New NACAC Report Explores Impact of COVID-19 on Enrollment

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on the blog. Visit NACAC’s newsroom to learn more about the report referenced below. recently partnered with NACAC on a survey of 1,194 four-year higher education institutions to glean insight into how institutions are using data to support their long-term goals. The full report offers insight into many critical aspects of recruiting and admission.

Most significantly — and timely — the report explores how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted recruiting, admission, and enrollment for the Fall 2021 class and those following it.

Predictive Enrollment

Enrollment, which has been down at postsecondary schools across the US, is largely gauged by institutions based on predictive enrollment modeling. Crucial in an average school year, predictive enrollment is spotlighted in the report during an unprecedented year in which typical forecasting has been thrown out the window.

According to NACAC, about 42 percent of surveyed institutions indicated they use aggregate enrollment forecasting, while 37 percent employ student-level predictive scores. This is an increase from a report last year that showed 53 percent of admission leaders using predictive tools. Notably, this year’s report indicates that the most common uses for student-level predictive scores are recruitment and marketing and communications. Forty-five percent of institutions reported applying scores to plan travel and predict net-tuition revenue.

Impact on Prospect Development

One of the biggest challenges for these four-year institutions? The changes to data availability that will greatly affect prospect development for the foreseeable future. Over half of the 377 respondents reported they expected the pandemic to cause either a substantial (46 percent) or profound (7 percent) impact on their institution’s ability to build a prospect pool.

For Katharine Johnson Suski, executive director of admissions and new student programs at Iowa State University, the current environment offers an opportunity to use data more effectively.

“One of our goals is to be a data powerhouse,” said Suski during a NACAC-hosted discussion about the report. “Every person in the organization needs access to data to do their job well, to do their job efficiently, and to be innovative. We want innovation amongst all of our staff, and if they can’t see the data, or know how to react to the data, then we cannot have an innovative team.”

Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19

In one of the open response portions of the survey, respondents elaborated on measures they’re taking to better understand and mitigate the long-term effects of the pandemic on prospect development. The common thread running through a majority (26 percent) of the responses detailed the necessity for expanding the typical prospect sources and parameters beyond what has been done traditionally.

Specifically, respondents noted exploring alternate lead sources, broadening search and app cultivation criteria, and relying more on historical data. Ultimately, respondents in surveyed admission offices believe that pulling back to refocus searches at the top of the funnel and better utilizing archival data is the antidote to gaps in critical prospect information as a result of the pandemic.

When asked about barriers to maximizing strategic data use, only 1.4 percent of respondents said COVID-19 and the uncertainty the pandemic brings was an impediment. The overwhelming majority (62.4 percent) said that limitations with resources, staff, and time were the biggest hurdles to effectively implementing strategic data. Other common responses included inaccurate or mismanaged data (21 percent), lack of money (9.4 percent), and problems with systems (8.7 percent).

Even before a global pandemic, we were already seeing a trend of colleges and universities struggling to hit enrollment goals. This report shows that the uncertainty of the pandemic — and everything that comes with it — is likely to not only have an immediate impact on students on campus this year, but also long-term downstream effects that will impact the sector beyond the next school year.

Using data effectively has always been important. But in a year where uncertainty and unpredictability is at an all-time high, optimizing data is imperative for long-term success.

To learn more, download the full report.

Margo Martinez, senior director of higher ed industry solutions at, oversees the go-to-market strategy for recruiting, admission, and student experience. She’s served in higher education technology roles for eight years and spent 20 years in technology, spanning CRM to marketing and media.

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