Monday, February 23, 2009

Admissions as Drama

One of the (really excellent) IR staff here forwarded a meaty article on market research for higher education from the Lawlor Group entitled Trends & Tips for 2009. This research firm targeted at independent institutions bills itself as "intelligent marketing solutions for education."

Much of what's in the report is insight into the impact of the worldwide depression on the consumer market. The rise over the last decades in tuition is pegged at 439% since 1982, according to the report, compared to family income median rise of 147%. Even if we assume that discount rates went from zero to 33%, parents are paying far more now than before. And this situation is getting much worse because of the crash in equities and dwindling access to loans of all types.

Parents will do what shoppers always do when money is tight, the report argues: shop around for bargains. Quoting from one of the bullets in the article:
In October 2008, nearly 60% of surveyed high school seniors were considering a less prestigious college for affordability reasons; 14% changed their focus to a two year college; 16% put their college searches on hold. (
This is not the year to take your yield rate for granted. This is an important calculation many private schools will be making right now. How much do we shave off of our enroll/admit ratio when predicting next year's entering class?

It is already getting pretty late in the admissions cycle, but there's still time to change the road you're on. One of the recommendations of the Lawlor Group is not to take the value of the institution's product for granted. They recommend supporting it with evidence.

If your applicant pool includes first-generation students, the problem is likely to be worse. This is my own speculation, based on research done during the last several years. Lower-income and/or first generation families are likely to complete their taxes later, which complicates an already complicated FAFSA application. Awards can be put on hold while information that was put on the FAFSA as preliminary is updated and verified against returns when they come in. This is another whammy directed at low-income groups, in addition to low ability to pay, correlated lower entrance test scores, and dwindling need-based aid.

The form is supposed to come under review as one of President Obama's intiatives, but that will be too late for the current cycle. In the meantime, companies have sprung up that will help you with the form, for a fee comparable to H&R Block doing your taxes. One of them is, which charges $80-$100 to walk you through the form in under half an hour. That price may not be prohibitive to most middle-class families, but it is almost certain to be a limiting factor for some demographics.

Shopping for scholarships is another trend that is likely to accelerate, methinks. This is the time to be creative with institutional aid. Discount rates are almost certain to grow, unless formal tuition cuts become common. Here's a site that lists institutional awards, both endowed and unfunded: Another barrier to unsophisticated consumers of the higher ed product is negotiating (in all senses of the word) the award hussle. Anything we can do to lower barriers and funnel students from one decision to the next, one bit of the bureacracy to the next, is a good thing.

Think of your application process as a movie script, where the FAFSA is smack in the middle of Act II. Is your film a long complicated thing or a fast-moving action flick? Who can best negotiate the plot twists--have you picked the right audience? Some tips come from the Lawlor Group's final recommendations:
Private colleges must continue their efforts to overcome students’ perceived financial barriers to enrollment by (1) demonstrating a commitment to containing costs, (2) making the net tuition price as transparent as possible as early as possible, (3) structuring institutional aid to increase the enrollment of low- and moderate-income students, and (4) implementing programs that narrow completion gaps across socioeconomic groups.
This is an outline of the story we have to tell in the 120 pages of our three acts (transforming the recommendations above into a dramatic arc of sorts):
  1. It's cheaper than you think; you can afford us.
  2. See, here are the costs.
  3. And here's how we help you afford it.
  4. The payoff is emotionally satisfying.
This year and the following ones will be a time of change, no doubt, and maybe it's not that crazy to take a page or two from Hollywood. Hey, maybe they'll start giving out Oscars for Best Admissions Process.

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