Financial aid and advancement

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I recently attended the annual scholarship luncheon at my alma mater, a wonderful stewardship event that brings together donors and student recipients of funded scholarships, both annual and endowed.

Listening to students talk about the importance of these awards got me thinking about the importance of collaboration between the offices of financial aid and advancement. In our visits to campuses, my colleagues and I at Scannell & Kurz observe considerable variation in how well advancement and financial aid work together for the mutual benefit of institutional strategic goals.

There tends to be commonality across institutions, both public and private, about the trouble spots that crop up, and the issues are often interrelated. Here are just a few:

  • Advancement expresses concern that scholarships are not awarded on a timely basis, or that some funds go unawarded. This can cause difficulties with donor stewardship. Timely notification by the budget office about available fund balances is key here. Even though final budget balances for an upcoming fiscal year may not be nailed down by the time financial aid packaging takes place in February/March, reasonable estimates based on past history should be available and sufficient for this purpose. Unawarded funds may be due to lack of attention to detail in the financial aid office, which can and should be addressed, or because the scholarship criteria are so restrictive that an institution has no viable candidates. In the latter case, financial aid and advancement personnel need to discuss appropriate alternatives to ensure that overly restrictive criteria be removed so that funds are available to spend.
  • Financial aid feels that the selection committees/departments don’t meet in a timely fashion for awards to be coordinated with aid packaging and influence enrollment behavior. Some donors require selection committees. While it may be more efficient to have the funds awarded centrally through a scholarship or financial aid office, the reality is that committees may be part of the puzzle. Coordinating the timing so that funds are used in the most strategic way possible is the joint responsibility of financial aid and advancement. Gift officers also must play an important role in working with donors to both meet the donors’ wishes and make every effort to suggest selection criteria that are not administratively onerous.
  • Advancement wants to require that student recipients of funded awards write letters of acknowledgment to donors. As a practical matter, it is unreasonable to revoke scholarship funds when students don’t take the time to write a thank-you note. Granted, it is discouraging when attempts fail to have recipients write even a brief note of gratitude. And even in the best of circumstances, coordination of this effort takes time. Institutions that are most successful with high rates of acknowledgment begin by setting the expectation early, as soon as the funded award is offered. This should be introduced and then reinforced by the financial aid office, rather than having the student first hear about the expectation from advancement, which may cause students to remark, “…some random person in some random office just asked me to…..” The goal for the student experience is that it will be so meaningful and positive that it encourages them to be future donors.

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Understanding the impact of FAFSA filing and visiting campus on college student yield rates

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When I worked in admissions for small colleges and had to battle for every student we enrolled, I tried to comprehend the factors that were most predictive of enrollment and that could help in my attempt to best estimate likely enrollment throughout the cycle.  The good ol’ fashioned “1,2,3” or “Hot/Medium/Cold” lists still hold water and are effective, but I needed to understand more precisely how impactful these behaviors were and if they truly influenced enrollment.

I found two significant influences, both of which are also known to most enrollment managers:

  1. If a student completes the FAFSA (and sends their results to you), then they are much more likely to enroll.
  2. Likewise, students visiting campus in an official capacity are much more likely to enroll than those who do not visit campus.

Having a student both complete the FAFSA and visit campus is a home run. A student who does neither is what I was taught to consider a “rotten banana.” The longer a banana sits, the more rotten it becomes. Along those lines, the longer a student sits in your pool doing neither of these activities, the more their enrollment chances begin to decay.

As I said, this is not a revelation to anyone who has worked in admissions for any significant time. However, in my work as a consultant, I see many campuses that do not know how to incorporate these predictive behaviors into their recruitment planning. By drilling down into the metrics, tracking them, and building plans on that data, you can become much more efficient and effective in your recruitment efforts.

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Priorities for community college student success

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What can community colleges do to help more of their students succeed and complete their educational goals?

I have just returned from attending the American Association of Community Colleges Annual Convention in San Antonio.  This event attracted more than 2,000 community college presidents and senior administrators to discuss the issues that are top of mind to this sector.  Here are three things I heard as issues:

  • Community colleges face decreasing state support, decreasing enrollment numbers, and increasing tuition pressures.
  • The community college model encourages enrollments but not completion.
  • With fewer high school students in the market, there is even more need for community colleges to focus their resources on retention efforts.

There was good news as well:

  • The number of associate degrees and certificates being awarded by community colleges reached an all-time high in the 2013-2014 academic year.
  • Between 2010 and 2014, the number of students age 24 years or younger whose first credential was a certificate or associate degree from a community college increased by 6.1 percent. The number whose first credential from a four-year institution with substantial community college experience also rose by 8.3 percent.
  • During the 2013-2014 academic year, community colleges either conferred a credential, or were instrumental in the conferral of a four-year college credential, for one million individuals who had no prior postsecondary credential.

(You can find these and other key data points in the AACC’s Community College Completion report.)
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Four steps that can help colleges still reach their enrollment goals this fall

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What can your campus do to engage prospective college students late in the recruitment cycle and push them toward enrollment?

We find ourselves, yet again, in the midst of the most stress-filled and anxiety-ridden time of year for enrollment managers around the country. As May 1 looms, many of you are beginning to get a sense whether you will be one of the lucky institutions to meet or exceed your goals, or if all metrics point to the potential  “doom and gloom” coming your way. If you are finding yourself aligning more so with the latter—or you are an enrollment manager looking to stack the deck—do know that although the end is near, there is still time over the coming weeks (yes, even after May 1) to salvage the fall 2015 class. So what can you do?

Below are four strategies that have proved to be effective in capturing additional applications, admits, and deposits during a time when all seems lost. These strategies have proven to help push institutions over the top, or at least mitigate a potentially difficult enrollment situation.

1) Do not give up on your search non-responders

Most institutions have a tendency to discard search names that never responded to communications earlier in the recruitment cycle. Although many of these students have most likely moved on and committed to other institutions, there are inevitably some who either, 1) never really began the college search process until late in their senior year, or 2) had their heart set on one institution only to find out they were not accepted or they could not afford the out-of-pocket costs to attend.

Their loss may very well be your gain if played correctly. Go back and dust off these forgotten students, and instead of plugging them back into a late search flow, send them a set of application-generation communications. Make sure that you clearly and succinctly indicate that there still is time to apply, and why they should consider your institution (listing academic, student life, and outcomes advantages that the school offers). These communications can be a set of two or three emails, each with the action item—and link—to apply.  In my experience, there is always a group of students within this pool who apply and convert to enrollment.

2) Cultivate your late inquiries and applicants

Admission offices can become so mired in yield communications and strategies that they fail to recognize and attend to inquiries who enter the funnel in the later months of the recruitment cycle. So many admission offices are “all hands on deck” when it comes to yield and financial aid follow-up calls, that very few—if any—are truly giving the proper time to students who sneak in via their self-initiated request for additional information or application.

Just like in our first strategic example, some of these students have either started the college search process late, did not get into (or were unable to afford) their first choice, or had a family issue and/or life change that prompted them to more seriously consider your institution. There is a very real and important reason why a student would inquire initially during March, April, and May (let alone as we enter the summer) of their senior year. They’re available, and you have sparked an interest. It is your responsibility and opportunity to take that interest and nurture them through to deposit. Most institutions see that for those who enter the funnel late, the conversion and yield rates are quite strong. I would recommend taking a look at those inquiries, applicants, and admits who entered the funnel since early to mid-February. Dedicate some time for proactive counselor and student telecounselor outreach in order to more effectively work with these students.
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Firing on all cylinders for college transfer student recruitment and retention

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Often in traditional, undergraduate enrollment offices, the primary focus for student recruitment is on new freshmen.  They typically represent 75 percent or more of new student enrollments at many institutions. However, with the growth in enrollment at two-year public colleges during the last decade, treating college transfer students as an afterthought has been a missed opportunity for many campuses.  According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 25 percent of students who entered college in 2007 at age 20 or younger and completed a degree within six years did so at an institution other than the one where they started.  And a third of all college students who began in 2006 transferred at least once within five years.

Enrolling transfer students brings a number of advantages to campuses. College transfer students typically generate higher average net tuition revenue than freshmen, do not create large pressures on housing, and enroll in upper-level courses that typically have capacity. These benefits should motivate campuses to shift the balance of new student enrollment to include a larger portion of transfers.

Changes in the higher education marketplace are making it more challenging to enroll transfer students. The combined effects of the declining number of high school graduates (and thus declining pool of available transfer students, delayed by a couple of years from what colleges have been experiencing in freshman enrollment) and the recent decline in enrollments at 2-year public institutions has made the transfer market increasingly competitive.

Engage college transfer students during the recruitment process, and maintain that engagement for retention

We often see institutions that execute best practices in transfer recruitment strategies, and others that have created an effective transfer-friendly campus culture for enrolled students, but rarely both.  A transfer-friendly culture certainly aids in recruitment, and strong admissions engagement sets the stage for a positive campus experience.  As it gets tougher out there, institutions will need to make sure they are “firing on all cylinders” to enroll and retain transfer students.  Below are examples of best practices on both fronts.  This is not intended as a comprehensive list, but if your institution is not engaged in many of these practices, it may signal that a review of strategies is in order.
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Taking a closer look at community college completion indicators

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Recently I spent two days at a community college providing professional development workshops on trends in higher education for community colleges. I met with more than 50 professionals at the college who were eager to understand the higher education landscape and, most importantly, how their performance on key indicators fits within the national community college context.

We examined a number of key indicators, including term-to-term persistence and year-to-year retention, two of the most common metrics used to measure quality and to set targets for improvement. The metric that got their attention in new ways, however, was the percentage of credit hours earned vs. credit hours attempted. While some of the participants were aware of the importance of this (mainly colleagues in financial aid who have to monitor adequate progress for federal loan guidelines), many had not considered whether or not “slow” progress (actually earning fewer credit hours than those attempted) could have an impact on student success.

The data we examined came from the 2015 Student Retention Indicators Benchmark Report for Four-Year and Two-Year Institutions. These benchmark data indicate that in the first term of enrollment, students at community colleges complete on average 80 percent of the credit hours they attempted (10.8 hours completed vs. 13.7 hours attempted). And this pattern continues in the second term with an average completion rate of 79 percent (10.5 hours completed vs. 13.2 hours attempted).

Why is this important and why did this get the attention of the people at the community college I visited? First, many were surprised that these data indicate that some students who start out full-time end up being part-time by the end of the semester. Second, the data led to a conversation about students’ patterns of enrollment—if students intend to be full-time, with a goal of graduating in a calculated amount of time, what does dropping courses and reducing the number of credit hours earned per semester do to their overall goal of earning a degree? A number of advisors suggested that perhaps this was a good strategy. They offered examples of students who encounter difficult courses and rather than ending the term with a lower GPA opt to drop a course in order to protect their academic record, even though their credit-earning progress will be impacted. But the information they shared was anecdotal; yes, there were examples of individual cases in which that appeared to be the right decision for the student, but there were no trend data to substantiate this.
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Adding more expertise to our blog with our newest contributors from Scannell & Kurz

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When we launched this blog in 2010, we wanted to share the extensive expertise of our campus consultants. They travel to and consult with hundreds of institutions per year, and this blog has allowed them to share how colleges and universities are recruiting the students they want and helping more of them persist and succeed.

That’s why we are happy to announce the addition of our newest contributors, our colleagues from the Scannell & Kurz enrollment management blog. Now, as a division of Ruffalo Noel Levitz, they will be writing for this blog starting this month.

The enrollment management consultants at Scannell & Kurz have blogged about student recruitment, retention, financial aid, trends in higher education, and other crucial topics. Some of their recent posts have discussed:

We know you will find their posts insightful and encourage you to check out their previous posts at their blog if you have not been reading them already.

Posted in Enrollment Management by Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Comments

What is the best day to launch your college student search campaign?

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To engage prospective college students, you have to communicate with them on their timetable, not yours.

Consider the countless ways a prospective college student can learn about your institution, and all of the ways they have available to share information with other prospective students (#CollegeMail, Yik Yak, etc.). Not only do they have all these channels to gather information, but they have constant, continuous access to these channels. These factors make it more challenging every day to break through the clutter so that your voice is heard—your true, authentic message, the one that will engage students and get them excited to learn more about your institution.

So, what is the best day to launch your search campaign to break through this clutter? The answer: there isn’t one. Students explore when they are ready. Forget your timetable—to be effective you must now operate on theirs. That’s why continuous search is a must when trying to engage today’s students.

When we launched our Continuous Search program in 2013, it was the first of its kind and a direct response to the needs that campuses had. There were some common questions:

  • How can we do more with our search budget?
  • With more names available, how do we wrap them into our current search program?
  • How do we engage with more of the right students throughout the year?
  • How important is senior search to our search program?
  • How can we manage the complexity of continuous search?
  • What are the true results of our program in relation to enrollment?
  • Will this result in more applications from search? Will it matter?

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The strategic growth matrix for enrollment, and how one college generated a 19 percent gain in first-year students

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This week, Ruffalo Noel Levitz released its 2015 Discounting Report for nonprofit colleges and universities across the country that are awarding their financial aid using our strategic financial aid awarding services. In this year’s report, we again see stability in overall freshman discounting, albeit it a very small marginal increase (0.1 percent). All of these campuses are using careful research to set their prices, and to anticipate families’ capacity to pay for their educations.

How do we help campuses accomplish this? The approach varies substantially from one campus to another but it always involves a mix of research and strategy. One campus we’re working with provides an interesting example. It is a private college in the Midwest that has been able to buck some of the discounting and net revenue trends in an unusual way.

This small Midwestern college increased its first-year admitted student population by 59.2 percent, growing from 611 admits in fall 2013 to 973 in fall 2014. The enrolled student population grew by 19.2 percent during the same period, increasing from 198 students to 236. This increased headcount contributed to a whopping 76.7 percent increase in net tuition revenue, and the tuition and fees discount rate dropped 10.5 percent. This college has an active athletic population, but the enrolled athletic population actually dropped by 11 students in 2014 (53 students vs. 42 students in 2013). So, why did this campus see such growth?

Growth from this campus is attributed in part to a lot of hard work and focus spent on two of the four quadrants of the strategic growth matrix (SGM):

Strategic Growth Matrix (SGM)

The SGM is a conceptual framework that shows various ways a campus can grow. The four quadrants consist of market penetration, market development, program development, and diversification.
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14-point checklist for retaining diverse students at four-year and two-year institutions

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The idea of a “typical” college student has become a thing of the past. For many colleges and universities today, the “traditional” student is now the minority population, or one population among many. Demographic changes on our campuses and in our programs are one of the most significant trends of this century and the new “look” of our student populations is only going to continue into the future.

So, how can your institution respond? Being prepared for these changes is one of the biggest challenges campus leaders are facing—especially in light of increased pressure to improve student success results as measured by increasing retention and graduation rates.

To assist institutions with responding effectively, I invite you to download our newest 2015 National Freshman Attitudes Report for Four-Year and Two-Year Institutions, which highlights key differences in today’s freshmen by age, race, gender, and for first-generation students. I’ll also be presenting some strategies at the upcoming Symposium on the Recruitment and Retention of Diverse Populations and am sharing some suggestions below.

14-point checklist

The following is a quick checklist to assist your institution with identifying opportunities to better serve diverse populations.
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Mary Piccioli