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Using Data to Help Mitigate the Impact of Coronavirus on Admissions

Reading time: 6 minutes

By Earl Sires

As COVID-19 evolves and transforms the way our society works, we here at Rapid Insight are keeping an eye out for ways that we can provide some direction on how to cope with the situation, at least as it relates to data. The impact of coronavirus on admissions in higher education, in particular, is expected to be significant. From the impossibility of international student visits to the delays in college sports schedules, many of the recruiting tools available to Enrollment Managers are on less stable footing for the coming term.

In this post, we’ll cover a few of the major obstacles facing enrollment and admissions professionals for the 2020/21 school year, and suggest some data-informed techniques to mitigate the impact of these changes.

Pivot from On-campus Events to Targeted Communications

On-campus events instill and reinforce affinity in students. Most of this year’s events will be significantly delayed if not outright canceled due to the impact of coronavirus on admissions. Without a chance to visit a campus in person, it’s difficult to develop a connection with your school.

As a result, outbound communications will be an especially important area of focus. Keying in on what attracts students to your campus and making affinity-building a major effort in messaging won’t fully make up for the lack of in-person visits. However, it will hopefully help move the ball forward for students who were already considering your school.

It’s important to take student opinions and survey data into account when shaping your messaging. Niche conducted surveys to measure students’ concerns and opinions on how the interruptions caused by the coronavirus will impact their education. Among the results were the following relevant findings:

  • 36% of [high school] seniors are rethinking which schools they are considering, only 40% disagreed that they were rethinking”
  • 69% [of high school seniors] rely more on college search sites, student reviews, and social media for their college search and decision making”
  • 57% [of high school seniors] reported that how a college handles this situation will affect their decision”
  • 18% [of current college students] are considering transferring or taking at least one semester off”
  • 64% [of current college students] feel that they can still graduate on time”

Considerate, targeted messaging is important in both recruitment and retention efforts. A new student needs to be assured that they made the right choice in considering your school (possibly without having had the chance to visit in person). Currently-enrolled students need to feel confident that their graduation timeline is still on track.

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Tailor Outreach with Predictive Analysis

Predictive analytics can help determine which students will respond best to which types of outreach. While a global pandemic is an unprecedented disruptor to the process, the questions students are asking remain the same: 

  • Will this school offer what I’m looking for in an education experience? 
  • Will I be able to graduate in 4 years with the degree I’m pursuing? 
  • Can I afford to attend?

This is where predictive analytics can be of great help in shaping your outreach. Students and applicants asking each of these questions share characteristics in common, and grouping students based on those factors will help you tailor your methods. 

As summarized in this blog post, Dr. Bryan Terry, the Vice Chancellor of Enrollment at Arkansas State University, spoke about the techniques he employs in organizing effective outreach to different types of students. Using data analytics, Terry breaks prospects down into several groups. Groups include academic high-achievers, those in financial need, and students applying from a distance. Terry then organizes outreach from different departments (faculty, the financial aid office, and student advisors, respectively) to each student group. This distributes the outreach load and leads to more effective results.

As it relates to COVID-19, the categories of prospects will differ, but the approach is the same. Break the student or applicant population down into groups. Identify the best method of outreach for each, whether that be a financial aid advisor, a counselor, a member of the faculty, or another relevant department.

An in-house predictive modeling platform will be especially helpful in this process. A pre-built model will be inaccurate since it can’t be adapted for new student categories. A consultancy isn’t as flexible or responsive as you’ll need it to be in rapidly changing times like these.

Offset Unexpected Yield and Over-admissions

To account for the instability of the coming recruitment cycle and the lack of certainty in retention, some Enrollment Managers plan to over-enroll. While this makes sense, it can lead to significant problems if the acceptance rate exceeds expectations. Instability can cause a swing in either direction. A short-term strategy of over-enrollment may lead to trouble placing and housing students down the line.

While a predictive model can’t account for the direct impact of coronavirus on admissions (there is no hard post-COVID-19 admissions data from which to build a prediction), what it can do is give you a baseline understanding of what your incoming class would have looked like under normal circumstances. From that baseline understanding, you can manipulate the results to see the impact of different variables on total yield. Increasing and decreasing the influence of campus events and electronic communications in a predictive model can help you visualize how the changes you make will impact the incoming class.

It’s important to keep in mind that predictive modeling is not intended to predict the exact future. Rather, it gives you valuable information to use in working towards or moving away from outcomes.

Additionally, this is a great time to connect with your Institutional Research or Institutional Effectiveness department. You may be surprised to find that your schools’ enrollment trends are improving rather than suffering. IR can give you a better understanding of how things look, and can play an especially important role amid the uncertainty.

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Refocus efforts on local and domestic students while adding flexibility to international student recruitment policies

International student recruitment is the area that Enrollment Managers will most strongly feel the impact of coronavirus on admissions. Border closures and travel restrictions make it difficult to confirm future travel plans. On-campus visits are unlikely, even if the United States itself largely returns to normal operations by May. Many of the traditional means of recruiting international students will not be available.

As a result, it’s a good idea to build in some additional flexibility in policies for foreign students. Consider extending deadlines for testing, granting more enrollment deferrals, and incorporating online learning into plans for next year’s class.

“There isn’t an institution out there that can make a promise regarding visas, but there are many institutions that can promise to advocate for international students throughout the enrollment process and be flexible in response to the ongoing changes brought on by coronavirus,” said Samantha Nesper, the Director of Graduate Admissions at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, in an article for US News and World Report.

Beyond that, focusing more heavily on local students and out-of-state students within driving distance is advisable. 

Again, data can be of help in this effort. Predictive analytics can help you model the financial impact of this shift in recruitment strategy, and can help guide modifications to curriculum for online learning. While analytics can’t offset the likely financial hit caused by a lower level of international student enrollment, it can help you plan your strategy to minimize the impact this year and offset it in future years, when things normalize.

The Importance of Analytics

The enrollment landscape will likely be unstable for some time due to the impact of coronavirus on admissions. Organized data and predictive analytics can help inform decisions on how to proceed amid the uncertainty. Outreach, yield assessment, and recruitment strategies are more important now than ever. Data is key to making good decisions on all three fronts.

Rapid Insight’s data platform offers intuitive data prep, powerful predictive modeling, and easy data sharing for institutions working from anywhere – whether on campus or remote. To see how these tools can help you, click the button below to set up a demo.

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