“I’m terrified.”

That’s a quote from a recent conversation I had with a chief enrollment officer friend of mine about this year’s yield projections. I feel her pain; it’s palpable. It’s not unusual for chief enrollment officers, especially those at tuition-driven institutions, to feel the weight of the university on their shoulders. All things begin and end with enrollment, at least that’s how it feels — especially this time of year, or as we call it in the biz, yield season. The time roughly between February and August when colleges and universities work to turn admitted students into enrolled students.

The simple fact is, it’s time to seriously rethink your yield strategy.

To say the high school graduating class of 2021 has had a rough senior year is an understatement. The reality is that it has been ruined. Even if students are part of the 50% who are back to in-person learning, their extracurricular and social lives have been impacted mightily. As has their college search.

Data is pouring in from many sources telling us that admission applications are down at many colleges and universities, FAFSA filings are down and fewer high school seniors report they will attend college in the fall compared to recent years. These trends are even more predominant among some minority groups and low-income and first-generation college students.

In this time of increased tensions, we need to adjust our yield strategy and be sure our plan helps and informs, not just sells. Here are eight ways you can improve admissions yield during this challenging time.

1) Empathize with Students

The idea is to put ourselves in students’ shoes and truly understand their experiences and stressors — not add to them. For example, students have screen fatigue. Keep this in mind as you create yield events and don’t make them spend excessive time on a screen. Instead of re-purposing your existing admitted student event online, think creatively about delivery.

For example, instead of a three-hour online event with faculty and staff talking at the audience, have short bursts of video on topics such as the process of advising and course selection given by an advisor. Then have an interactive quiz about majors — asking three or four questions and then showing the results — such as “Have You Decided on a Major? This kind of activity will break up the talking head nature of most events and, with hope, show them there are other students thinking the same way they are.

2) Use Video

In his AdWeek opinion piece (subscription required), author Frank Catapano wrote, “For establishing trust, experts agree video is best. It taps into all the little tricks humans employ to express and decode trustworthiness. Audio, imagery and text follow closely behind.” Humans love video (hello YouTube) and it’s a great way to tell your story.

Don’t underestimate the power of creating a short video containing specific content such as information about study abroad hosted by someone in the study abroad office and a current student who has studied abroad. You know the information students are looking for in this phase of the college search process so make a list and create some videos. Keep in mind these videos should be brief, upbeat and most of all they do not have to be professionally done — your phone will work just fine.

3) Connect Emotionally

Jeff Kallay, Senior Vice President of Consulting at RNL+Render, believes there are five accepted student emotional connectors: Location, Campus, Faculty & Staff, Current Students, and other students in their incoming class. Interactions with admitted students should endeavor to reveal information about one or more of these that will then allow the student to feel an emotional connection to your institution.

For example, at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA, the library is listed as one of the most popular and beloved buildings on campus. During campus tours, guides are encouraged to share their favorite place in the library to study and will point out a specific study carrel or a window ledge full of pillows and blankets. This sharing of intimate information from a current student is a great emotional connector.

4) Fill the Gaps

There’s a lot not happening for students this year regarding the college search due to the pandemic. One of the reasons cited behind lagging FAFSA filings is that students and their families need help completing this document and they just don’t have access to their counselors like students have in past years. There’s no one at fault here — they just don’t have the opportunities to stop by an office or run into a counselor or teacher in the hall or cafeteria like they normally can.

Consider the opportunity this presents. Could admission and financial aid partner up and have one-on-one FAFSA filing video sessions? If you’re with a large institution this might be pretty difficult to manage so you could consider focusing on segments of admitted students to limit the number, such as students from states, cities, or high schools where your FAFSA filing numbers are down.

5) Lead with Value

This is a recruitment standard and is no doubt already included in a big way in your yield strategy, but it’s worth repeating. Don’t forget the value message or fall back on statistics alone. If 80% of your graduates spend a semester studying in a different country, articulate how this is of value to the prospective student. The statistic is nearly meaningless if there’s no message about the benefit to the student.

Consider a related example from back in 2011. The president of Sarah Lawrence College wrote an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, defending her college for its “most expensive college in the U.S.” rating. In the article the president cites three specific reasons Sarah Lawrence was worth “every penny.” The story behind the statement (in this case the most expensive college in the country) communicates value and distinctiveness and shows they can go hand-in-hand in a really powerful way — and can also be a way to showcase the institution’s core values.

6) Address Health & Wellness

Communicate to the admitted student and their parents what your college or university is doing to keep students safe. Not the “blue light phone” safe — COVID-19 safe. There is most likely a message to this effect on your website, but it’s worth saying again in a personal way.

Do a video and show off tangible examples such as the testing site, cleaning procedures in the dining hall, or socially distanced classrooms. If you have a current student who has been involved in the committee thinking through these strategies that could host the video, even better. Consider taking the opportunity to talk about emotional support resources as well. We know this is an issue and there’s no reason to leave this topic out of your conversation with admitted students.

7) Admit Uncertainty

Vulnerability is the ultimate trust language. It’s okay to say you don’t know what is going to happen in the future and then underscore your commitment to keeping students informed and how you will do this. Is there a specific website or place they can get information or will you send out periodic updates on topics such as whether the university will have in-person classes Fall semester?

8) Test for Efficacy

Be sure to test your strategy for its effectiveness before deployment — does it meet your desired result? – what you or your colleagues think will resonate with a prospective student is not in fact what resonates. In her book, “How To Market A University,” Teresa Flannery relays how one of her favorite strategies for reminding her colleagues of this is to show them two creative concepts – after the strategy has been through creative testing with the target audience. Her experience is that her colleagues nearly always chose the concept that the target audience (high school students) did not. Just remember: you are not your audience.

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As you button up your yield strategy try to resist the hard sell message. A powerful way to build a relationship is to be of help and provide information. Ask yourself how your content adds value to a student’s college search process. And be sure your strategy is lasting and durable. Whatever you do this year should be something, for the most part, you can integrate into your communication strategy in the future.

With that said, there’s little doubt this work is time-consuming and can, at times, be mind-numbing in its overwhelm. I leave you with the wise words of the former director of admission from my days at Kalamazoo College, John Carroll. He often reminded us that the key to successfully yielding a student is to do “the small stuff better than anyone else.” This small stuff combines to make big stuff that can make all the difference come Census Day.

If you feel like you’d benefit from some personalized advice on this issue, please feel free to reach out.