “enrolling” the first-year students into their second year, and that’s with everyone on campus. Furthermore, you can see why few institutions also have additional staff charged with re-engaging the aforementioned stop-outs. It may be time to rethink and reevaluate the upside of re-enrolling these SCNCs.

Who wouldn’t be interested in increasing retention rates, boosting graduation rates, expanding the alumni base, and adding more net tuition revenue? Some state governments are even beginning to incentivize or penalize institutions based on graduation rates. Voters want more positive results from their investment in public higher education and the state expects an educated workforce as a result of their budgetary allotments. I can’t think that any trustees, presidents, provosts and CFOs wouldn’t want to explore this untapped pipeline to yield better results for all of the above and their institutions.

But, where do you begin? A good starting point is to work with your institutional research office to access the National Student Clearinghouse data to discover how many of your stop-outs have graduated or are not currently enrolled elsewhere. While you’re there, check on the enrollment status of students you admitted in the past years who chose not to attend. You can come up with a “clean house list” of potential students after eliminating those with very poor GPAs or other institutional issues that would not make them attractive candidates to re-enroll. 

After obtaining this information it’s time to look at internal processes to see what unnecessary hurdles exist due to institutional policies. Are there workflow issues that can be streamlined for re-enrollment, financial aid and registration? Do the cost-benefit analysis.

After reviewing processes and numbers, it still comes back to the question of “Who will take this on?” When considering actionable strategies for re-enrollment and increasing graduation rates, it’s crucial to understand if you have personnel with the time and skills to take this on. Or, do you explore outsourcing elements of the project? Effectively managing student data and recruitment requires a continuous and collaborative approach. Institutions need to strike a balance between the ambition of their strategies and targets and the practical considerations of implementation. 

Written By: Michael Sexton