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Incoming College Students

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How strategic support programming can have a dramatic impact on enrollment and the retention of first year students

The enrollment landscape is changing. And with that comes unique challenges with implications across the student lifecycle; from recruitment to retention to graduation. This also brings exciting opportunities to create strategic support programming that engages students from the moment they’re accepted to their first step on campus. With shifts resulting from this fall’s NACAC vote, generational changes, and increasing competition, your office should be asking “how are we going to stand out from the crowd?” and “how do we support students through critical transition points?”

As we continually redefine college enrollment it is necessary to develop a strategy within admissions that: addresses the changing admissions calendar, caters to the specific communication styles of Gen Z, and implements key programming to build belonging and school affinity among your incoming class.   

The times they are a-changin’

This fall we’ve seen the beginning of several massive changes facing the admissions field—starting with the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s (NACAC) decision to remove provisions from the Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (CEPP). After a two-year Department of Justice investigation of possible antitrust violations, the NACAC National Assembly approved the removal of key clauses that limited transfer recruitment and prevented schools from offering incentives for early-decision applicants and recruiting first-year undergraduates who had committed to another college.

Not only did these changes come in the middle of the traditional admissions cycle, they have turned the regular admissions calendar upside down. All of the past strategies for recruiting top applicants, yielding your class, reducing summer melt, and retaining students will be challenged and changed forever (Wondering how the NACAC vote will affect yield? Check out this article.).

Reconceiving the admissions calendar

Until now, for many institutions across the country, the admissions calendar has been clearly defined. Starting in August admissions counselors pack their bags and embark on the busiest travel season of the year, recruiting high school students with shiny brochures, free pens, and waived application fees. Once November 1st hits it’s time to move into application reading mode and the work shifts to admitting student and shaping the incoming class. After the winter holidays and in the new year, the work shifts again to yielding as many admitted students as possible. And with decision day on May 1 it’s not uncommon to see admissions counselors back on the road working with high school juniors and teeing up the next cycle of applications.

Before these sections were removed from the code of ethics and professional practices, enrollment management and communications could rely on the fact that once a student said yes, they were off the market. But now binding agreements like early decision are vulnerable to competing institutions offering special incentives such as enhanced financial aid packages, first dibs at on campus housing, or promises of early course selection.

The admissions calendar is no longer a clear and simple cycle, it is ongoing and more competitive than ever. For some schools rolling admissions is no stranger but rolling admissions with increasing incentives is a whole new world for all of enrollment. It will become even harder to retain at risk students and traditionally underserved populations. No matter how much you may believe that the industry will stick to the former ethical boundaries, we’re already starting to see the changes occur as institutions seek to entice top students in this hyper competitive environment.

Connecting with Gen Z

The next change is generational. Now that you’ve just gotten it down how to work with Millennial students, we are on to Gen Z—and there are some key differences in the tactics and expectations around connecting with incoming students. Where Millennials are good with technology, Gen Z (loosely born between 1995 and 2010) has never known a world without high speed internet, social media, and 24/7 connection. Their technology use is ubiquitous.

Gen Z is pragmatic, realistic, individualistic, and open-minded. As true digital natives they are most comfortable gathering information and making decisions online but are fiercely protective of their data. This poses many challenges to your admissions and enrollment marketing teams, but one in particular stands out: the class Facebook page is dead (we wrote more about that here).

Only 6% of teens say their preferred social media platform is Facebook, while more than 41% of users on the app Tik Tok are between the ages of 16-24. Generation Z prefers Snapchat, Instagram, and Tik Tok to the giant Facebook, and tend to see FB as a place for group chats and older generations. That’s a problem for admissions offices that rely on their class Facebook pages for answering questions, building community and connecting with admitted students. And no, you can’t just recreate that space on Instagram, it doesn’t work like that.

Teens often turn online before picking up the phone, are more comfortable connecting through online platforms, and expect brands and institutions that are trying to gain their attention to develop best in class digital experiences.

New rules call for a new playbook

Academic advisors and admissions counselors can be helpful resources during the decision-making process for admitted students, but nothing beats connecting with another student for candid conversation. Peer mentorship is different than giving students a staff member’s email, it’s inviting them to join the campus community. Peer mentorship gives your admitted students a private space to share their thoughts, concerns, and questions with trained student leaders who can act as a guides and role models.

This past summer Wisr worked with the University of Chicago to implement a peer mentorship program aimed at connecting incoming first year and transfer students to upper class students, to assist the class of 2023 with their transition to the College, and to build a sense of belonging with the UChicago campus community. The program launched in May 2019 and within thirty days approximately 2/3 (982 students) of the incoming class opted into the program, were matched with a peer mentor pod, and 472 direct 1:1 chat messages were sent between students and their peers.

Within six months of continued engagement, the program ended with 1,258 first year and transfer student participants, 1,521 direct chat messages sent between students and their peers, and 8,695 unique clicks on email content automated through the digital community. Not only did their team see massive engagement, UChicago College Admissions reported a 29% reduction in summer melt between the incoming class of 2018 and 2019.

Community and peer interactions can have a dramatic impact across the entire enrollment funnel

Digital communities, peer mentorship, and just-in-time content can be deployed at several points in the admissions funnel. Yield and summer melt have always been part of the admissions world but are becoming particularly top of mind for enrollment leaders across higher education. Again, we see several shifts from the Millennial mindset to that of Gen Z. Incoming students are pragmatic, they’ve seen the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the student debt crisis. Where college decisions were once driven more by brand name and exploring different areas of study, students now are asking more questions along the lines of “can I afford to choose this school right now?” and “will college be worth it?” This is important when it comes to yielding students. Questions you should be asking are, “do we provide the resources and information necessary to admitted students?” and “are we demonstrating our institutional values and commitment to supporting our students?” These questions should help you create new programming and guide your yield efforts as you seek to stand out in the crowded admissions landscape.

As we watch institutions adjust to the NACAC changes we’ll see more students at risk of being poached when they begin to feel homesick, if they haven’t found a personal connection to your institution, and if their financial needs can be better met elsewhere. That’s why it’s more important than ever to introduce peer mentorship into your process and provide an online space for to build relationships with each other as well as your school early within the admissions process. Enrollment teams will definitely have to play a more active role in summer melt prevention and first year retention. Begin that programming with your yield initiatives and gain strategic insights to the needs and wants of your incoming class.

Bringing it all together

Within these challenges, students from lower-income backgrounds and students of color are disproportionately at risk. Predatory incentives and poaching tactics may benefit the institution but may not keep students’ best interest in mind. These changes have uprooted the enrollment landscape and have made necessary new practices and institutional strategies for recruiting, yielding, and retaining students. By adjusting your strategic support programming to account for the new admissions timeline, generational changes, and prioritizing digital engagement, your institution has a massive opportunity to stand out and have a dramatic impact on enrollment and retention for years to come.

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