The admissions hype machine has a predictable pattern. 

First, we talk about rankings. One side says they don’t matter. Yet, magazine sales and PR machines would demonstrate otherwise.

Second, we see articles about admissions offices snooping on a student’s social media and how students need to be careful about what they post. While it is true that students should take care when posting to social media; the reality is that the vast majority of admissions professionals don’t have the time to check every potential student’s Snapchat or Facebook page.

There are other easy targets (like cost/affordability, the validity of standardized testing and efforts to support diversity) which are valid conversations to be had. With that said, most of these “hype factors” typically focus on things that are really only the top 1% (of schools and the income bracket alike). That is why the recent Washington Post article focused on student privacy caught my eye.

To summarize the article, it focuses on the negative opportunities with respect to leveraging website traffic and predictive analytics to inform decision making and outreach. The reason I find this article particularly interesting is that for the first time in recent memory it focuses on the other 99% of schools that don’t fill their class with legacy admits and rely on the illusion of over-hyped selectivity to fill their class. Institutions that partner with companies like Capture Higher Ed and Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL), for the most part, do so because they need to do everything they can to fulfill the mission of their institution and they cannot do it alone.

The institutions who use this type of data to recruit are the ones who are looking for students to enroll … not looking for students to deny.

The Economic Realities of the Higher Education Industry

When looking at it through the lens of a business, the admissions office is your sales team. The difference between an admissions office and a sales team in other industries, however, is that at “traditional” 4-year, 2-year, public and private institutions they are not given financial incentives (commissions) for enrolling students. In fact, their job simply depends on it. The admissions officers that I know (and I know a lot!) are truly mission driven people that have students at the forefront of everything they do.

At many corporations the head of sales is given a wealth of resources and data and is given the directive to “close the deal”. Teams that hit their goal are oftentimes given lavish rewards like trips and gifts. Admissions offices who hit their goal (when not at the top 99%) are told to bring in more next year, bringing in a “better” mix, while doing it again with fewer resources this time.

If you consider the Dean of Admission or VP of Enrollment as your “head of sales”, imagine having the wants and needs of the customer (the student and their family) at the forefront of your mind while also having the conflicting priorities of the institution to balance. Wouldn’t you want as much data to inform your decisions as possible? Of course it goes without saying, without enrollments most institutions will not survive.

How Recruiting with Data Helps Students

Much of the thinking around using data like web visits and predictive analytics is looked at as a negative. The default assumption is that admissions officers are going to use the data to exclude lower income students or at-risk populations from their recruitment pools. What if I told you it’s the opposite? 

Predictive analytics and engagement data can be leveraged in a number of ways to support students more effectively; helping them make the most informed decisions possible. This includes very simple and logical things, like:

  • If you know a student has visited your financial aid page multiple times, presenting them with more detailed information (like a booklet or a step-by-step video) makes it easier. Or better yet, maybe even a personalized text or phone call a day or two later to make sure that student got what they were looking for!
  • If a student who has engaged with you in the past but disappeared, the counselor assigned to that student can be smarter about their use of time and know that now is a better time to reach out to that student. Who doesn’t prefer an email when they are actually interested vs. when they are not?
  • Many institutions are actually actively seeking students from either low income, at-risk, or traditionally under-served communities. PlatformQ Education actually partners with Strive for College to help institutions that specifically meet that criteria. Having insights into these factors, more often than not, can be helpful for institutions trying to ensure they are best serving these students through the process.

Is there a potential for the software being used to gather these insights to be used for evil? Sure. But more often than not the focus of the admissions dean is to compete with other schools for right fit students … not to hurt the students themselves. 

Students First?

Once again, I believe the vast majority of institutions are using behavioral data and predictive analytics to make better decisions to better support students. Companies like Capture Higher Ed and RNL are part of a movement to help institutions save time, save money and recruit smarter. 

  • Better insights means better list purchasing, which leads to less confusion by students when receiving unsolicited mail and emails from potential colleges
  • Better analytics means smarter follow-up and better prioritization of time by the “sales force” of the institution, leading the better experiences by students and less turnover on the staff
  • Better data overall means better support for students of all populations, which leads to better overall outcomes … from the point of student inquiry through happy alumni engagement.

Don’t fear the use of big data. And as always, don’t be evil.