Traditional Student Demand

The Myth of May 1st: When Students Really Choose to Enroll

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In this digital age, the last minute cascade of deposits that arrive on May 1st can lull institutions into believing that they have a chance right up until the bitter end. This, of course, is not true.

For selective admissions institutions, the artificial constructs of early admissions, regular admissions, and deposit deadlines obscure the organic timing of student decisions. While no decision is set in stone until a student shows up for class, it is often locked in well in advance of even placing the admissions deposit – the institution just doesn’t know it yet.

We see evidence of this when we compare students who take two of our national surveys of college-bound high school students at critical points in the admissions funnel: the Prospective Student Survey™ (application) and the Survey of Admitted Students™ (enrollment).

In December and January, 15% of prospective students say they have already received an offer of admission and only 4% have officially accepted that offer. Yet, in May and June, when we field the Survey of Admitted Students, nearly a quarter (23%) tell us they made their enrollment decisions prior to January (Figure 1).


Cumulative Enrollment Decisions When did you make your enrollment decision?Figure 1.


What accounts for this disparity?

First, many students are still waiting to get into the school of their dreams. Second, students are diligently withholding their enrollment decisions until all the information is in their hands. The deadline structures of the marketplace, not the student's desire to make a decision, determine how we perceive behavior. , but you can be assured they hadn’t placed their deposits yet.

What ramifications does this lag between consumer behavior and marketplace structures have for yielding students? We believe that institutions that are successful in managing yield manage to the consumer behavior driving this yield curve.

A Continuous Yield Philosophy

Simply put, yield is about getting students to a level of commitment, maintaining that commitment through deposit, mitigating melt, and making a successful enrollment. In practice, of course, it is not simple. We can benchmark it with hard discrete milestones, but it requires continuous work.

Good admissions teams know their numbers; great admissions teams also know their students. Admissions reporting that focuses on real-time, year-to-year comparisons of key metrics are crucial to managing performance, but are only part of the picture. Using both admissions counselors and technology to track student engagement, interests, and outreach during yield helps institutions get at least personalized, if not downright personal. This allows institutions to influence what is happening.

It’s also useful for institutions to consider yielding students without these deadline-based constructs in the way; to think about filling the yield curve when the students are making the commitment to the institutions in their heart, not when they communicate that decision with a deposit. You might say, “Yield early and yield often.” After all, the data shows us that smaller and smaller groups of students are in play every day of the yield season. The clock is ticking.

Early and Late Yield Strategies

The curve above tells us that some students make the enrollment commitment earlier and some later. Who are these students and how can an institution work to fill in the yield curve with the right students at the right time?

Academic Program Interest

Academic area of interest holds some clues. Our data shows us that students in certain academic majors make their decisions on the early side. At least half of students in the majors below say they make their enrollment decisions prior to March, including:

  • Theology and religious vocations
  • Agriculture, agriculture management, animal science, and food science
  • Education (including administration and school counseling)
  • Culinary arts and services
  • Criminal justice, homeland security, law enforcement, firefighting, emergency management, and forensic science

Conversely, two-thirds or more of students interested in the following areas say they make their enrollment decisions after March:

  • Biology and biological sciences
  • Environmental studies/science and forestry
  • Liberal arts
  • Engineering
  • Undecided
  • Mathematics and statistics
  • Social sciences

Institutions rolling out academic content and events should consider these predilections when developing a calendar. Which students do you need to reach first and move fast with? Which students do you believe you will require a longer time span to develop your relationship and make your case with?

Special Student Populations

Consider also that you may have some special populations, like first-generation students, who are less likely to make decisions in the typical timeframe. Only 39% decide in March and April compared to 49% of students who are not first-generation. Instead, first-generation students decide a bit more quickly or a bit later (Figure 2).


When did you make your enrollment decision?Figure 2.


This discrepancy in how first-generation students decide is worth keeping in mind as you develop strategies for yielding these students.

The Bottom Line

Is May 1st still important? Yes and no. It marks a key point in the ritual of college admissions for both students and institutions. Let us note, though, one last key data point in the yield curve. A healthy percentage of admitted students don’t make their enrollment decisions until after May 1st (14%). These students may have deposited, but they were still uncertain about their true choices.

While the deadline is cause for momentary celebrations or commiserations, the work must then continue. This is something that rolling admissions institutions know as a matter of normal practice; perhaps all institutions should adopt a philosophy of winning students’ hearts and minds every day.

The industry’s largest study of admitted students will take place this spring, allowing institutions to obtain valuable and actionable yield insights. Institutions that participate will receive access to custom, interactive research dashboards that highlight enrollment drivers, enrolled student mindsets, competitive analysis, students’ brand perceptions, communication preferences, and financial aid information for both enrolling and non-enrolling students.

When you participate, you'll also find out why students chose to enroll at your school - or not - and be able to refine your yield strategy and tactics with confidence.

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