Concerns about fall enrollment give rise to a new recruiting environment

As the COVID-19 pandemic prompts more students to reconsider their college plans for fall 2020, admissions teams are intensifying their efforts to get admitted students to commit. Some institutions are offering reduced fees, free food, priority dorm room selection, early course registration, and more to lure students into enrolling. In some cases, schools are even trying previously banned tactics for recruiting and poaching students, according to The Hechinger Report.

This free-for-all recruitment style has been on the horizon ever since a college admissions counselors association removed parts of its professional code of ethics in response to pressure from the Justice Department. The resulting changes cleared the way for schools to offer incentives for early-decision candidates, recruit students who have committed to other colleges or universities, and recruit students who are already enrolled at other four-year institutions. 

Pandemic fueling enrollment gaps

Colleges knew the admissions landscape would look different this year, but the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated matters. “The gloves have come off,” Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Connecticut’s Trinity College, told The Hechinger Report. “You’re talking about a scenario where colleges need to enroll students at any cost.”

Recent survey results suggest that college admissions officers have a right to be concerned. One newly released poll of 1,171 high school seniors finds that 12 percent of students who have already made their college deposit no longer plan to attend a four-year college full-time.

Admissions officers always expect “summer melt”—when high school students who planned to attend college in the spring are no longer able to do so by the fall. Lower-income students are particularly at risk of taking breaks and delaying enrollment, Vox reports. But Education Week reports that this year’s summer melt “could be a flood,” if students balk at starting the semester online, can’t pay tuition, or are concerned about their health.

From premium rooms to prize sweepstakes

The University of New Haven in Connecticut is one of the institutions trying new ways to keep students engaged. The school is entering students into a sweepstakes when they submit their deposits, and the winner will choose their own dorm room. Albion College in Michigan has a similar lottery, offering a lucky student “free room and board for a semester, a $250 credit toward textbooks, and free parking for a year,” according to The Hechinger Report

Colorado Christian University gave “preferred admission” students an additional $1,000-per-year scholarship, provided they sent in a deposit by December 1. High Point University in North Carolina, meanwhile, encouraged students to enroll via binding early decision by dangling premium rooms, early move-in, and other perks. Observers say the jockeying could continue for months as recruiters turn their attention to students who might transfer, offering them more generous financial aid.

Competition unlikely to benefit first-generation, low-income students

However, the students “who are best able to understand this opportunity are the ones who don’t need a lower net cost, as opposed to people of lower socioeconomic status, who really do,” Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president at the enrollment consulting firm EAB, told The Hechinger Report.

“This pandemic has laid bare the economic inequities within higher education, and they’re going to be exacerbated,” added Robert Ruiz, a former admissions director who now focuses on strategic enrollment at the consulting firm LiaisonEDU.

Will the incentives be sustainable—or advisable?

The magnitude of the incentives being offered by colleges and universities have sparked concern among admissions professionals. “I am seeing higher discounting than I’ve ever seen before, and by institutions that I’m really surprised are discounting that much,” said Trinity’s Pérez. “That is not a recipe for long-term success.”

Others question whether the inducements really will sway prospective students’ decisions, noting that many students choose a college because it is the right fit, rather than simply the right price. Extreme tactics also could arouse suspicion. “There’s a risk for colleges that at some point you lose trust and credibility—that these places look desperate,” said Jim Jump, the college counseling director at a private school in Virginia. “Some of that could very easily backfire.”

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