Enrollment Management

FAFSA Rank Dilemma

Quick, list five of your favorite vacation destinations.  Don’t over-think it and don’t worry about priority order.  Now, once you’ve listed each destination go back and give them a rank order.  Does the order change much from your initial list?

I believe if I would do this activity with a large group of people, the priority order (particularly the first and second destination) would remain the same.  While I’m no psychologist, I think it’s human nature when asked to provide a list – even without any type of ranking expectations – we subconsciously prioritize our responses.

So, what does this have to do with enrollment management?  Right now all over the United States, students and families are completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  On this application, students are invited to release their FAFSA information to potential college suitors.  The paper version of the FAFSA allows for a student to send information to four schools while the electronic application allows for up to ten schools.  To be clear, the application does not require students to identify colleges in priority or rank order.  But, “for state aid”, they do suggest that a student may choose to put their preferred college first.  Here is a great article that illustrates this particular component of the application.

Colleges and universities have come under a bit of scrutiny as of late for attempting to leverage the rank order influence enrollment, creating a strategy around the rank location of their institution on the student’s FAFSA.  Here is a great article highlighting how some colleges utilize the FAFSA data. A Noel-Levitz analysis of 153 of their campus partners provides some great data on enrollment actions relative to FAFSA rank position.  The resulting data shows that students chose the first school listed on the FAFSA by an overwhelming margin (64%) even though they can list up to 10 schools.  There are those critics who question whether the rank position should be shared with colleges by FAFSA suggesting that it is private information.  Moreover, given that the rank position is currently shared, what is an ethically acceptable way for a college to use the information? 

Colleges have been monitoring and assessing FAFSA data for some time, but rarely have I seen colleges make public how they use the information, let alone if they use the information strategically.  Is it wrong for a college to take advantage of this information?  I’ve considered the opinion of those who believe the rank order is private information and therefore should not be shared with colleges.  Personally, as an enrollment leader at Doane College, I’m a proponent of using every bit of available data possible to enroll a class.  For my institution, the yield on students who have put us in the first FAFSA location has been between 64% and 68% the last three years.  However, yield on students who have put us in the second FAFSA location has been varied more greatly between 14% and 25%.  Not surprisingly, students who put us in the third location or lower, yield at a very low rate.  Therefore, the Doane College data supports the Noel-Levitz analysis. I think it makes perfect sense that if we are number 8 on a student’s FAFSA, it’s unlikely that the student will enroll at Doane.  I’m not sure we really had much of a chance with that student.

A component of the privacy issue is the notion that colleges use the information unethically.  An example could be the practice of providing students less aid if a student lists your school first on the FAFSA.  In theory, if you are the student’s first choice, you may not need to give them as much aid to enroll as a student who lists you in the number two position.  This is a possible tactic.  However, I think it’s a risky decision by a school and a practice that I’m not sure many schools are willing to test.  It stands to reason that a school knowing the lower yield on lower rankings may try to increase yield in other areas, but not necessarily at the expense of what yields well.  In this vein, I’ll share two important questions reflecting on recent Doane College FAFSA data.

#1 – Why is Doane losing 32%- 36% of those that put Doane in the first location?

#2 – Why did Doane see such a significant change in yield from one year to the next with those that put Doane in the second location.

FAFSA position data for individual students helps me answer these questions.  For both questions, I evaluate the schools that Doane College was competing with (or who also received the student’s FAFSA information).  Although this will not tell me the complete story, it will help me to understand if I was competing with another in-state private college on students who put me as #1 but did not enroll.  It will also tell me if I was competing with public university on students who put me as #2 but did not enroll.  In fact, the data gives me a great idea regarding the competition with individual students, but it is short-sighted to think there were no other factors in the student decision, much of which can’t be learned by FAFSA ranking.  Nevertheless, couple FAFSA information with additional data we have internally and a more clear picture can emerge.

I believe that while the FAFSA does not explicitly ask students to provide the schools in any particular order, students are inclined to list schools in order of their interest at the time of the FAFSA filing.  I see nothing wrong with this and believe even if FAFSA added the statement explicitly stating that order does not matter, it’s likely that the order and ultimately yields based on these orders would not change substantially.  All this being said, colleges use the data that is available to them to assist in meeting enrollment objectives.  In the event this data becomes unavailable to colleges, enrollment managers will be forced to adapt.  Personally, I don’t consider this an ethical dilemma.

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