Thoughts from our CEO on how COVID-19 may affect fall 2020 college enrollments and what campus leaders can do to be as prepared as possible

March 18, 2020

o put it mildly, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust enrollment managers into uncharted territory when it comes to enrolling a class this fall.

To quote Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver, “Predicting enrollment outcomes, never a picnic, is especially challenging amid rapidly changing circumstances.” A couple of weeks ago we were hearing a lot of concerns about international enrollment and whether or not international student admits would be able to get to the US for the fall term. That concern quickly ballooned into concern over fall enrollments in general. Some of the questions clients have been asking us are:

  • What impact will cancelled yield events have on fall enrollments?
  • How closely can an in-person visit to campus be simulated in a virtual environment?
  • Even if COVID-19 is under control by the fall and life returns to normal, will students want to stay closer to home and closer to family after experiencing the scare of a global pandemic?
    • Should we expect lower yield from domestic students whose families live far away?
    • Should we expect higher yield from local students?
  • What impact will campus closures and shifts to online instruction have on the retention of continuing students?
  • Should we extend our intent to enroll deadline past May 1; and, if so, until when?

No one can answer these questions with absolute certainty because we have never been in this situation before. I have been building statistical models to predict yield for colleges and universities for the past 18 years. I’ve worked with dozens of universities of all shapes and sizes and I’ve never had to answer the types of questions we’re being asked now. I have, however, had a lot of practice interpreting model predictions in light of external circumstances. The first year I created a yield model for Syracuse University, Carmelo Anthony and the men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship. This victory was cause for a lot of celebration, and, for me, a lot of worry about what it would mean for my yield predictions. We got through that year and I have gotten through many admissions seasons since then. The advice we are giving our clients now, based on all of our experience is:

1. Communicate as much as possible with your admitted students

Continue all regular communications.

  • It goes without saying that this means continuing all of the typical electronic communication that goes on at this time of year.
  • However, it also means having as much phone/video contact as you can with your admits.
  • If you have student ambassadors who can call admits and give them a better sense of what life is typically like on campus, use them. And, to echo the previous point, video chats are even better than phone chats.
    • The added challenge here is that these student ambassadors will likely now be making these calls from home. This means you need to have regular conversations with them as well so that they can share what they are hearing from admits and you can make sure they are conveying accurate information to admits during this time when things seem to be changing on a daily basis.

2. Talk to colleagues and share ideas

Another unique thing about this challenge is that every, single institution in the country is dealing with it. Sure, it will have more impact on some schools than others, but, in many ways, we’re all in this together.

3. Manually adjust and/or rebuild your yield models

If there is one thing I can say with near certainty, it is that statistical models of yield will not work perfectly this year. You will need to make assumptions about what this will mean for different populations of interest and you’ll need to bake those assumptions into your equations. This may mean a manual adjustment of yield projections on particular groups; or, if your yield equations include factors such as campus visit, you may need to rebuild them after removing those factors. If you aren’t sure how to do either of these things, we can help.

If at all possible, make contingency plans based on ranges:

  • What are the minimum and maximum number of first-year students you can reasonably expect?
  • What discount rate is associated with those ranges?
  • What is the worst-case scenario in terms of return rates of continuing students?

4. Take year-to-year comparisons with a grain of salt

This may be obvious, but the pandemic will undoubtedly change the timeline for admitted student responses on everything from intent to enroll forms to housing deposits for the remainder of this admission cycle. You also may see more students asking for extensions on deadlines. Use this as an opportunity to have a discussion with these admits and their families so that you can gain a better understanding of all of the factors they are weighing. Presumably different members of the staff will field these calls. It’s important to have a systematic way of recording what each one is hearing from families so that you can gauge how much of an influence each factor is likely to have on your enrollments once we get to fall.

Final thoughts

I don’t think there is a single enrollment manager in the country who isn’t worried right now. Worrying is understandable, but panicking won’t help. Make a chart of all possible outcomes. Trust your professional judgment. And, finally, communicate concerns and expectations will all senior leaders on campus, including the president and CFO.

As always, if you need help, the team at HAI would be happy to talk through these issues and provide recommendations that are tailored to your particular situation.

-Emily Coleman, Co-Founder and CEO

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