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Identifying “swing” applicants

Identifying “swing” applicants

Key concepts discussed here are:

  • With or without a deposit, you have students in the persuadable group.
  • The traditional metrics will miss the nuances of student interest.
  • Persuadable students will tell you their positive and negative perceptions.

While the headline of this article surely isn’t controversial, “the admissions office must learn how to identify ‘swing’ applicants” – the starting assumption sure is: as a profession, we are awful at this.

This is an area of recruiting that we fall short in not because of a conceptual misunderstanding, or even a definitional challenge. Instead, for too long we have lacked adequate tools to genuinely identify students through various stages of the consumer buying process. Our approach has been to identify them in stages of an admissions cycle – hoping that the mindset of a student making an enrollment decision lines up with the deadlines and timelines set forth by our institutions, faculty, the Department of Education, etc. But this is not the case, and so our best internal analysis correctly identifies students who have checked out of the process but fails to identify students who are considering moving on.

Consider the student buying process with someone shopping for a television at Best Buy. An indecisive potential buyer may identify a particular unit, then for whatever reason, walk away to another section of the store. As they still mull the buying decision in their mind, they walk back for a second look, this time comparing the television to other options. They again leave, before coming back for the third time. If you were managing this Best Buy, you certainly would hope someone would go engage this potential buyer who is clearly considering this major purchase, but is not yet sold.

Compare that to how we currently analyze student interest. She may come by the “television” the first time for a campus visit, before walking away and considering other options. The second time she comes back is when she submits the application to multiple colleges, comparing all of her choices. Her third visit is submitting the FAFSA or coming for an admitted students event. If you were managing this admissions office, you certainly would hope the student’s counselor is in conversation with them about the next steps.

But look at the difference between these two stories. In the first one, we can all recognize that the buyer is very interested but also very unsure about this television. Yet for most of us, the student who is exhibiting the same consumer behaviors appears to have checked all of the boxes, and would be presumed to be among our most interested applicants. And if the consumer doesn’t make their purchase by a deadline (say the end of a sale price for the television or May 1 for colleges) – it’s only in colleges that we would presume the lack of final decision on our timeline means the interest is gone. If that television buyer comes back to Best Buy on May 12th, I am certain they would be ready to engage him all over again.

Admissions offices need to create systems and structures to identify softer signs of interest and engagement from students who are not fully committed (even if they have a deposit submitted) all summer long. Developing a way to do this will help transition summer melt to summer growth.

With or without a deposit, you have students in the persuadable group.

There are students in the middle – who are demonstrating the behaviors of students who are considering enrollment – all year long. Including over the summer. Even at the end of the summer. It is important that we understand the vast number of students for whom May 1 is not a significant date. This is not something colleges can fix with their communication flow – look how many deadlines students are given to apply, visit, scholarship consideration, etc. that are readily broken, extended, or reconsidered by colleges and universities. Unless you tell a student that they are unadmitted on May 2 or will lose their scholarships, they will not believe we are serious about it. (In large part, because we are not.)

Whenever I think about student recruitment in the summer, I’m reminded of my time working at Northland College, a very small college surrounded 50 miles in any direction by rural communities. A very experienced counselor shared an anecdote about a school visit just before spring break. Speaking to a rather large room, half of the students who said they intended to go to college the next fall (five months away) had not applied anywhere yet. A follow-up conversation with the school counselor confirmed the accuracy of the sentiment – that even though spring break was upon us, there was still time to begin the college admissions process.

While that is a rather particular anecdote, there are a large number of students with this mindset, even in places with great college counseling programs, who just haven’t absorbed our preferred timeline for their actions. They don’t feel that May 1 is critical, they don’t believe we mean it when we say it’s a deadline, they don’t think there’s a sense of urgency to get this wrapped up before Prom, and they certainly don’t accept the idea that submitting an enrollment deposit is a binding commitment.

So, they are out there – even in July. You have students in your applicant pool right now still considering their options – with or without an enrollment deposit. If your strategy to identify them has been to ask them to tell you if they’re still interested, unfortunately, you are missing many of them.

The traditional metrics will miss the nuances of student interest.

I understand the inclination many of us have to evaluate students by the large demonstrations of interest. In fact, before working with the data science team at enroll ml, that was how I did it – evaluate all students based on three indicators of interest. Those three indicators shifted a bit from college to college, but the general concept was the same. “Did they meet this enrollment milestone? If so, move them to the next bucket.”

It felt right to me at the time – sometimes it even felt a bit sophisticated. But I left behind all of the nuances in a student’s interest. Of course, I knew it at the time – there is any number of reasons a student wouldn’t submit a FAFSA but would still be interested. Yet, I continued because evaluating and understanding an entire applicant pool with just the data I could easily access from my CRM required some rounding of the edges, hoping it would all come out in the wash. I will still contend that this approach is better than not trying to segment your applicant pool based on student activities, but it is leaving opportunity behind.

To maximize enrollment, we must develop better metrics reliant on deeper analysis. Doing it on our own, this can include website tracking data, perhaps identifying specific pages as demonstrations of interest, email open/click rates, and willingness to answer the phone for a counselor, among other things, can help. It’s forward progress, and if you can work it in, you should.

The gold standard, however, is to do a thorough and complete data analysis of all available variables to identify the patterns of behavior a student exhibits on the path to enrollment. This would measure the power of each of those individual factors against each other, as well as any and all combinations of them together. When we do that, we can identify a student who is still on the path to enrollment even without submitting a FAFSA. It could be that the student is ineligible, that the merit aid award exceeded their need, or that there is genuinely no need. Regardless, the student is still on the path to enrollment, and we can know to continue to engage with them where they are – not coming back to them, again and again, telling them they’ve missed something. Of course, the inverse is true – we can identify a student who has fallen off the path to enrollment even with a FAFSA. Or even with a deposit in hand – if you can identify the behaviors an incoming student exhibits, you can then watch for signs that a student is checking out. If you wait for them to fail to meet a major milestone, it’s likely too late.

Persuadable students will tell you their positive and negative perceptions.

There is an easy-to-see, but time-intensive to confirm, tell that a student is a swing student.

If asked, a swing student will tell you the strengths they see in your institution and the weaknesses. In fact, getting this information from swing students is a critical way to swing them your way.

The importance of having a student understand the strengths of your institution are obvious – but far too few of us ask the student to reflect back those strengths during the recruitment process. Identifying the unique, differentiating strengths of a college or university is good, and the implementation usually stops at “add those to the comm flow.” Many (but not all) of us gather this information in admitted student surveys later, as though the point is to understand if our communication flow is breaking through correctly. We need to do something very different – we need to ask plainly and directly what strengths they see in our institution, and then we need to not argue with them if they “get it wrong.” Instead, a swing student telling you about a perceived strength, even if it wasn’t on the list from your market research report, is telling you what you need to affirm.

That’s fine – but the more important question to ask a student is what their perceived weaknesses are about your institution. Of this, I’m quite confident in saying very few of us are actually initiating this conversation. I think there’s a fear that asking the question will somehow raise concerns in the student’s mind and hurt the chance of enrollment. Of course, this is not the case – whatever the student is worried about is there whether you know what it is or not. It is better to know it. And if a student tells you the perceived negatives, contrary to what you might initially think, you have a very strong chance of enrolling that student.

Think about it – a student is only telling you the perceived negatives because they want you to help them overcome them. If they weren’t trying to “get to yes” they wouldn’t bother to engage in the conversation. Think of times you were at a restaurant and had a negative experience. When the waitstaff came and asked how things were, how likely were you to respond with “fine” instead of engaging in a discussion? Things weren’t fine – you were never coming back to this restaurant, but you didn’t care enough to help them identify their challenges. If a student tells you that they don’t perceive any weaknesses, or that the only weaknesses is the financial aid package, they’re just saying “fine.”

If you get a meaningful answer, congratulations – you’ve identified a swing student who is telling you precisely what you need from you to win them over.

Teege Mettille
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