Student Success

Fit or Funnel: ACT’s Bet on NRCCUA

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A couple of weeks ago it was announced that ACT, the organization best-known for its undergraduate admissions standardized test, acquired NRCCUA, provider of enrollment management solutions and the country’s largest free college planning program. The combination of two big players in any industry tends to signal something important. So what might that be?

Full disclosure, Eduventures is the research division of NRCCUA (The National Research Center for College and University Admissions), and has been for almost two years. Regardless of ownership, we live or die based on our reputation for independent thought leadership in higher education, so here is our take on what the combination means.

Let’s start with some context. U.S. higher education has experienced 30 years of record enrollment growth, but this growth is flattening. High school graduation and college-going rates continue to edge up but underlying population trends are negative in much of the country or will be within a decade.

More first-generation, under-represented minority, and low-income students are attending college. We know from our Prospective Student Survey that these students bring a different set of expectations and challenges to college.

Additionally, public funding per student has not kept pace even while colleges have steadily accommodated an ever-broader swathe of the high school cohort, ratcheting up sticker price, discount rates, and student debt.

Improved student support is moving college graduation rates in the right direction. But even allowing for transfers, barely 50% of traditional-aged undergraduates complete in four years, and many nontraditional students stand a high chance of not completing at all.

In summary, higher education is more important than ever but much is in doubt. In such circumstances, choosing the right school—and the right students—is critical. Placing the wrong bet only increases the risk of poor ROI.

This is the home turf of ACT and NRCCUA. This combination recognizes that when it comes to recruiting students, there are two basic strategies:

  1. A funnel strategy. Casting a wide net, institutions view volume as the key to hanging on to enough prospects through the twists and turns of the enrollment process. Aided in recent years by improved technology—like constituent relationship management (CRM) systems—to enhance communications, the funnel strategy nods to the fact that interest in higher education is mainstream and students have many similar schools to choose from.
  2. A precision strategy. The premise here is that student and schools are more different than alike. Institutions employ granular data about their best enrolled students to target fewer but better-fit prospects. With appropriately customized messaging designed to highlight a more authentic match, a greater percentage of this smaller pool are moved to enroll. In theory, once they do, these students will go on to be successful students and grateful alumni.

In reality, these strategies are two ends of a continuum. No school outreaches indiscriminately, and raw volume plays a role at even the most data savvy institutions. While many schools overplay their alleged uniqueness, distinctive features—often invisible to prospects—can play an outsized role in student success.

By buying NRCCUA, ACT is betting that more schools will adopt “precision” strategies. Together, the combined companies represent the nation’s most popular admissions test and college planning tool. They would argue this amounts to the most intelligence available about the evolving goals, perceptions, and characteristics of prospective college students. Throw in NRCCUA’s predictive models and funnel visualization tools, and the newly combined company can make a claim to have the best data and the best science.

But are they placing the right bet?

Certainly, it doesn’t take long to find discontentment with the status quo. Industry blog posts and white papers like: “Reinventing the Enrollment Funnel,” “Retooling the Enrollment Funnel,” and “The Traditional Admission Funnel is Broken,” date back years.

And nowhere is the tension between a funnel strategy and a precision strategy more evident than in the ever-escalating college application frenzy: more students applying to more schools, filling the top of everyone’s enrollment funnels, only to melt away in greater number than ever before. This was the topic of last week’s Wake-Up Call, Stop (the Application) Madness!

Of course, the most elite schools are inundated with applicants, but even many of these have trouble finding the right out-of-state students, say, or specific under-represented populations.

In a crowded market with flattening demand where boosting student retention is mission-critical, doubling down on generic recruitment seems unlikely to be a winning strategy. Schools want recruitment to be both more effective and efficient. For students, a recruitment approach defined by the weight of emails or brochures with little understanding of prospects as individuals, makes an already high stakes process even more opaque. More precise recruitment techniques lend credibility to institutional desire for distinctiveness and students’ desire for fit.

So far, so logical, but what are the risks of betting on a precision strategy? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Short-term gain: data science will give early movers a leg up but the process may commoditize.
  • Artificial ignorance: the nuances—and irrationalities—of individual students may outwit the best algorithms.
  • An opaque process: even with greater data precision, unless the admissions process can be made more transparent, student anxiety may continue to drive applications ever higher, obscuring the outcome for many schools.
  • The student experience: in the end, “fit” may turn on post-enrollment factors. Unless schools are willing and able to quantify such things and add them to the predictive model, a big piece of the puzzle will be missing.

The ACT/NRCCUA combination is a bold move. A more precise approach to recruitment speaks to student and institutional pain points. There are other angles on this story for another day—not least the evolution of standardized testing as an indicator of college readiness. Recruitment will always be both science and art; no amount of data science will change that. The new ACT/NRCCUA aims to make recruitment more artful, by being more scientific.

Most studies on the communication preferences of college-bound high school students focus on prospective students' reactions to institutional marketing and outreach.

The forthcoming Eduventures®’ Student Sentiment Survey™ takes these insights to the next level by marrying student marketing preferences with our six Prospective Student Mindsets™, and deriving data-driven search strategies to help enrollment leaders make better informed decisions about their time, efforts, and budgets. This presentation will preview five key findings from our proprietary national sample of over 4,700 high school juniors and seniors with ample opportunity for discussion and discovery.

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