Amid a college enrollment decline, higher education institutions must minimize the number of admitted students who don’t enroll. Reduce summer melt and keep students on track with these tips.
To the dismay of many administrators, the college enrollment decline is not rebounding in 2022, even after institutions overcame so many uncertainties tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. College and university staff have labored diligently to recruit as many students as possible for the 2022-23 academic year. But as more people continue to question the value of a college degree, no institution can afford to rest on its laurels. Now is the time for institutions to maximize the number of admitted students who will show up on the first day of the fall term.
Each year, an estimated 10–40% of college-intending high school graduates don’t enroll in the fall. The “summer melt” phenomenon happens for many reasons but is particularly pronounced among students from low-income and historically underrepresented backgrounds. To learn what’s motivating college-bound students this year, Hanover Research surveyed more than 1,000 admitted students across the country in April 2022 to learn about their college application and selection experiences.
In general, we found that students who were admitted to institutions this spring do intend to enroll in fall 2022 (with only 12% declining all college offers or deferring enrollment to 2023). Yet students also expressed many concerns and preferences that provide insights into how colleges and universities must adapt to ensure more students feel confident and ready to commit to enrolling.
Here are three ways to ensure your next cohort of applicants knows your institution is the place where they will succeed and thrive.
Emphasize Financial Aid at Every Step of the Admissions Process
When it comes to factors that determine whether admitted students will accept an offer of admission, three of the top five factors have to do with finances. In descending order, these top factors are:
- Whether the institution is a good fit for their field of study
- Proximity to where they want to live
- Whether the student was offered a good financial aid package
Clearly, financial-related communications and services are important to potential students as they weigh application and enrollment decisions. We all know financial aid is a daunting process for students and families. For novice college students and their families, the timing and amount of information requested is overwhelming, and institutions often count on them to reach out to ask for help. Sadly, some students find it easier to walk away from their education completely than to attempt to self-navigate the maze of paying for it.
So, how can universities address this concern in a way that keeps students moving forward?
- Don’t assume applicants or admitted students understand the cost of attendance or what their financial aid packages entail. Be sure to heavily embed jargon-free financial aid information throughout the entire admissions and advising process, providing clear timelines and proactive methods to nudge and check in with students during the admissions process.
- Publicize additional ways to pay for college. Tell students what additional funding options they can pursue outside of an award package — such as scholarships or pandemic relief dollars — to reduce their cost burden. If there are any financial incentives, include those details in key communication touchpoints. Don’t assume they’ll see it on the website or social media, or that they’ll know where to look in the first place.
- Continue to communicate about financial matters over the summer. Even students who do receive financial aid may still be worried about whether they can afford to take on debt or manage their expected contributions. Stay in contact and aware of their challenges and their financial ability to continue paying for their education.
Help key departments on your campus drive real results by combining their expertise. Download the guide, Drive Enrollment with Cross-Departmental Collaboration.
Demonstrate How You’re Preparing for Admitted Students’ Success
In the survey, half of admitted students expressed concerns about being adequately prepared for college. This includes concern about their own discipline and self-motivation, study skills, life skills (such as laundry, cooking, managing finances), academic preparation and subject-matter knowledge, and general communication skills.
Students’ educational experiences have been thrown upside down by the pandemic, which may affect their confidence in their academic preparation and success. To follow through with matriculating, they may need additional reassurances that there are adequate services and support to ensure they will have a successful academic and personal transition to college.
- Don’t wait until September to start building the student experience. Tell admitted students over the summer how you are preparing for their arrival, whether it’s showing behind-the-scenes photos of staff preparing for orientation or brief explainer videos that walk students through initial experiences such as moving into housing or accessing academic assistance, like tutoring.
- Provide admitted students with a fall countdown checklist to set clear expectations about the onboarding steps, orientation activities, and first-year experiences they should be ready to complete.
- Communicate the free services and resources available to all new students. First-time college students are often not aware of the types of support that various campus departments offer.
Find out what students need when it comes to inclusion and belonging on campus. Check out Student Belonging: The Next DEI Frontier in Higher Education.
Create Early Opportunities for Students to Form Meaningful Connections
To remain top of mind over the summer, make sure your institution provides numerous ways for incoming students to engage and communicate with staff and peers. Creating and maintaining early engagement helps students feel more comfortable with their enrollment choices and builds excitement for the fall.
- Email is still the preferred communication vehicle. The majority of admitted students, regardless of age, said they prefer that institutions primarily communicate with them via email, over other forms of communication such as social media, telephone, and postal mail. Tighten up your email communication sequences for admitted students to make sure messages are clear, easy to scan, and include direct links to relevant web pages so they don’t have to hunt for information.
- Craft social media content that’s specific to welcoming new students. With social media, 80% of admitted students expressed an interest in their chosen college engaging with them via Instagram (followed by Facebook, then Snapchat, Twitter, and LinkedIn). Post content that answers common onboarding questions and illustrates that new students are not alone. Consider establishing closed online groups or pages specific to the first-year cohort.
- Facilitate ways for students to meet other students. Admitted students expressed the most interest in participating in social activities and campus tours as part of their orientation process. Provide virtual and in-person ways for students to connect with other students to ensure they feel welcomed and connected on campus before classes even begin.
Learn how other higher education leaders are preparing for the coming college enrollment decline in traditional-aged students. Watch our webinar on Reshaping Recruitment Ahead of the Enrollment Cliff.
While there will always be students who choose to defer or decline offers of admission, the more your institution can convey to new students a supportive climate with plentiful financial and academic resources, the easier it will be for potential students to decide your institution is the right place for them.
In this fast-changing enrollment market, it’s critical to keep a finger on the pulse of evolving student perceptions and sentiments. Higher education leaders can sharpen their enrollment edge by regularly surveying admitted students to gauge which factors matter most to them during the college application and acceptance process. Colleges and universities should also use various methods to follow up with nonmatriculating admitted students to find out what’s stopping them from enrolling.
Asking students what they need and showing your institution’s ability to deliver it is a winning combination that will allow more students to imagine their success on your campus.
— Michael Rodgers, PhD, Senior Market Research Advisor, Higher Education, Hanover Research