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2020 Educause Top 10 Issues: #7 is Improved Enrollment

The Top 10 Issues of 2020 for higher education technology were announced at October’s 2019 Educause conference. Each year I share my thoughts on the issues, from #10 to #1. Feel free to review all of the issues on the Educause website: 

#7 Issue: Improved Enrollment
Using technology, data, and analytics to develop an inclusive and financially sustainable enrollment strategy to serve more and new learners by personalizing recruitment, enrollment, and learning experiences.

I’m going to continue with this list and my take but it’s important to note how much the world has changed since my last entry just two weeks ago. Two weeks ago my entry on affordability reads eerily as it would have a few months ago. Two weeks ago we’d already gone to online classes at TU but somehow the situation felt less dire, less endless. As if our top 10 issues from October 2019 might still apply in the same way. Here we are, however. And this improved enrollment issue might very well need to creep closer to #1.

How do we improve enrollment when all the technology, all the data, everything we’ve ever measured should quite literally be thrown out the window?

It’s terrifying to think what enrollment numbers at all universities might look like come fall 2020. Here are the areas where, if you don’t have solid talent, you best get on it. Disclaimer: This is a total stream of consciousness post, meaning these are my most fluid thoughts at this very moment in these COVID19-soaked times.

  1. Quality of Education. I’m basing all of these next areas on the assumption that you already have a solid educational offering delivered by faculty that you continuously invest in.
  2. Branding. Never has knowing your brand been more important. What is/are your differentiator(s)? To peers? To neighboring, regional competition? How will your institution’s experience be somehow deeper and higher value than other options? What are your traditions? How engaged are your alumni? What will stand out about a degree from your school? And if you are a comprehensive university, what is your value proposition to a prospective student and/or parents considering your institution at this tumultuous time in lieu of choosing to spend a year or two at a more economical option, like their local community college? Lessening costs sometimes simply cheapens brand. People will still pay more for value – what is your value? You need to be actively marketing one to three of those differentiators ruthlessly and immediately.
  3. Digital Marketing. Speaking of marketing differentiators, marketing needs to be top dog right now. Playtime is over. Persistent, tight, eye-catching comprehensive marketing campaigns will make or break institutions in this newly remote environment. (S)he who markets the best right this second will stand out and likely enroll up.
  4. “Technology”. Can you deliver your excellent education in a clean, clear way via online? Higher education needs to be measuring, improving, listening, modifying, responding and building online education environments capable of changing as often as needed to meet ALL the students where they are. Now is the best time ever to be testing what works and what doesn’t. Pump your reactive brakes and look at this long-term – has there ever been a better environment to research what works best for your institution?
  5. People and Persistent Professional Development. All of your people need to be invested in. Each improvement geared toward simplifying your business stream needs to be exhaustively taught to remote workers. Each faculty member needs to receive baseline training, then they need to be able to deliver their unique flavor of education. Their style needs to be supported, not constricted by vanilla uniformity. YES, you need to embrace one delivery technology to keep it consistent and complexity-free for students, however you need to learn your faculty and be responsive to their needs. If they need help in translating their style to this new normal of online, help them, support them, find the way with them. The last thing a quality education needs is bland, factory-line delivery. Many faculty members have beautiful eccentricities in teaching. Those should be embraced and supported, not hidden or hindered.

These are uncharted waters for all of higher ed. Total unknown. Enrollment is going to be lower than ever imagined for most. Those schools with solid value propositions concurrently rockin’ digital marketing and branding will fare better than those who flounder in defining identity. Add identity issues to a thought process that considers digital marketing as wildly different or even simply complimentary to traditional marketing? You need robust, integrative, all-mediums-in-tandem marketing plan of attacks right now. Pushing news items to social isn’t going to cut it any longer. For anyone. Even the traditionally elite brands.

Until next entry…

This year Educause introduced something new into their Top 10 write-up. They have added forecasting and tangible steps to improve in the issue areas. It’s more than a list now – it’s a learning tool! See for yourself: