The EM Perfect Storm… just got worse and became truly the Storm of the Century!

In the 2000 movie, “The Perfect Storm,” based on the 1997 book of the same name and the true story of the Andrea Gail (1992), the crew of a fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts find themselves in the “storm of the century," a confluence of two powerful weather fronts and a hurricane, as they try to get back to port. Despite receiving warnings to wait out the storm, in order to try to save their catch, the experienced captain and crew decide to sail back to port. Complicating things for the crew, the antenna on their boat breaks, making it impossible to receive updated information about the storm or send out distress calls. Without updated information and analysis, the crew depends upon its prior experience with storms in the North Atlantic fishing grounds. To survive the perfect storm, they rely on the actions they have always taken and that have worked to survive other severe storms.

However, this storm was like no other. They needed to receive timely, reliable information and analysis by meteorologists and other experts, and they needed to think and act differently. Whether they would have made it back to their families and friends is pure speculation. However, we can state confidently that the crew would have loved updated information with expert analysis to inform their decision making and actions and increase their chance of survival.

When I started writing this piece about three weeks ago, my main point was that the enrollment management (EM) perfect storm was already here and that several factors, the change to the NACAC CEPP and the likelihood of a recession would make the storm worse. As we entered March, I included Coronavirus as an additional factor that had created uncertainty in EM and the financial impact of the pandemic may be the start of the recession. My point at that time was just like the crew of the Andrea Gail, you cannot sail through this storm doing the same things you have always done. Sailing on gut feeling and just doing more of the same old things will end up with something sinking, e.g. your institution and/or your career! EM professionals need predictive analytics to reveal likely outcomes at every point in the funnel and from initial enrollment to graduation, and most importantly, they needed prescriptive analytics to reveal what you can do to alter the likely outcomes. My bottom line recommendation was to not keep sailing the same way, doing the same things and sink, but to seek and leverage advanced analytics as the means to make timely decisions leading to actions that significantly increase the probability you reach port, i.e. achieve your enrollment goals.

COVID-19 as the Category 5 hurricane that has just entered and joined the EM Perfect Storm

However, as I finalize this piece it is clear that Coronavirus will not simply contribute to the EM perfect storm of uncertainty and that it could mark the start of a recession. Rather, it is a Category 5 hurricane that is joining the other three factors of the EM perfect storm that I address below, creating what is truly the EM Storm of the Century. We won’t know or understand the admissions and student success impacts of the Coronavirus for months and years. If you were planning on braving the EM perfect storm as we knew it prior to March 2020 through business as usual and if COVID-19 hasn’t shaken you out of your belief in the status quo, from an EM perspective, this coming decade won’t be good for your institution or you and your team.

The EM Perfect Storm before Category 5 Hurricane Coronavirus

Enrollment managers and their institutions are facing the confluence of three significant factors, just as the Andrea Gail confronted the confluence of two powerful weather fronts and a hurricane. Which factors are the fronts and which one is the hurricane will differ among institutions based on things such as region, institutional mission, and characteristics, recent trends, etc. Some institutions of higher education (IHE) have sunk or are sinking in the storm already, some are in the middle of the storm, some are just feeling the effects, and some are still outside the outer bands of wind and waves and they’re watching their colleagues battle the storm. The three factors include:

  1. Demographics. Whether your insights are coming from Nathan Grawe’s book or your own analysis of the WICHE report, you should understand where your institution and your admissions markets stand in terms of the declining number of high school(HS) graduates. In the Northeast and Midwest, schools are facing the second period of a decline in graduates, the first one occurred from around 2007 to around 2015. Even institutions that have been in regions that to date have been unaffected by a decline in graduates will be affected toward the middle and end of this decade. The changing proportion of HS graduates by ethnicity will also affect institutions, probably placing more challenges on IHEs to ensure affordability and success.
  2. Student Behavior. There are several aspects of student behavior that contribute to this part of the perfect storm. First, students don’t travel far to attend college. There have been different studies, and it is safe to say that most students will travel 150 miles or less to attend college. This behavior hasn’t changed significantly in 20 years or more, nor does it show signs it will change. In regions where the number of HS graduates has already declined, competition has increased, and students and their parents know they are in a “buyer’s market.” Secondly, students expect customized, focused engagement based on their behavior. In other words, what have they revealed about their interests, needs, buyer’s motivation, based on their interactions with the institution’s websites, emails, texts, or programs? This level of personalization, the right message at the right time, is what they receive and have received from every online retailer, entertainment provider, and social network their whole lives. Therefore, they expect it from colleges and universities. Yet, by and large, even with CRMs, most institutions are just scratching the surface of market segmentation, timing, and messaging.
  3. Affordability/value. Student behavior and affordability/value are connected and there is some overlap. The student debt situation has been presented in endless media reports and there has been significant dialog among elected officials, community leaders, and families about the level and impact of student debt. The reports and debate range from: “how can we control the rising costs of a college degree”; to: “is a college degree worth it.” The issue has created a generation of students and parents who are value oriented. They will make their decision about where to enroll based on their sense of possible outcomes over costs (Value = outcome/costs). You have all heard questions from parents and/or students: “If I spend this much for a college education, what job will I get when I graduate and what will I be paid, or what graduate/professional school will I be admitted to?” The value orientation contributes to the competitive landscape, especially in regions with fewer HS graduates. Affordability and value have also resulted in a long-overdue focus from IHEs on improving retention and graduation rates. Student debt is a burden, but it can be an unmanageable burden for someone who doesn’t graduate.

Regardless of the severity of each factor and where the institution is in relation to the enrollment perfect storm, the bottom line is that all institutions will be affected by the storm this decade.

What is making the storm worse?

The factors above are difficult to manage, impossible to manage if the enrollment leader and team are being weighed down by a reliance on the same type of data they have always gathered and doing the same things they have always done as opposed to using advanced analytics to make better decisions and optimize resources.

Yet, several factors are making the enrollment perfect storm worse - the winds are getting stronger and the waves are getting higher!

  1. Changes to the NACAC CEPP. After the vote at NACAC last September, I was talking to colleagues at the conference and sharing that I thought that by and large as a profession we would continue to operate as if the CEPP had not changed. However, they shared they knew that some institutions hadn’t been abiding by the CEPP for several years and that slowly, over time, more and more schools would recruit after May 1 and seek transfers from students who enrolled elsewhere. The competitiveness borne out of the demographic realities would lead almost every IHE in that direction. However, I believe many of us were surprised to read recently that over a third of enrollment leaders were considering taking those actions. I am confident that after many leaders read the report that they and their teams began to strategize what they will do after May 1 and how they will recruit transfer students. I am even more confident these discussions are happening given the timing and impacts of COVID-19. This is a new situation that will require data and analysis to develop and implement effective and efficient tactics.
  2. Recession. After the longest Bull Market and period of economic growth in history, for many months many leading economists have predicted that a recession is looming. Whether the economic turmoil associated with COVID-19 marks the beginning of that recession or the economy will rebound in the short term remains to be seen. Regardless, when the true recession hits, students and families will become even more cost sensitive and debt averse. Competition in the market will increase as schools scramble to achieve their enrollment goals. Some students will not be able to remain enrolled and retention and graduation rates will decline. Do you have the means to optimize your financial aid to enroll, retain, and graduate the type and number of students you want to?

This amount of uncertainty and turbulence is more than we have ever encountered

Some would rightly say there has always been uncertainty in enrollment management; that enrollment leaders have always had to find ways to weather a storm; that by and large, an experienced crew doing what they have always done will ensure we reach the port and achieve our goals. However, just as Andrea Gail and her crew discovered, enrollment leaders and their institutions are in the middle of a different storm. It is not one severe system, but several storm systems that are gathering to create more tactical and strategic challenges than higher education has ever experienced, particularly as it relates to enrollment management. Again, surely Coronavirus has shocked you to that realization.

Unlike the Andrea Gail, your antenna hasn’t broken, although it is unlikely that it is the best for this storm. If you depend upon the old antenna, i.e. descriptive analytics, what happened, and diagnostic analytics, why it happened, and rely upon the same tactics you have always used, there is a good chance your ship, i.e. your institution, will sink… and you may go down with the ship.

The time for action is now. You need advanced radar to “see” the storms and mitigate as much uncertainty as possible. You need sound data-informed recommendations to react at the right time with the right action. You need predictive analytics, what will likely happen, and most importantly, prescriptive analytics, how can I affect the outcome(s). The Othot platform provides the predictive and prescriptive analytics that will help you navigate the huge waves and slashing winds of uncertainty and not only help get you to port, i.e. achieve your enrollment goals, but ensure you limit damage, ensuring you’re ready to sail again quickly and achieve strategic enrollment management success.