#EMchat and #FreeCommunityCollege Transcript!

What a great chat last night! Check out the transcript below. All of our #EMchat transcripts can be found in our archives -- lots to learn. Thanks to our contributors this week, Ben Kohl, John McGreal, and Yolanda Norman! 

New Answers to Old Questions

I just celebrated my three-year anniversary as a Vice President for Enrollment Management (thank you, thank you). I have had ups, I have had downs. I have had my fair share of fun and a handful of memorable feuds (en-garde!). Above all else, I have learned a lot. Sure, it has been a steep and accelerated learning curve but I had higher education pegged for just that very early in my career. It has been an exciting, worthwhile ride that I don’t want to stop any time soon.

Maybe it was the anniversary, or yet another snow day in New Jersey, but I started thinking about what I would have done differently if given the chance. For the answer, I kept harkening back to my Boy Scout (okay, Cub Scout… wait, did I make it to Webelo?) days – Be Prepared.

My biggest adjustment was in assessment and, even more specifically, budget justification. In this age of assessment it is more important than ever to own it; own your shop, own your data, and know how to move the needle when needed. I started thinking about how I could relay these thoughts to new or aspiring Enrollment Managers in a relatively concise manner. This is what I came up with.

I will take New Answers to Old EM Questions for $1,000, Alex (Williams):

Question: How effective and efficient is your recruitment strategy?

What it means to you: What is the cost of recruiting a single student?

What is the ratio of new students enrolled to full-time recruitment staff?

An Enrollment Management operation is extremely complex; hiring and training, travel, advertising, printing, social media, postage, name buys, and systems development and maintenance are just some of your responsibilities. What isn’t complex is your charge: recruit and retain the right students for your college or university.

One way to assess your operation is to compare your input and output against other institutions. The 2013 Cost of Recruiting an Undergraduate Student Report from Noel Levitz is a great resource for formulas and invaluable benchmarking data. If you think you would be more effective with more recruitment staff, have the numbers to back it up. Once you are comfortable with the big picture; break costs and ratios out by specific student populations like in-state, out-of-state, international, freshmen, transfers, and any subset in between.

Question: What are your retention and graduation rates?

What it means to you: What are your retention and graduation rates? (See what I did there?)

Are your retention and graduation rates appropriate?

Quoting and explaining retention and graduation rates is one of the more straightforward jobs of an Enrollment Manager. (Note: As to not derail my current stream of consciousness, I will save my speech about how retention and graduation rates are currently calculated for another time. Writing that post will require a fireplace, a smoking jacket, and a glass of fine sherry.) The rule of thumb here is to assume whoever you are speaking with knows your retention and graduation rates and you are being tested against College Navigator figures. Straight and to the point.

On the other hand, predicting expected retention and graduation rates based on the types of students institutions enroll rather than national averages is both a novel idea and brilliantly higher ed. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) has produced a nice study that allows schools to compare actual and predicted retention and graduation rates. Essentially, the strategy applied by HERI expands the traditional set-list of variables used to project college success by adding more personal characteristics and indicators. For instance, were you the first college choice for a student? Do they intend to graduate from your institution? Do they have to work full-time while in school? Pretty important stuff.

Question: Who are your competitors?

What it means to you: Who do you compete with directly?

Who do you aspire to be like?

The Admission Office can most likely tell you where most of your accepted, declined offer students will be enrolling this fall. You also have the National Student Clearinghouse to determine where your withdrawn sophomores ended up. While this is great information, it only tells half the story. Create peer and aspirant lists to help determine who you are and where you want to go. Several institutions, like Coastal Carolina University and University of West Florida, have made this information public but most use these lists for internal, strategic planning purposes.

I suppose there are varying levels of aspiration. Big picture aspirations may include things like academic profile, programs offered, number of full-time faculty, facilities, and endowment but I tend to think smaller. Who is successfully recruiting regionally on a local budget? Who is incorporating free design and content improvements to their website? Who is leveraging institutional and gift aid most effectively? Am I laying the theme on thick enough?

Well, we reached an abrupt end to a relatively concise post so let's keep the chatter going. What are some other vital questions or topics for up-and-coming Enrollment Management professionals? Own it.

Say Goodbye to the "Admissions Guy"

The year was 2003. I landed my first admissions gig after short, and wildly disappointing, stints in Corporate America and a community-based organization. I was immediately hooked to the pace, the people, and the competition. I was being paid to travel and meet interesting people. I was given a stage and all the coffee I could drink. Life was good. My professional foundation was based on a simple idea; students and families would select me as much as the institution that I represented. I would make my mark developing new feeder schools, yielding the un-yieldable, and outworking the competition. In retrospect, while noble, this initial philosophy was sophomoric (pun intended). I was looking at the recruitment process in a vacuum; one devoid of vital socioeconomic, academic, and systematic factors that help drive college enrollment and success. Nevertheless, I wanted to be The Admissions Guy, Mr. Fix-It, The Funnel Master, and The Counselor Closer. And at the time, this was a perfectly effective way to begin a successful career in enrollment management.

Well, times they are a changing. A couple months back I sent out a tweet. It was one those “hey, this may or not be a clever thought, let me write it down just in case” throw-away notes.


I learned my belief that the next wave of enrollment management leadership will come directly or indirectly from financial aid side of the house is shared by many. Think about how priorities and resources have shifted on your campus. Large public universities are emphasizing fiscal responsibility, transparency, and compliance more than ever before. Small private colleges are focused on leveraging, long-term viability, and net tuition revenue. This is heavy stuff.

My concern is we are still working in silos. My rock star Admission Counselor is doubling applications in a target high school, why would I take them off the road to send them to a NASFAA Basics workshop? Our new Assistant Director of Financial Aid is managing $50 million in federal and state grants; they don’t need to concern themselves with the admission funnel. Are these valid? Of course! They are also short-sided. I fear we are becoming too one dimensional in enrollment management. We must ask ourselves, at what point do we become so specialized that the human element, so crucial to successful enrollment management, is no longer an asset?

This is not a new idea. One of my go-to articles on this topic – The Next Wave of Enrollment Leaders by Eric Hoover (@erichoov) – helps define what a professional development plan for aspiring EM’ers should look like. I would add that the trends and near tragedies of the last two years have proven that much of this increased emphasis should be placed on financial aid. Ambitious admission professionals should be jumping in with two feet. Don’t stop learning until you have a nightmare about Pell reconciliation. Your new skills will make you better at your current job and a more attractive candidate for your next one.

So, with enrollment trends, I too have evolved. The Admissions Guy in me will never die – all I need is an Open House, a mic, and an absurdly corny opening joke to prove that to my team. But, I have devoted much of the last three years to learning the intricacies of financial aid and it has made me a much more effective and well-rounded Enrollment Manager. I think it will stick too – I had just as much fun implementing my first comprehensive financial aid packaging strategy than I ever did with funnel analysis or territory management development. Never stop learning.

My Response to One Wisconsin Now

I think open letters are great. I think they provide a means for productive dialogue. I’m sure that by now many of you have seen the recent study published by One Wisconsin Now (an organization that I believe has their heart in the right place). But the data they’ve published simply doesn’t add up. This letter is solely my opinion and doesn’t represent anyone else in this community. Maybe I just read it wrong. But, I read about it a ton…and I came to the same conclusion. I’d invite any input you all have. And, I hope I can be proven wrong. Well, kind of.____

Good morning,

I’m writing to you this morning as an individual concerned about the implications of your recently released survey on student debt. To be upfront, I don’t work in higher education. I do however have a vested interest in enrollment management, an overarching umbrella that, among other things, encompasses the student debt debate. I manage an online community of enrollment management professionals (#EMchat & http://www.emchat.net), and this is a topic of regular discussion.

I agree wholeheartedly that student debt is out of control. It’s insane. For all of the good higher education does (I don’t believe there’s argument over this), we can agree that the current system is broken. We have institutional priorities that are misaligned with the values schools were founded on. We have state and federal entities cutting funding while demanding stronger, more focused programs. We have an epic battle between non- and for-profit sectors. And, in my opinion, we have a serious lack of financial literacy programming that informs individuals of what they can expect to pay (or repay) for their college education.

I believe the last sentence is where your organization comes in. I give you an incredible amount of respect for undertaking this important study, but your information simply isn’t factual. And, with the attention that it has and will continue to garnish, it does more damage than good. Because of the lack of financial literacy programming regarding college costs, families don’t know what to expect when it comes down to paying for college. They see sticker prices that act as a strong determinant of whether or not a college is a reasonable choice for their son or daughter (or themselves). With the advent of net price calculators, I think the higher education space is gradually moving away from this…although still a long way off as calculators still don’t provide a truly accurate depiction. The College Scorecard released earlier this year doesn’t do much to assist either.

If a low-income student looks at your chart, I can almost promise that their hopes of attending college fall shattered on the floor. $118,000 average debt for a bachelors? Less than 3% of undergraduates have this type of debt. Less than 7% of graduate students do. (Disclaimer: these percentages are debatable, but I can assure you the deviation is small if any). It’s impossible for your stats to stand up. If you’re talking about total debt over the life of the loan, rounded up to a national average of $30,000 at a 10% rate (I’m just using my Sallie Mae rate as an example because it’s ridiculous) with a minimum monthly payment of $50 (which is about $100 less than what the minimum would probably be), the loan would be paid off in 10 years with ~$18K in interest tacked on. Yes, still bogus. But, it’s a far cry from $118K as an average. There would need to be a significant number of students with debt above the $118K threshold (or individuals with millions of dollars in debt), to even bring it close.

But, a low-income student, who would very likely qualify for institutional aid, grants, income-based scholarships and awards, and quite likely wouldn’t pay anywhere near the sticker price of a school (public or private), won’t see this. They’ll see that an undergraduate education will cost them $118K and a graduate degree, now largely considered the new bachelors degree, will cost $180k. Your institute stresses the importance of education equality. With these inflated numbers based on a sample of less than .16% of the total number of students enrolled in college (a sample you cited in your report that is likely skewed toward higher income individuals), you’re sending a message that college isn’t attainable to students and families who don’t know otherwise.

Your intentions are good. Your data is skewed. Your outcomes unintentionally combat your goals.

I’d encourage you to revisit your study and to include more information on how college is paid for, what programs exist for student aid, how discounting works at an institution, and how few students actually accrue this level of debt.

I appreciate your efforts, I truly do. But, you can’t publish this information when it’s misleading and detrimental to a prospective student’s decision making process.

Thanks for your time,

Alex Williams

Independent Research: FAFSA & Free Lunch

I know that there are only a few people in our chat from Maryland, but I'm hoping this post will inspire anyone with interest in this data (which should be all of you!) to follow suit and create your own state reports.

For the last few months, I have compiled data (largely sourced from NCES and the FAFSA project website) on the state of Maryland. I initially wanted to compare per capita and household income to FAFSA completion rates. While we all know there is a disparity in completion rates between socioeconomic blocs, I've never come across a study that lists [public] high school by high FAFSAschool for an entire state. Like most states, Maryland is incredibly diverse when considering the socioeconomic spectrum. As a state that borders our nation's capital with a highly-educated workforce, we have some of the wealthiest counties in the US. We also have some of the poorest. Continuing, these counties are oftentimes broken up into wealthy districts and zip codes. In short, it was nearly impossible to predict the per capita and household incomes for a specific school--students who have parents that make $250k+ could be sitting next to a student with both parents unemployed. In the end, I resorted to using free and reduced lunch data to compare to FAFSA completion rates.

What I found only confirmed what we all know. But, the information is now usable. Admissions counselors can now see what schools may need additional information or assistance when it comes to the financial aid process. High school administrators can see where their school ranks when compared to others in their district and across the state. Superintendents can target specific schools that may need additional programming and information sessions encouraging families to fill out the FAFSA. Organizations that focus on promoting college access can reach out to struggling schools. I believe this is only the beginning, but I believe it is a strong step in the right direction, focused on fostering collaboration between all sectors of education.

Please check out the data and let me know your feedback. I'm going to continue refining it (especially when the June 2013 data is released), and hope to create a report that I will be able to present to my state BOE. The most telling sheet is the fourth--just check out how the red (less than 50% completion) begins to change to white as you scroll down.

I've uploaded the doc to Google Drive

As a disclaimer, this research is far from perfect. The free and reduced lunch data was a percentage of the school; I applied it to the number of seniors, using the assumption that the students were equally distributed among all grade levels. Some of the NCES data did not match up with the FAFSA data; i.e., there were 2 seniors but 40 FAFSA completions. Schools sometimes overestimate their completions and things can be misreported to NCES. For a list of assumptions of the FAFSA Project, see here. Thus, ignore the obvious outliers of 400%, 1200%--it would be phenomenal if true, but it's not. There are other assumptions I have taken in this study and I'd be happy to discuss them with you via email. Feel free to contact me: alex@emchat.net