Skip to main content

Best practices for an unusual US admissions cycle amid coronavirus

COVID-19 and changes to the NACAC code of ethics have created new challenges and uncertainties for institutions seeking to enroll students for fall 2020. Applying best practices can help universities even beyond May 1.

When it comes to enrollment leading up to the start of classes each fall, enrollment management teams and admissions offices across US universities are accustomed to facing uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this phenomenon. Typically, universities ramp up their high-contact admissions activities in March and April; this year they have faced unprecedented uncertainty around virtual engagement models and enrollment figures. Indeed, a quarter of students who had decided on a school are reconsidering where to enroll, and 20 percent say it’s likely they won’t attend a higher education institution in the fall. 1 In a recent survey that asked university presidents to name their primary worries about the pandemic, 42 percent had enrollment at the top of their lists. 2

These uncertainties come on top of recent changes to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Code of Ethics and Professional Practice that have upended how universities think about the admissions cycle. Historically, universities could rest assured that the number of students who had deposited with them by May 1 served as a reasonable indicator of fall enrollment. Previous NACAC stipulations allowed universities only to engage with those students who had submitted a deposit by this date. Thus, past this date, they would switch from focusing on yield (the percentage of admitted students who pay confirmation deposits) to focusing on melt (the percentage of students who deposit by the admissions deadline but decide not to enroll in the fall).

But the changes to the Code of Ethics in late 2019 open up the possibility of recruiting incoming freshman well past May 1 and throughout the fall—and also trying to persuade former admits who ultimately enrolled elsewhere to transfer. 3 These changes are expected to increase choice and offer greater flexibility to students, but they also spell intense competition for colleges and universities nationwide—and blur the distinction between yield and melt activities, which may now occur up until students enroll in the fall (Exhibit 1). Universities had just begun developing strategies to cope with this competition, including offering free “experiential” summer credits and early-deposit financial aid awards, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing them to reconsider their approaches and juggle additional new uncertainties. 4

We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at: McKinsey_Website_Accessibility@mckinsey.com

The full effects of COVID-19 on the fall 2020 term—from enrollment numbers to the timing of campuses reopening—are still unknown, as is the impact of the change to the Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. But enrollment management teams can still take a few tactical steps to drive up yield and reduce melt beyond May 1—even in this highly ambiguous environment.

Tactical measures to address enrollment challenges

Tuition is typically one of the largest sources of revenues at US universities, and enrollment sets the morale of the campus for the academic year. Enrollment is even more critical now, when both the financial resilience and cultural fabric of institutions are being tested.

Most institutions have adapted their enrollment strategies to this admissions cycle’s unique challenges. These strategies differ based on each institution’s scenario planning, dependence on tuition revenues, financial resilience, value proposition, and ability to serve students remotely. They are also informing a wide variety of operational decisions. As of April 27, 2020, more than 400 universities have delayed their enrollment-deposit deadline beyond May 1. 5 Several schools are offering alternate payment plans for families whose income has been affected by COVID-19, making accommodations for enrollment documents, and being flexible regarding test-score submissions.

Independent of strategy or operational choices, a few best practices could help institutions increase yield and decrease melt. The following practices have helped universities raise yield to as high as 25 percent (compared with 15 to 18 percent, which is typical for most institutions) and reduce melt to 5 percent (compared with 10 to 15 percent for most institutions). One midsize liberal arts university that adhered to these practices experienced a 25 to 30 percent growth in its incoming freshman class, which it was able to sustain for three consecutive cycles. Similarly, a large public university that deployed these strategies saw a 4 to 5 percent increase in its incoming freshman class. Such results may not be replicable in the current landscape, but these practices would certainly help mitigate the challenges universities are facing—and they just might be the difference between institutions that successfully navigate this enrollment cycle and those that struggle.

Coordinate the approach through an enrollment command center

Universities can organize their responses to today’s challenges. 6 Distributed responsibility and layered decision making do not typically lend themselves to the fast-paced enrollment yield and melt cycle, especially in a highly unpredictable landscape like the current one. Institutions should thus consider a nimble but coordinated approach through an enrollment command center.

An enrollment command center brings together people from offices across the university—from admissions and enrollment management to financial aid and academic departments—in a single group (Exhibit 2). Such a group is characterized by a fast-paced, agile way of working, frequent communication, and a willingness to be held accountable to outcomes (not just actions). Moreover, this group operates with a problem-solving mindset and commitment to resolving bottlenecks to meet goals. Foundational activities for the group might include assigning responsibility for the most important yield and melt activities for each day, tracking progress, and holding each other accountable. Ideally, the group meets regularly: daily between early March and early May and two or three times a week thereafter through the start of the fall term. In the current environment, universities should consider maintaining a more frequent meeting cadence through the summer than in previous years.

We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at: McKinsey_Website_Accessibility@mckinsey.com

Make enrollment a campuswide call to action beyond May 1

It’s the responsibility of everyone at the institution—faculty, staff, and current students—to enroll new students, ensure they have a great and personalized experience, and help them succeed. Universities can empower these groups in a few ways:

  • Articulate roles for faculty and staff. Outline clear expectations for both faculty and staff to write personalized notes or call prospective students and parents, addressing yield and melt.
  • Develop student-to-student touchpoints. Enlist the support of current students and alumni to engage with prospective students—for example, by answering their questions and concerns through texting campaigns and buddy programs.
  • Create opportunities for virtual engagement. For example, offer virtual office hours with student groups, live video hangouts with faculty across departments, and virtual events that encourage admitted students to get to know one another, engage in social media, and discover a sense of community.
  • Loop in the university’s board. Encourage board members to participate in virtual events, vouching and baring their passion for the institution. Parents and students will recognize and appreciate the commitment.

Prioritize equity

Enrollment management leaders and university presidents should focus not just on seating this year’s class and securing deposits but also on ensuring equity and diversity. Institutions that have stayed on top of scenario planning and financial stress testing will find that available relief funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and existing grants, waivers, deferments, and cash-management strategies can help them weather the financial impact of COVID-19 while staying true to their mission of providing equitable access to meritorious students with high financial need.

Universities should also think ahead a few months and develop plans to offer programs that are critical to student success and retention, such as virtual community building, career-support services, cohort-bonding exercises, student-club experiences, and multiple additional virtual touchpoints with alumni. These nuances will be particularly relevant for first-generation and international students, students from minority groups, and those at greater risk of attrition. Universities that lean on alumni, student-affairs staff, faculty, and current students to support these programs will have a significant advantage in attracting a diverse class this admissions cycle.

Examine data to prioritize quality of engagement, not quantity of activity

Improving the quality of engagement through data is not about adding a heap of new activities to the enrollment team’s plate but rather about strategically rebalancing and reprioritizing existing work.

  • Conduct historical year-over-year benchmarking to determine whom to focus on. Analyze different subpopulations of students by benchmarking deposit rates against those of previous years, and focus time on students who are most likely to enroll.
  • Study marketing engagement to tailor outreach to specific student populations. Focus efforts on targeted, data-driven (rather than mass, generalized) communication. For example, universities can send students personalized emails based on the student-club or department web page they visited.
  • Analyze web-engagement data and other metrics to identify who is most likely to confirm a spot in the class. Prioritize calling this selected group of individuals rather than everyone on the admitted list.
  • Assign tasks with timelines to everyone in the enrollment command center and track actions and expected outcomes. For instance, track admission counselors’ engagement with accepted students in a systematized way. If a phone or text exchange occurs, analyze it to establish the right next steps, such as referring the student to the relevant academic department.

Consider carefully what, how, and to whom you communicate

It is important to remember that choosing a college is one of the biggest decisions of students’ lives. The decision may be similarly weighty for these students’ parents. The gravity of that decision is exacerbated now, and the way institutions communicate will be critical in shaping prospective students’ experiences—and their ultimate decision. Indeed, about 60 percent of students’ decisions could be influenced by how schools handle this situation. 7

Colleges and universities should make sure they are articulate and explicit about the issues and concerns that are top of mind for students and parents:

  • Make it easy for students to access information. Lower the barriers to information that students have the right to receive—for instance, information about funding available under the CARES Act for technology and relocation costs. Develop simple FAQs and prepare clear scripts for admissions counselors.
  • Reinforce the institution’s value proposition. Emphasize what might be most appealing about the institution on the website, in mailers, in student-facing brochures, and on social media channels. These factors include affordability, class size, proximity to particular students’ homes, or quality of distance-learning options.
  • Proactively reach out to parents and guardians. Help them understand not only the financial options for their student but also the institution’s unique value proposition in career preparedness. Also address their concerns about remote learning and the campus experience.
  • Provide ongoing training for all admissions counselors, faculty, and students involved with taking student and parent questions. Remind them about parents’ and students’ potential mindsets due to the current complexity. Everyone interacting with students or parents must be compassionate, patient, and prepared to answer questions clearly.

Improve transparency on enrollment for senior leadership

Simple enrollment dashboards can track key metrics—such as number of applications, admits, deposits, declines, and confirmed enrollments—and compare them with historical data (Exhibit 3). Some of the data in these dashboards are akin to trade secrets, so institutions will understandably need to limit access and ensure confidentiality. Well-designed, appropriately distributed dashboards serve three functions:

  • Support efforts to create greater ownership across campus. Having insight into metrics allows leaders to cascade and champion the message of enrollment priorities and encourages more people to volunteer for enrollment initiatives.
  • Build and sustain momentum. Our experience with institutions that have undergone large-scale transformations underscores the critical importance of demonstrating early wins and quick results when working toward a substantial goal. 8 Sharing progress through dashboards allows people to rally around and celebrate successes on a daily basis but also accelerate efforts when initiatives fail.
  • Communicate a common purpose across silos. Times of high uncertainty call for scenario planning and financial stress testing. Improved visibility for leadership across campus units into the enrollment trajectory can improve awareness when enrollment is down and encourage austerity in budgeting and more collaboration across units.
We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at: McKinsey_Website_Accessibility@mckinsey.com

The largest institutions and best-known higher education brands in the country may still be following the same timeline and yield and melt cycles as always, with similar results. However, for most midsize liberal arts institutions, brands with regional presence, and nonflagship public universities, this year’s admissions cycle has led to a rolling and highly unusual process. With 37 percent of high school seniors considering a college closer to home than they would have prior to COVID-19, 9 it is even more important that schools continuously address all parts of the admissions funnel. The enrollment command center must not only continue focusing on yield and melt through the summer but also keep an active eye on new applications and processing time to keep adding to their prospective students. Indeed, thoughtful and proactive engagement and close monitoring throughout the cycle will be crucial.

Those universities that continuously track and adapt as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds are most likely to be the winners in this year’s admissions cycle.

Related Articles