Where college enrollment planning meets budget planning


Financial aid budget planning is a struggle for some institutions. In preparing for an upcoming column on the topic for University Business magazine, I reviewed sample spreadsheets that we often recommend to institutions in need of improvements to their budget planning. Cohort-based budget planning is the approach we typically recommend because it allows an institution to see trends as cohorts of students and their institutional grants/scholarships move through the years. It helps an institution better understand if the average institutional award per cohort is increasing or decreasing over time.

If the average grant for a cohort increases from year to year, it may mean that the more highly discounted students are being retained and students with lower discounts are leaving. This is important to know for projecting aid expenditures.

Eliminating surprises by analyzing how much institutional aid “graduates”

A trend-based approach to financial aid budgeting minimizes surprises. It is critical for an institution to understand the amount of institutional aid that “graduates” with each senior class, and how much of a difference there is between that figure and the amount needed to appropriately fund the incoming freshman and transfer classes.

Clearly, the analytical component is key. In addition, there is a human element to this process that cannot be overlooked. Because inputs for budget projections are typically required from several different offices on campus, it is crucial that this be a collaborative effort. The registrar and/or institutional research office should be at the table, along with representatives from financial aid, enrollment, and the finance office.

Chris Saadi, director of student financial planning at Alvernia University, has this to say about their approach: “At Alvernia, we began to use cohort, trend-based financial aid/NTR budgeting a number of years ago and we now have reliable historical information that is used in projections. Our office works closely with enrollment, finance, and IR to consistently review and evaluate our data to ensure we have correct information.”

Three action steps your campus should take to enable cohort-based budget planning

1) Get the right people around the table
Make sure the key stakeholders and decision makers for admissions, finance, and anyone needed to provide additional institutional research participate in this analysis. This will facilitate both examining financial aid budgeting and developing action steps.

2) Identify the data you need
There are a number of variables in cohort-based aid analyses, so be sure you have the supporting data necessary to analyze and take action. A list of data you may need goes beyond the scope of this post, but please feel free to email me if you would like to discuss your situation.

3) Continually assess and refine your plan
Student behavior and financial trends are ever-changing, so it’s vital to have a review process so you can adjust your strategies and stay ahead of changes in student need, discount rates, and graduation/completion rates.

If you would like to discuss cohort-based analysis in more depth, or have any questions, please email me and we can continue the conversation.

Racial tensions on college campuses: What do data tell us about student tolerance?


As we watch the racial and social justice issues being addressed at the University of Missouri, we are reminded that college campuses truly are microcosms of our broader society and face the same issues and challenges. Within our institutions for higher learning, we have a unique opportunity for creating and facilitating honest discourse around the issues, and then identifying specific strategies to build a more welcoming and inclusive community. This important work of expanding each person’s opinion tolerance – the comfort or acceptance students have (and that we ourselves have) with others who think differently on major social issues, including race – isn’t easy nor is it accomplished quickly.

College students’ opinion tolerance—a brief look at the data

Examining student demographics, attitudes, and motivations can be helpful in understanding today’s tensions. Ruffalo Noel Levitz annually publishes the National Freshman Attitudes Report, which explores 85 noncognitive attitudes and motivations of nearly 100,000 college freshmen. Every two years, the data are presented by race and ethnicity, in addition to gender, institution type, and age. Understanding these data can inform campus-specific conversations on the issues. For example, as indicated in the chart below, nearly two-thirds of Black/African-American students have high levels of tolerance for people who have different opinions about social issues.

Tolerance among incoming college freshmen

Approximately 60 percent of incoming college freshman said they get along with those who disagree with them or share different views on social issues (click to enlarge).

Next, put this in the context of the strong commitment that students have to earning a college degree and to making the sacrifices necessary to achieve that goal:

College students of color and desire to graduate with a college degree

More than 90 percent of incoming college freshmen said they are strongly dedicated to finishing college no matter what (click to enlarge).

(These results are from the Addendum by Race/Ethnicity, available for download with the 2015 National Freshman Attitudes Report.)

Together, what these data suggest is that this commitment to earning a degree coupled with strong levels of tolerance are strengths that can help foster the necessary dialogues on college campuses about improving conditions for students of color.
Read the rest of Racial tensions on college campuses: What do data tell us about student tolerance? »

How can campuses connect with high academic ability college students?


Co-written by Dr. Linda Hoopes

Dr. Linda Hoopes currently serves as director, campus relations, and formerly served as an associate vice president and consultant at Ruffalo Noel Levitz. She previously served as vice president for admission, financial aid, and marketing at Waldorf College (IA) and as director of admissions at Upper Iowa University.

Prospective students with high academic ability (or GPA equal or higher to 3.5) are desirable for many institutions, but effectively communicating with this group has become much more challenging. Even an elaborate communication plan can lose its punch if it attempts to communicate to all students in the same way with the same message. (Our colleague Sarah Coen has also written on this topic.)

For the last eight years Ruffalo Noel Levitz has surveyed more than 80,000 high school students and their parents to learn their preferences for communicating with colleges throughout the recruitment process (here’s our most recent report). Here are strategies for engaging high ability students based on the latest data.

Choose the right channels for prospective college students with high academic ability

In examining the responses of high academic ability students as compared to students with average academic ability (GPA between 2.5 and 3.4), we found interesting differences in preference. Our research continues to find that all prospective college students prefer email for first contact. However, high academic ability students prefer direct mail at a higher rate than average academic ability students, while average academic ability students prefer the telephone at higher rates than high-ability students.

Focusing on fit in a well-coordinated balance of engagements via multiple channels is key to successfully recruiting any student. Utilizing various channels of communication at each specific stage of the recruitment and enrollment process in order to encourage the student to move forward in his or her consideration of the institution (visit campus, complete the application, etc.) is also essential.

Initiate contact with prospective high-ability college students

High academic ability students are less likely to contact a college or university based on their interest before an institution contacts them. Can this be a factor in their willingness to respond and raise their hand earlier in the cycle? Consider this when creating your plan for communicating with this group. Also consider your strategy for students who are less likely to reply directly to outreach and would rather lead their  own investigation. Are high-ability students being engaged throughout the cycle when they don’t respond?

When asked the reason why they would be willing to initiate contact with a college or university, high academic ability students responded that they would contact a college to plan a visit or to find out more information about a campus-sponsored activity (such as an athletic event). Average academic ability students said they were more likely to initiate contact with a college or university to find more information about their academics (e.g., majors, programs) and to learn about their athletic programs (e.g., requirements, recruiting events, try-outs, athletic scholarships).

Use the high academic ability students’ interest to attend campus events to invite them to recognition events in the spring with their families and involve their parents, as they tend to be more involved in their children’s college search plans.

Read the rest of How can campuses connect with high academic ability college students? »

Eight steps for creating a college marketing and communication plan


What is the best way to communicate with today’s prospective college students? Do you still need to send them viewbooks and other publications, or will communicating through email and social media suffice? What about the phone? Can you call their cell phone or send them text messages? These questions come to mind often for many enrollment management professionals as they strive to meet enrollment goals in an ever changing and increasingly competitive environment.

With more students applying and more competition from other colleges and universities, strategic enrollment marketing can make an institution stand out from its competition and put it in a strong position when prospective students do make contact. While new marketing methods and communication technologies need to be integrated into campus campaigns, traditional marketing methods still provide a lot of value when used properly.

Strong marketing and communication plans begin with an understanding of the institutional image and brand. Branding is generally a campuswide initiative that involves university relations and enrollment management (at the very least) and should also be part of institutional strategic planning initiatives or discussions. While branding includes the development of consistent, uniform visual images (i.e., logo, standard colors, and fonts) and often a phrase or tag line, it is much more. Branding is what an institution is known for or wants to be known for–what makes it unique and distinctive. For branding to be effective in new student recruitment, an institution must continually assess how to deliver on the promise of its brand. For example, if a brand communicates “student success is our business,” then graduation rates must be well above average, retention initiatives must permeate institutional planning priorities, and alumni successes must be well tracked and documented. Read the rest of Eight steps for creating a college marketing and communication plan »

12 practices for online learner retention and college completion, with rankings of their effectiveness


In online classes this fall, many course providers are keeping a close eye on student retention and college completion. Below are 12 practices for online learner retention and degree completion, with rankings of their effectiveness, based on a May 2015 poll of undergraduate campus officials. Findings are shown separately for respondents from four-year public institutions, four-year private institutions, and two-year public institutions.

Four-year public institutions

Online college student retention practices for four-year public colleges and universities

Click image to enlarge.

Four-year private institutions

Online college student retention practices for four-year private colleges and universities

Click image to enlarge.

Two-year public institutions

Online college student retention practices for two-year public colleges

Click image to enlarge.

Across sectors, mandatory faculty training and mandatory academic advising emerged as the most effective practices for retaining online learners. Also effective was “faculty development and support in online technology and online teaching pedagogy.”

See the complete findings of the May 2015 poll in the 2015 Student Retention and College Completion Practices Report from Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

Want expert guidance to enroll, retain, or grow your online learning populations?

Find help through our online learner services, call us at 800.876.1117, or email us.  Ruffalo Noel Levitz can help your institution develop or expand its online programs by connecting you with experienced consultants, assessment tools, and relevant research to accomplish your goals.

College website SEO: Watch out for bad backlinks


Co-written by Jennifer Croft, an SEO consultant with 30 years of marketing experience who has worked on more than 500 websites, including 70 higher education websites.

Google uses more than 200 parameters to decide which pages and websites to send to the top of its search engine results, and for years, backlinks have played a large role in those parameters. Also known as “incoming links” or “external links,” backlinks are links that are placed on other websites that point to your school’s site.

Google had long considered these links as “votes” for your website, believing that if other website owners thought highly enough of your site to send traffic from theirs to yours, this spoke to the credibility of your site and content.

As soon as SEO consultants realized that backlinks could help send a site to the top of Google, the race was on for backlinks, and unscrupulous practices soon followed. People traded backlinks, bought backlinks, and created backlinks from empty directory-type sites.

In 2012, realizing that its voting system had been severely compromised by black-hat SEO practices, Google began rolling out significant algorithm changes (under the name Penguin) to try to restore integrity to its ranking system. Sites with a high number of suspicious backlinks were penalized, resulting in a dramatic drop in their organic search traffic.

Typically, college and university websites have healthy, reputable backlink profiles, with thousands or even millions of backlinks coming in from reputable sources, including other higher education sites and government sites. Of late, however, more and more higher ed sites are being targeted by unscrupulous SEO practitioners and spammers, and their reputable sites are at risk of being considered disreputable by Google.

How to spot suspicious backlinks

While good links coming from credible sites can boost your SEO performance, bad links coming from suspicious sites can harm your site. Suspicious backlinks include:

Run-of-site links: Thousands, or even millions, of links coming from the same site.

Foreign links: Links coming from foreign sites. You can easily spot these because of their top-level domains (e.g., .vn, .pl, and .sk for Vietnam, Poland, and Slovakia, respectively).

Off-topic links: Links that are coming in from sites that aren’t related to higher ed, such as medical or shopping pages. You can spot these by the anchor text in the link, such as “white kidney bean diet” or “replica Rolex watches.”

Read the rest of College website SEO: Watch out for bad backlinks »

Gap in college and university strategic enrollment planning



Strategic enrollment planning infographic illustrating the gap in college and university strategic enrollment planning.

Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2013). 2013 marketing and student recruitment practices benchmark report for four-year and two-year institutions. Coralville, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Download here.
Radford, A.W., Cominole, M., and Skomsvoid, P. (2015) Web tables-demographic and enrollment characteristics of nontraditional undergraduates: 2011-12 (NCES 2015-025). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C. Download here.
Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2014). 2014-2024 projections of high school graduates by state and race/ethnicity, based primarily on data from WICHE. Coralville, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Download here.


Is your campus ready for the major changes that are already sweeping across higher education?

Very few colleges and universities are immune: Expected trends and current realities include serving proportionally more adult students, delivering more online classes, and being subject to shifting demographics and attitudes toward higher education that are putting pressures on traditional funding models and enrollments.

Clearly, most institutions need strategic planning, yet research shows few campuses are well-prepared for what lies ahead. Across sectors, only about one-tenth of higher education institutions report having a long-range, strategic enrollment plan that they judge to be “excellent,” while only another 25 to 40 percent rate their plans “good.” The remaining half indicate their plans are “fair,” “poor,” or nonexistent. (See this report for specific breakdowns by sector.)
Read the rest of Gap in college and university strategic enrollment planning »

Building the case for college student satisfaction assessment


How satisfied are your students? You won’t know if you don’t ask. And if you don’t ask, you won’t have the data to build your case for student success initiatives.

Based on the results of our 2015 Student Retention and College Completion Practices Benchmark Report for Two-Year and Four-Year Institutions, student satisfaction assessments are cited by the majority as an effective method for making changes to minimize attrition.

Given that our current higher education environment is placing increasing expectations on performance-based funding and on student success measures, what will it take to get your campus to make student satisfaction assessment a priority?

Maybe it’s one of the several recent studies that link student satisfaction with student retention or higher institutional graduation rates. Or that we know that paying attention to the satisfaction levels of your currently enrolled students has a positive long-term effect on enrollment, student success, and future alumni engagement. And beyond retention efforts, for the 700 institutions we work with on an annual basis, they report using their satisfaction assessment data for strategic planning and accreditation.

Read the rest of Building the case for college student satisfaction assessment »

Reflections on a college student’s sophomore year


You may have been following along on my daughter Kylie’s college journey. I have written blogs over the past few years as Kylie went through her college selection process, visited campuses, experienced orientation, and reflected on her freshman year. Kylie returned to campus this month to start her junior year (time flies!) but over the summer, we talked a lot about the influential experiences of her sophomore year.

In addition over the summer, my colleague Mari Normyle and I presented a session, “Our Sophomores Need Our Attention, Too!” at the National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing, and Retention, highlighting data and observations from the Second-Year Student Assessment and the Student Satisfaction Inventory. That presentation and my conversations with Kylie provided insights into the sophomore year that I thought I would share. I have framed them in terms of areas discussed in the Second-Year Assessment and Student Satisfaction Inventory.

Explore advantages and disadvantages of my career choice. 

Kylie is an International Studies and Spanish double major. During one International Studies seminar, her professor said, “You are probably in this major because you love to travel, but that won’t pay the bills, so let’s find something that will earn you money and still allow you to work in an area that you care about.” The projects included an online discussion forum and research on self-identified topics that the students were passionate about. The professor brought in guest speakers, including alumni working in a variety of international fields, and the students were able to ask questions about the speakers’ career paths. A follow up assignment had the students reflect on the conversations and whether they could see themselves in a similar career. This class helped open Kylie’s eyes to potential careers following graduation and gave her a better idea on what she would like to do.

Do you have similar seminars as part of your requirements that explore future opportunities for your students?

Find ways to balance the demands of school and work.

Kylie worked as a writing tutor during the school year and she appreciated the opportunity to refine her own writing skills through her interactions with the students she was tutoring. She was also able to build relationships with more faculty members on campus by being visible in the writing center. Kylie did feel the pressure of demands on her time with her tutoring hours and course load, but she was able to meet the demands through time management and the will power to stay focused.

Are you providing support and direction to your work study students to help them make the most of their experience?

Identify work experiences or internships related to my major. 

Kylie had two part-time internships in Chicago this past summer. The first was at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, researching a variety of topics and speakers for the programs that the council offers on a regular basis. Through this experience, Kylie was able to broaden her global perspective, build her teamwork skills, and find excellent opportunities for networking. The second internship was with CARE USA, a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty and promoting women’s empowerment. With this organization, she worked on the proposal, stewardship, and information team, analyzing reports and writing summaries which highlighted the impact that the projects had. Both internships allowed her to see career opportunities in areas that she is excited about and gave her a taste of the professional world.

Are you promoting internship opportunities to students during their second year?

Make tuition feel like a worthwhile investment. 

On the Student Satisfaction Inventory, we see high levels of dissatisfaction with the item “Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment” at four-year institutions. In response, I have recommended that institutions highlight what graduates of the institution are successfully doing and emphasize all that students have access to while enrolled at the institution. But an observation that Kylie made this year reminded me that the little things matter as well when it comes to student perceptions. She said, “We pay a lot of money in tuition every year, and the WiFi doesn’t even work everywhere on campus.” We know how dependent we all are on Internet access and this probably compounded ten-fold for college-age individuals! This is an example of how a simple, somewhat minor grievance is connected in students’ minds to the tuition they are paying and the expectations they have for the quality of service they are expecting in return.

Are you paying attention to the “little things” that contribute to how students think of your institution overall?

Ensure that faculty provide timely feedback about student progress in a course. 

Kylie’s experiences with her faculty have been generally positive, but she had one professor second semester who was not good about providing timely feedback. She had weekly exercises that were meant to prepare her for take-home exams, but the exercises were not returned prior to the exams being due, so she never knew how she was doing with the material. The professor was teaching only one class with 20 students, but would take more than four weeks to grade the exams. Kylie didn’t know until the final grade was posted how she had done in that class, which was very frustrating. She provided feedback on the course evaluation and she hopes that the administration will take note. However, she is skeptical because the professor has been on campus for a while and Kylie has heard negative comments about the professor from other students.

Are you responsive to the comments you receive on course evaluations and do you follow up as appropriate with your faculty members?

Faculty are fair and unbiased in their treatment of individual students. 

Kylie had an interesting take on this item: she noted that if you meet with faculty during office hours, regularly attend class and actively participate, show interest in the course material, and help your professors understand your own strengths and weaknesses within the course, then the faculty will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. These may be pretty obvious observations, but it reminded me that while faculty generally are going to be fair, they are likely to react more positively toward a student putting in the extra effort.

Are you reinforcing these expectations with your sophomores and providing opportunities for them to build relationships with faculty, especially in the students’ area of interest? 

One more note about Kylie’s sophomore year: she had the opportunity to spend three weeks in South Africa, studying the culture and history of the country. Kylie shared that studying abroad was a great experience and what she learned from the South African people could never have been gained from a textbook. This experience, combined with the English as a Second Language tutoring she is doing as a member of the Spanish Club in a nearby community with a large immigration population, have contributed to her experiential learning experiences, and these are the ones that are making lasting impressions. Now she has embarked on an exciting junior year, with an upcoming second semester studying abroad in Valparaíso, Chile!

Student assessment is a key part of improving the student experience

Kylie’s observations, while generally positive, reveal areas for improvement. They are also the kinds of observations campuses can obtain from student satisfaction assessment. I will be hosting a free webinar, Building a Case for Student Satisfaction Assessment, on October 6. I invite you to join me and learn about the advantages of satisfaction assessment and how it can strengthen campus planning, benchmarking, and the student experience.

As always, please feel free to email me with your questions or comments about student assessment strategies or Kylie’s experiences.

Strategic enrollment planning for higher education—learn why it’s important and how it works


In recent years, the enrollment environment for higher education has been changing, and that means higher education must change with it. Dr. Lew Sanborne of Ruffalo Noel Levitz discusses why and how institutions are responding to the latest enrollment trends and projections in this one-hour recorded video focused on the fundamentals of strategic enrollment planning:

Fundamentals of strategic enrollment planning


This video is a recording of a webinar presented in April 2015 as part of Bay Path University’s Hot Topics Lecture Series.

Topics covered in this video:

  • What five major trends are influencing today’s student enrollments across higher education?
  • How can institutions of higher education use the full capabilities of their executive leadership, across divisional lines, to accomplish the institution’s mission and ensure long-term enrollment success and fiscal health?
  • What is strategic enrollment planning and how is it defined by colleges and universities?
  • How are campus executive teams responding to the latest enrollment trends and projections?
  • How can campus executive teams take a data-informed, analytical approach to align their institutions with the changing academic marketplace?

Strategic Enrollment Planning Executive Forum:
December 10-11, 2015 in Las Vegas

Interested in learning more about strategic enrollment planning? Join Ruffalo Noel Levitz for a dynamic discussion in Las Vegas.
Learn more about the forum and register.

Questions about strategic enrollment planning?

If you are interested in how you can begin to build a strategic enrollment plan, please email us and we will have one of our enrollment consultants get in touch with you.


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E-mail Mary Piccioli
Mary Piccioli