The Reality of Decision Day

Over the past couple of months, many higher ed institutions officially extended the traditional May 1 deadline for students to accept admission, and many others unofficially accepted decisions later than normal. The question on everyone’s mind – what’s the impact of that change on May 1 enrollment?

May 1 enrollment is defined as May 1 deposits for Fall enrollment.

Looking at our own data, along with other analyses and surveys, we see some signs for optimism. As a team that works in data science, we recognize that smaller sample sizes may not be statistically applicable, however, we thought sharing current outcomes may benefit the higher ed community.

In this blog post, we share trends that we’ve found among our partner institutions based on their current actual enrollment. All findings are aggregated and anonymized.

How are overall enrollment rates trending?

When comparing May 1, 2020 deposits to May 1, 2019 deposits, the average rate across all of our partners appears bleak. The data shows results of -13.0%. This puts equal weight on each partner, factors in extreme outliers, and is the simplest way to digest the actual results.

But looking at the sum of all deposits from all institutions from May 1, 2020, to May 1, 2019, the trend shows -3.8%. A quick inference would lead us to believe that larger enrollment institutions may actually be faring better in the current environment given that their larger numbers are skewing the average to a more normal level (more on this later).

Public vs. Private Higher Ed Institutions

As a natural next step in segmentation, we reviewed the trends between public institution and private institution partners. There are concerns about affordability which could prompt prospective students to select a public institution (assuming a residency tuition benefit). However, when we compare the average rate of deposits for public institution partners from May 1, 2020, to May 1, 2019, we see -12.7%. Private institution partners have an average rate of -13.7%. While the results slightly favor public institutions, the variation is limited.

One distinction between public and private institutions could be size, but as we saw, there wasn’t much variation between the two. If we come back to our inference from our overall enrollment comparison, larger enrollment institutions are skewing the results.

Large vs. Small Institutions

For the next segmentation, we reviewed differences between institutions that enroll greater than 2,000 new first-time students to those that enroll less than 2,000.

The institutions that have greater than 2,000 new first-time enrollment show slightly better results than last year at +0.4%. The institutions with less than 2,000 new first-time enrollment have a negative rate of -18.9%.

We reviewed the data leading up to May 1 in more detail because of this drastic difference. Some of the larger institutions had similar slowing rates this year. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the quantity of applicants and admits was actually higher than in prior years. This illustrates that while larger institutions are still outperforming last year as of May 1, 2020, they still had a similar decline in conversion as all of the other institutions.

Geographic Regions

Finally, we reviewed the performance trends by geographic areas. There were already enrollment concerns in the Northeast due to declining populations, and the pandemic has placed an even larger spotlight on declining populations.

Our Pittsburgh neighbors at Niche wrote a great article highlighting survey results about student decision behavior. The overlap with trends in our own data was uncanny, especially reviewing the Northeast region and other key pockets throughout the country.

There were so many geographic trends that we could get lost for days. For the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on the impact to the Northeast. When comparing the average deposit rate from May 1, 2020, to May 1, 2019, partner institutions within the Northeast are seeing a rate of -21.4%. Compare that to the rest of the country at -10.9%.

It is eye opening how prior concerns are compounded by the emerging concerns from the COVID-19 pandemic. One caveat, more of our partner institutions in the Northeast officially postponed decision deadlines until later (e.g. June 1) which could have a direct impact on a slower rate of deposits around May 1.

What Next?

There is still a long way to go to enroll students for the Fall term, including driving deposits and summer melt mitigation. There is a lot to determine around how higher ed will operate in the fall, and every new change will create more variation in how enrollment numbers will look. May 1 may have provided some indication, but we know it wasn’t the May 1 of old.