Ben Verinder, Director, Chalkstream

At this time of year further education managers ponder spreadsheets and graphs of recruitment data. This ritual is often accompanied by the uncomfortable realisation that rates of conversion from student application to enrolment in at least one subject area aren’t looking too healthy. In fact, they can appear calamitous.

Why, asks the senior team, are we losing students? Is it the course? The application process? The atmosphere? A neighbours’ competitive edge? Our personal hygiene? The car parking fees? It is perfectly possible to answer those questions – but only with the help of invisible students.

By which we mean those who have disappeared - who applied but didn’t enrol or who turned up but have already dropped out. Analysis of data about them and research among them can tell a college or independent provider an awful lot.

It can provide intelligence about:

  • trends in application and explain how campus, course, subject area and school affect application and enrolment.
  • the effectiveness of marketing activity and application, interview and enrolment processes
  • changes required to those processes to boost recruitment and retention
  • opportunities for curriculum development
  • what attributes, channels and people influence applicant behaviour

It can explain why different groups of students applied in the first place and why they went elsewhere, unpicking who and what influenced their behaviour. Ultimately, if managed well, it explains why someone went somewhere else and what, if anything, an organisation can do about it.

This in turn helps providers adjust those processes (sometimes in time for January enrolment) and to ensure that they fix problems that are contributing to student drop-out.

But for research of this type to be successful providers need to act quickly. While data analysis can take place any time of year after enrolment, if organisations want to undertake primary research, they need to get a move on.

The longer the time between application and research, the more difficult it is to recruit non-enrolled applicants to this kind of study.

If a study is not started on time, the opportunity to gather vital intelligence to inform application and recruitment processes is lost.

The research must also be sophisticated enough – in design, recruitment and reporting – to pinpoint what the organisation can change in relation to marketing, curriculum, application, enrolment and retention. Where providers tend to go wrong is in the execution of research (with some honourable exceptions): either the data analysis hasn’t produced a tight enough sample, so the research team is tasked with having to undertake far too many interviews, or the team is not experienced in the very difficult task of persuading young people who have left an institution to explain their reasons for doing so.

In relation to 16 to 19 non-enrolled applicants we know that the response rates for online surveys – even those that are incentivised – among this cohort are generally very low because of the relatively weak association between the individual and the institution. Face to face interviews are prohibitive on grounds of cost, so telephone interviews tend to be the best methodology.

The time that respondents will give to the interviewer is relatively short and certain times of day work much better than others. Response rates vary by geography, including the urbanity (or otherwise) of the institution.

Providers also need to be able to extract the right data set for analysis and for use in creating a sample of the population under study and for recruiting respondents. If application and/or enrolment data is of poor quality then this can lead to errors in the analysis and in the research design.

Managers hoping that the research will give a single, simply answer to the question: “What are we doing wrong?” are likely to be disappointed. Typically, this kind of research will suggest a range of small but meaningful adjustments – almost never a large monolithic change. Small changes can however, have a very significant impact on student numbers and, more importantly, on student experience, retention and opportunities.

Ben Verinder, MD, ChalkstreamAbout Chalkstream: Chalkstream specialises in supplying market and reputation research, strategic and PR consultancy and communication training to clients in the education sector. 

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