It Takes More than Just Good System

Posted: 28/09/2022
by: Ian Thomson

Every few years an out-of-control truck hurtles down the South-eastern Freeway from the Adelaide Hills, heading towards the Adelaide CBD. Several arrestor beds are in place but are often missed, often resulting in terrible consequences at the end of the freeway. There are now calls for another arrestor bed to help reduce this alarming occurrence.

I tell you about this because I was reminded of the unfortunate analogy with higher education admissions, which often start as a highly aspirational funnel of students with big dreams at the top of the hill and a plethora of providers with welcoming smiles at the bottom.  Both groups end up unhappy with the outcome.

As total student load has dropped through 2022, the thoughts of many providers have turned to how this slide can be arrested, and what tactics can be put in place to deliver improved outcomes for each individual institution.

I have had the opportunity to work on admissions across multiple universities over the last 18 months to understand their situation and to help determine a path forwards. The numbers have been frightening. On average, for these universities, for every 100 students who start the application process, only 18 are still there, and paying, at the first census date.

Table 1 shows the average data across the universities we have worked with on admissions this year.

From that 100 who start an application, only 58 get an offer (some don’t meet entry requirements, many don’t complete the application). Of the 58 who get an offer, only 36 accept. Only 22 of those who accepted enrol in subjects and register for classes. And then only 18 are still enrolled at census date.

That’s a lot of money invested in marketing, recruitment, systems, people and infrastructure, and a lot of hard work completed, to get such a small return. And the picture is even worse if we look at government data showing the loss of around 20% after census date in first year. That potentially leaves us with only 14 students from our original 100 by the end of the first year.

Maybe another arrestor bed is needed.

Sadly, there isn’t a simple reason for this lack of conversion and there isn’t a simple solution. With fewer applications through a local Tertiary Admission Centre (TAC) and more coming direct to the provider, it is a lot easier for students to offer shop across numerous providers. But offer-shopping alone does not account for these numbers.

There are as many potential actions as there are reasons to lose students through the process. You must start somewhere. Focus on areas where you achieve the most, be prepared to fail fast and adjust as you go.

Here are some tips on where you can start to improve your returns:

  1. Collect and share data in a timely manner – the better you understand the data, the more likely you are to be able to take meaningful action in a timeframe where you can make a difference. Share this data across multiple areas – it’s not just an Admissions Team challenge. If necessary, meet and action every day. A cross-university task force meeting daily can deliver fast and responsive actions that work.
  2. Break students into cohorts – all students are not the same, but neither are they all different. A cohort should be a group whose characteristics or behaviours make them similar enough to respond to a particular action. 8 to 10 cohorts are manageable. Drive your activity by cohorts. Measure your success and don’t be afraid to fail; but learn from your actions.
  3. Make your institution easy to deal with – ensure you provide prospective students with the information they need, plus the information they want. Make it easy to apply and accept. Try to collect just what you need to assess an application but avoid collecting everything you need for a student in this phase of their journey. Make offers quickly (but not too quickly).
  4. Think about the right messaging – whether its emails, calls, or texts: think about what you are saying and how you are saying it. A school-leaver applying for their first degree needs a different message to a 45-year-old considering a master’s degree. The Student Journey mapping we have done in the past few years shows students are at their most excited and proud at the time of receiving their offer; so make sure your offer letter enhances that excitement. Yes, their next steps are important, and you want them to enrol, but the offer letter is like a second date – they can still walk away at this point if you’re too administrative and boring.
  5. Make it personal – don’t just send a generic email to every student. Customise communication. Engage students in their final or penultimate year who know your institution to call prospective students. Even better, get a student from the same discipline area to call them. The personal contact is priceless, and the outcomes are so much better. But, make sure you train and monitor your student helpers – and reward them appropriately.
  6. Don’t be a penny pincher – in my experience at one university, every 1% increase in students was worth $1 million in income. Yes, monitor expenditure and results, hold people accountable, but don’t expect results if you’re not willing to invest in the process.

Contact DVE to find out how we can help you with student acquisition and retention.