Surviving and Thriving in the Age of COVID: 2020 Higher Ed Year in Review

January 26, 2021

here’s no other way to begin this New Year’s message than with a heartfelt “thank you!” to our valued clients.

Here at HAI, we found meaning and encouragement during a dark year by helping our partners weather 2020’s unimaginable challenges and build plans for a more predictable and assured future. We hope their successes will provide both perspective on a chaotic year, and ideas and inspiration for thriving in 2021 and beyond. Their wins are proof positive that predictive modeling provides an edge in even the most extreme circumstances.

Before we talk about success, here’s a look at the challenges that higher education institutions were solving for this past year. Do they look familiar?:

  • The coronavirus pandemic caused a dramatic decrease in travel/campus visits. This meant that models needed to be rebuilt in the absence of visit data, an historically strong predictor of yield.
  • Going test-optional meant that schools were admitting and awarding students in the absence of test scores.
  • Unemployment/decreased household income demanded more transparent admissions and financial programs in order to meet families’ new/growing financial need.
  • A constantly shifting playing field meant that schools needed to make mid-course adjustments in order to plot their next moves and allocate resources.
  • Setting realistic goals called for a re-evaluation of existing targets and new plans for how to meet them.
  • Recruiting and retaining Students of Color, in some cases, got even harder. As overall undergraduate enrollments continued to decline nationwide, so too did those for Black students, making it harder than ever to shrink the attainment gap between White and Black students in the US.


In 2020, a number of colleges and universities turned to predictive modeling to help increase enrollment or yield. Despite the havoc brought on by the pandemic, roughly 60% of HAI’s partner institutions realized gains, with two schools achieving record enrollments. Another 20% maintained their enrollments, and still more maintained enrollment in key demographics.

Diversifying the Student Body

Enrollment and yield numbers are crucial high-level metrics for every school and college, but they’re far from the only ones. Most are also laser-focused on shaping each class to ensure a balanced mix of ethnicities, gender, geographic locations, socio-economic status and more. With all of the challenges in the 2020 recruitment cycle, some institutions fared better than others when it came to meeting specific class composition goals.

For example, the past year saw some institutions defy national trends for maintaining enrollment of Students of Color. Whereas the country saw a decrease in the enrollment of Black students last year, 80% of HAI partners were able to increase enrollments for this demographic. In one case, a private East Coast school garnered significant increases in both the yield and enrollment of Students of Color. Some of the gains in the incoming class reported by our partners in fall 2020 included:

  • a 3%-point increase in the proportion of Students of Color
  • a 25% increase in the enrollment of Students of Color
  • a record-breaking 4%-point increase in the proportion of underrepresented students
  • a 7%-point increase in the yield rate of Black students
  • an 11%-point increase in the proportion of Black Students

Apart from the meaningful results above, HAI partners were also successful in increasing proportions of out-of-state students (expanding geographic reach) and improving gender balance.

Looking Ahead

So far 2021 isn’t showing any signs of settling down, and there is a lot that advanced analytics can do to help you rally from last year and plan for this one. Here’s a list of what we’re currently working on with our higher education clients:

  • Improving outcomes where targets were missed, and building on successes, big or small (i.e., building on the “wins” that bucked national trends)
  • Developing predictive models to support recruitment, enrollment, and retention:
    1. Prospect-to-Inquiry conversion
    2. Inquiry-to-Applicant conversion
    3. Admit-to-enroll yield
    4. Retention
  • Admissions strategy development
  • Financial aid leveraging
  • Creating custom workflows to automate recoding and reporting of data to both internal and external sources
  • Consulting on all aspects of enrollment management
  • Helping to bring predictive modeling and financial aid leveraging in-house
  • Competitive scans

We hope this post shows that you needn’t feel helpless in the face of today’s unprecedented challenges. From improving access to crucial data, to creating predictive models that incorporate the entire student lifecycle in order to optimize enrollments and revenue, HAI is here to help higher ed institutions thrive! To learn more, please contact us here.

To learn more about our work in the industry, visit our higher ed solutions page.