The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

A Look in the Mirror – Using Inquirers Perspectives to Understand Enrollment Funnels

A man (Bruce Etter) is dressed in a blue suit smiling for a headshot.

By Bruce Etter

Eleven months ago, my wife and I were on vacation in Tucson, Arizona. In a past life, I’d briefly worked in Saguaro National Park removing invasive species, so I was eager to get back and bask in the unique qualities of the Sonoran Desert and the Old Pueblo of Tucson. On a Sunday afternoon, we walked into an expansive and ornate establishment with the hope of eating lunch. The restaurant included a series of buildings, a bar, an art gallery, and a kitchen, encircling a courtyard where live music was being played.  We first sat at the bar and had some chips and salsa while we waited for a table. After a few minutes, a table opened up and we were seated in the courtyard, delighted with our decisions thus far.

Understandably, service was slower with an abundance of Sunday afternoon patrons and the unique layout of the restaurant. For the first 10 minutes, we weren’t overly surprised that no staff had come to check in on us. However, as the minutes ticked by, my frustration and disappointment began to mount. My wife and I sat unacknowledged for an hour before we got up and left. Although the restaurant had done a masterful job in creating a welcoming environment and offered products that we sincerely wanted, it was unable to adequately engage with us. Unfortunately, recent data from UPCEA and InsideTrack detail that higher education suffers from this same lack of engagement with potential students.

The UPCEA and InsideTrack study, Looking Toward the Future: Enrollment Strategies and Evolving Expectations of Potential Inquirers, found that 40% of inquiries placed by potential students do not receive a response from the institution. This is a massive shortcoming that has tremendous impact on an institution’s ability to attract students. Recently, I’ve been having conversations with leaders in professional and online education units who are facing tremendous, and oftentimes unrealistic, expectations to increase enrollments and revenues three to five times in a remarkably short time. While some academic leaders feel that the development of new online programs will solve their challenges, I would argue that making adjustments to the top of the enrollment funnel will have a more immediate impact and provide a greater return on investment.

The research found 37% of individuals who send an inquiry about a credit-bearing program begin an application and 10.4% matriculate into the program. If an institution receives 100 inquiries for a credit-bearing program and only responds to 60, aligning with the research average, that will result in approximately 6 enrollments. Assuming an institution is able to respond to even 80% of inquiries, that would result in another 2 enrollments for a total of 8.  Depending on the revenues associated with enrollments, this could be thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in additional revenues for the institution without its having to spend an additional cent on marketing or program development. Furthermore, while new programs can play a critical role in revenue generation, they would not be able to meet their full potential without changes at the top of the enrollment funnel.

Another troubling datapoint identified in this research was the fact that just under a fifth (19%) of professional and online education units do not actively track enrollment funnel metrics. This lack of tracking leads to blind spots, which could cost the institution considerable sums of money and makes it very challenging to isolate areas of improvement or track the success and failures of various engagement strategies.  Although establishing a process for tracking enrollment funnel metrics can be a challenge, and undoubtedly requires resources, it is essential to understanding the overall health of a professional and online education unit.  

The study showed that improvements to the enrollment funnel have been made over the last two years. Among 2023 inquiries that received a response, the average response time was 7 hours and 22 minutes, with a median of 3 hours and 3 minutes. This is a notable improvement from 2021 when the average response time was 11 hours and 47 minutes, and the median was 4 hours and 42 minutes. Response time is particularly important as a metric for institutions to be aware of as students desire, and even expect, a smooth and efficient customer experience. If a student has equal interest in two different programs at two institutions, they may very well choose the program from the institution that is more responsive to their queries. Institutions that design systems and processes around the learner will be far more effective than those that continue to design systems and processes around the institution. This reality is perhaps best illustrated by the variance of request for information (RFI) forms within professional and online education units.  

While 80% of professional and online education units incorporate a request for information form, less than three-quarters (72%) of survey respondents said their unit’s RFI form is built in a way that meets the needs of adult learners. While this data point acknowledges that there is an issue with RFI forms, it is likely understating the prevalence of ineffective forms. According to previous research from UPCEA and ThinkingCap, only 60% of adult learners are willing to provide their phone number when they initially contact a college or university about a program they have interest in. Also, only 51% are willing to provide their birthday and 39% their address.[1] These data points are commonly required on RFI forms, and such questions may deter students from pursuing a program.

Looking Toward the Future: Enrollment Strategies and Evolving Expectations of Potential Inquirers examined RFI forms at 100 institutions and developed a scoring rubric to establish a quantitative and comparable metric, the quality index. Overall, the average score was  80.67, which straddles the line on the quality index between intrusive and tolerable. Just one out of six institutions (17%) received a score of 90 to 100, defined as acceptable on the quality index.

Ultimately, institutions need to build their enrollment funnel around the learner, rather than the institution. RFI forms should be a concise and effective avenue for inquirers to pose a question, rather than a cumbersome and invasive document. Institutions need to ensure that all inquiries receive an informative and prompt response to assure the inquirer that they matter to the institution. Lastly, enrollment funnel metrics need to be actively tracked so that they can be appropriately managed. Institutions that are able to achieve these objectives will be best positioned to serve learners moving forward.



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