Enrollment Management, Higher Education

7 Observations in Recruiting the Student-Athlete Today

QUICK EDITORS NOTE:  You may continue to choose to read this blog post or you may watch/listen to the post as a vLOG or Video Blog – 7 minute video.

Athletics is such a significant part of the lifestyle and culture of so many young men and women today, particularly in smaller rural communities. It’s a component of their social life. It should be of no surprise that many student-athletes in high school consider continuing their athletic experience into college, at least early in exploring college options. It may very well be a comfort thing. It’s what they know. And, depending on the school – and obviously the individual – the athletic accomplishments may suggest that college athletics is a real possibility for young Johnny.

Many colleges and universities have taken advantage of this culture over the last 15-20 years increasing the number of athletic programs on college campuses and offering junior varsity and even freshman programs. While larger universities have traditionally offered intramurals, smaller colleges may simply not have the population to manage that on their own campus, but they could increase opportunities and competition with other colleges. More importantly for many colleges, the increase in athletic programs is a way to increase enrollment, something desperately needed by many colleges both then and now. It makes sense financially for many and has proven to be quite successful.

So, how has this impacted the way admission offices recruit and interact with prospective students? First, let me take you back about 20 years to my experience being recruited as a student-athlete. Of course, we have to take into consideration that the internet was only known to Al Gore (that’s a joke folks), email wasn’t available, cell phones didn’t exist in mainstream population, and it was much more difficult to share video. But, the Pony Express still delivered out of Wahoo, Nebraska at that time delivering VHS tapes to my potential college suitors. Ah, the glory days of yesteryear.

But I digress.  Connecting with high school student-athletes is different. I stop short of saying it is any easier today just because we have the technology of cell phones, email, social media, and more. But with all that said, I reflect on my experience and share some observations.

  1. More young men and women today believe they can play college ball. Maybe this this is a simple result of colleges providing more opportunities. But, I also believe that the effort to use sports as enrollment has sent the message to many that they can play college ball even when many of them will never see a minute of varsity time.
  2. Personal and sustained contacts through the recruiting process still matter. In fact, I still contend that snail mail has grown in impact since email and social media took over. My senior year I received a personal note of some kind from my college of choice almost every other week. Students still like the personal connection, particularly with schools and coaches they like.
  3. Athletic scholarships are readily available! I tell many high school athletes, if you want to play, it’s likely that someone will give you a scholarship. The amount of that scholarship, however, can vary greatly.
  4. Entitlement vs. Opportunity. I say this with some trepidation. But, my experiences have increasingly witnessed parents negotiating – serving as an agent – with colleges rather than being thankful for the opportunity.
  5. Evaluating real talent is easier. Technology has had a tremendous impact. HUDL for example has put my freshman son’s highlights in the hands of family, friends, and ultimately college coaches. But also, the increased opportunities at colleges, suggest to student-athletes that they can and should dream bigger rather than limiting their opportunities to only what they know geographically due to what they get in the mail or see on tv.
  6. Smaller colleges and universities have a value proposition they may not have had previously. Due to increased opportunities, many young men and women see the significant value in the smaller college as a place to continue playing something they love. Consider the addition of men’s volleyball and women’s wrestling at schools in the Midwest.  Would a student have considered such schools if not for athletics? For some, it comes down to the decision of playing. I’ll go to XYZ College if I want to keep playing and I’ll go to ABC University if I choose to give it up. Personally, I don’t think it should be this way but I understand the mindset.
  7. Admissions offices are greater extensions of athletic recruiting. It’s more of a partnership today to meet common goals. I remember when coaches would forbid admission offices from contacting certain recruits. Today, coaches seek and often need the support of admissions to maintain the connection with a larger number of potential recruits. I’m sure this isn’t always the case, but I’ve seen it evolve at my institutions.

Bottom line is that things have changed. I’d argue it’s a buyers market for student-athletes right now at smaller NAIA and DIII colleges and universities. That being said, we all know that not everyone can play in college. College athletics is just like high school in that winning is the objective and players who contribute best to the team and winning will be on the floor, field, or competition space. Fortunately, students get to choose how important the opportunity to continue is to them. But, they also need to be prepared for when their number doesn’t get called. Fit is important!  Hopefully, they’ve picked the college in which they can transition smoothly to experiences that will translate into a great career outside of athletics. So, for my shameless plug….I believe we do this very well at Doane College.  We have many fine students who thought they would play college sports only to find that life after organized sports can be just as rewarding as the experiences on the court.  But, like most college athletic programs, we also anxiously await all football players with a 4.2 40 speed and a 42 inch vertical leap….who meet our admittance requirements of course.

For me, like many basketball players before me, I dreamed of playing in the NBA. Unlike my days in high school, I had no recruiters looking for my services after my college career. Looks like old man’s noonball for me!  Until next time…

Standard
Enrollment Management

[March Madness] Enrollment Management

Imagine, if you will, the high school senior that creates a tournament bracket similar to college basketball and seeds each of his potential college suitors in accordance with his interest.  Then, one by one he pits each school against one another using financial aid as the sole contributing factor to the decision on which college or university moves on to the next round.  (I saw something similar to this in our student affairs office last year when a college senior created a bracket during March representing his law school choices.)  As an enrollment management professional at a private, independent college and obviously not knowing explicitly who my institution is competing with, a process like this would make me cringe.

In the admission and financial aid office at Doane College, March 13th represents the date when we make our first official financial aid offers to prospective students.  We will mail over 400 financial aid awards representing over half of the total number of awards we will make this recruiting cycle.  And, when you consider that our first “wave” of financial aid awards accounts for roughly 60% of our anticipated class, it makes sense that this is a big deal.

March is maddening, particularly in this day and age in higher education and this would be true without college basketball!  I’ve discussed in previous posts the challenges of merit aid, price, cost, and tuition.  Financial aid is a beast and a blessing in enrollment management.  No two schools develop their financial aid policy and strategy the same.  As a result, all who want to make apples to apples comparisons with financial aid awards are easily frustrated.  A consequence of this process is an increasing demand for financial aid negotiations between potential students (or the parents) and the college.  At times it’s laughable because I often see those who have the greatest ability to pay for college lobbying for the greatest amount of aid.  But, then I ask myself, “Who could blame them?”  Just because people have wealth doesn’t mean they are any more interested in parting with it.  Nevertheless, I often hear more appeals for families with the financial resources than I do for those that do not.

Those in enrollment management understand that financial aid can be very complicated and therefore isn’t always the easiest to explain to families.  Even if you can articulate your institution’s philosophy and process, good luck helping a family understand why their Expected Family Contribution is $20,000 as defined by the FAFSA.  Who hasn’t heard the comment, “I don’t have $20,000 in the bank to pay for Junior’s college each year!”?  I suppose the saving grace is to share that the EFC is calculated the same for everyone and therefore each school is using the same information.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t provide families with much comfort.

So, how does an admission counselor navigate the March Madness bracket with a prospective student in the event they focus largely on the financial aid award?  As a private, independent college, how can we compete with the local community college on price?  If you draw that match-up do you simply throw in the towel?  How about if you draw the local state institution?  Maybe you have a chance if the student isn’t getting any aid from the state school.  But what if you draw another area competitor; similar college if you will?  Slam dunk, right?  Hmmm, not so fast.  In the end, we must to talk about value.  We cannot let it be only about cost even when we know that is a significant issue.

Let me share a brief story.  A father visits Doane College with his son.  During the visit they indicate that they have received an “offer” from another private, independent college in the state totaling more than our offer.  When asked for the details of the offer in order to determine if we could find a way to be more competitive, the father indicated that he doesn’t work that way.  He is a farmer and he likened his son’s college choice to a recent purchase of a tractor. He shared, “When I need a tractor, I go to two businesses and ask for the best price on a tractor.  Whoever gives me the best offer gets my business.”  I asked the father, “Sir, were both tractors John Deere?”  He indicated that both were Case to which I replied, “Sir, in your example, what if you were comparing Case to John Deere?  Would price be your only comparison point?”  I would bet that John Deere and Case reps would work hard to argue the differences in their tractors if given the chance.  That being said, if from the beginning this farmer knew that he wanted a Case, the fact that we are John Deere is irrelevant because it’s very possible that we don’t have what you want.  Comparing Doane College to another school based only on financial aid is shortsighted and assumes that everything else is equal.  A better financial offer from us may make your decision more difficult but it sounds like this farmer and his son had already decided what they wanted.

March Madness in higher education admissions seems to be all about financial aid and less the importance of fit and comfort in a college choice.  As colleges, we create financial aid awarding strategies in order to provide enough financial aid to make enrollment possible for a target amount of prospective students while also anticipating resulting revenue.  Ultimately, our awards will not be the best award for every student.  It doesn’t (and can’t!) work that way.  But, we want to be right for 350 first-year students for sure!

Standard
Enrollment Management

Merit aid and the impact on tuition price

Eric Hoover wrote an article on January 17th, “Want to Define Merit?  Good luck.”  He accounted for a discussion among higher education enrollment officials at a conference focused on merit aid, specifically how colleges assess and reward merit aid to shape the socioeconomic and racial diversity of students at selective colleges.  I enjoyed the article but it got me thinking.  Shape socioeconomic and racial diversity?  I wish!

The term “merit aid” has grown in relevance exponentially over the last ten years for private, independent colleges.  But, merit aid is an enrollment tool used for very different reasons depending on the college.   Hoover’s article is focused on the discussion of officials from more selective colleges.  He discussed need-blind admissions, the influence of social class on students’ test scores, and the important debate surrounding the way in which colleges leverage aid to solidify diversity in enrollment.

Now, allow me the opportunity to share the world that many enrollment managers and college administrators live in related to this merit aid.  Our institutions are not considered highly selective.  We would love to shape our classes with more diversity and better test scores which typically translate into higher retention rates and ultimately stronger ratings in US News & World Report.  We thoroughly enjoy those conversations and get excited whenever the opportunity arises to participate in that discussion.  Unfortunately, our real-world, day-to-day challenges often push the discussion of shaping a class to the periphery.  Focus on that and we don’t have the enrollment to shape!  Fair to say, our issues with merit aid are different.

When colleges began offering merit, they opened Pandora’s Box.  On one hand, it was genius because it made private college attractive to many students who may have seen it as out of reach due to cost; college only for the wealthy.  On the other hand, it started a financial war which continues today.  Schools are pitted against each other fighting for the same student often not based on value of the education, but instead based on the value of a scholarship.  And, make no mistake; as the pressure to offer more merit has increased, schools have had to recoup their financial investment (net tuition revenue) in the form of tuition increases.

Because colleges offer merit with slightly different criteria, comparisons can be challenging.  There are different qualifications for different scholarship amounts.  Some scholarships are competitive whereas others are given based solely on arbitrary criteria.  Moreover, the arbitrary criteria are different at each school as is the amount attributed to the criteria.  Easy example is Doane College and Hastings College.  Very similar schools but different academic qualifications for different scholarship amounts.

As tuition-driven colleges increase merit to attract more students, it puts other similar colleges in a position to increase merit as well to be competitive in very price/cost-sensitive markets.  One college can significantly increase merit aid forcing other similar schools to do the same to stay competitive or lose enrollment.  In the private college environment, I believe this tactic erodes the value of the product we sell.  And not only that, but as I mentioned before, tuition will increase in order to recoup some of the net revenue lost by increasing aid.  I don’t expect students/parents to appreciate this or feel any remorse for colleges.  Nevertheless, merit aid war games are significantly effecting decisions made with respect to tuition and other costs at colleges today.

I’m not suggesting that merit aid is bad.  I don’t think I can make that argument.  But, it complicates an already challenging college decision.  If instead of merit, a college chose to provide financial aid based solely on need, it’s not likely that the college would meet enrollment targets, nor would it likely meet net tuition revenue targets for operational budgets.  But, some would argue that’s the “right thing to do.”  I don’t see an easy answer here but I do anticipate a change coming in higher education.  The path of more aid and increased tuition is a very rocky road at best.

I’m not minimizing the importance of the merit conversation related to Mr. Hoover’s article.  However, I think it’s important to understand that there is another merit issue unrelated to and (to me) equally important for many colleges today.  We can’t begin to shape our enrollment if we don’t have enrollment to shape.

What do you believe the role of merit aid should be in college enrollment?   

Standard