Most admission decisions have been sent, and now the wait begins to see how many offers will be taken up by students and families. Each year it gets trickier as yield (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) at many institutions has been steadily declining over the past decade. As yield becomes more difficult to predict, enrollment leaders are understandably nervous. Millions of dollars are at stake if the incoming freshman class doesn’t materialize as expected.
I’ve had the privilege of being employed by, and partnering with, many colleges and universities in the past two decades, primarily in enrollment management and mostly when things are not going so well. Every year I encounter the same “yield killers” in action. Here are the three most common — and completely avoidable — ones.
This situation occurs when a college dramatically increases its applicant pool from one year to the next, usually by offering a special online, shortened, free and/or expedited application to prospective students. The application itself is not the problem nor is the decision to increase the applicant pool. Institutions run into trouble down the line when they forget that the yield on the “special” applicants will be much, much lower than for their regular applicants.
Here’s how the situation usually plays out. With more applicants to choose from, admission decisions naturally favor the higher quality applicants (typically measured by high school GPA or standardized test scores). There are more high-quality applicants in the larger pool because these students tend to respond to quick and/or free applications, thinking, “What’s the harm in one more application? It’s free and easy.” Thus, the cutoff for admission is raised, and mid- to lower scoring applicants typically offered admission are instead denied. The college has inadvertently become more selective.
Offers of admission are sent to the “most qualified pool in the institution’s history,” and two months later the admissions office is scrambling to the wait list (if there is one) to make up for a class that did not yield as expected. Higher scoring students have more college choices and tend to yield lower than others. Many institutions have learned the difficult lesson that a larger applicant pool does not always guarantee a larger freshman class; in fact, exactly the opposite can all too easily occur if the situation is not managed properly from the start.
Frequently, I encounter situations in which an institution uses the same financial aid awarding strategy year after year without analyzing yield on subpopulations and adjusting for increases in cost of attendance or changes to its primary market. Administrators find out too late that their financial aid strategy is no longer effective when enrollment numbers drop along with anticipated revenue — sometimes to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
In these cases, I often hear that the institution chose not to fund an enrollment analyst or seek assistance from a consultant to adjust and test their financial aid strategy before sending offers to students and families due to a lack of resources. Instead, they deployed the same strategy that worked in the past and hoped for the best. In hindsight, we all know that it is a lot costlier to clean up an enrollment disaster than to prevent one in the first place, but it’s difficult to make a strong case for a new hire or outside help until an unfortunate situation like this occurs.
This situation most often happens when a new institutional leader (with little training or understanding of enrollment management) feels pressure to make their college quickly rise in the rankings and decides that enrollment is the platform to do so. Among other directives, the leader directs admission officers to dramatically improve student quality from one year to the next (often in tandem with Yield Killer #1). While that can be done, there are predictable consequences for making wholesale changes to admissions strategy.
Most enrollment professionals know that students with higher high school GPAs and test scores also have more college choices, which means they tend to yield at a lower rate compared to others. What’s more, these students are expensive to attract because their scholarship packages are larger than average. Institutional leaders are often surprised when both yield and net revenue drop as a result of admitting a higher number of high-scoring applicants. There’s always a cost associated with the decision to target students that an institution doesn’t typically enroll, and this cost should be anticipated, understood, and statistically modeled well before admission decisions are sent to students and families.
Enrolling a freshman class becomes more difficult each year, and the job of the chief enrollment officer is both a science and an art with the science portion ever-expanding. It’s important to acknowledge the yield killers because so much is at stake — and because these situations are easily avoidable, but unfortunately still occur far too often. The most effective weapons in an enrollment manager’s arsenal are data and information, and we hope your institution uses both well in anticipating this fall’s freshman enrollment.