Will they Deposit? Mindsets, May 1st and Melt

By Keith P. O’Brien

7 minutes estimated time to read

Blog two in a series

Female student ponders where to enroll

As mentioned in our previous blog, Private U, a regional private university in the Mid Atlantic, is navigating the challenges in recruiting its undergraduate class for fall 2020. Challenges that are exacerbated by the public health crisis and attendant recession. Private U is employing a new approach to get admitted students to deposit by personalizing communications to each student’s mindset or attitudes, not their demographic characteristics. Next we’ll share some of the initial results.

Nudging Student Mindsets in a Pandemic: Early Findings

Private U deployed its first attitudinal messaging in April with calls to action focusing on the traditional May 1st deadline; like many privates, the deadline was extended given the circumstances.

Pandemic Affects Student Mindsets

COVID-19, shelter-in-place regulations and the economic downturn clearly affected admitted students and their families. Consequently, Private U received updated financial data for parental income, Pell-grant status, reported EFC and work status. These new data are ingested by Discourse Analytics’ (DA) artificial intelligence (AI) model and the algorithms refine the scoring of each student’s attitudinal profile. The model is updated with the student response to the attitudinal messages.

Large shifts occurred in the “Think-alike” clusters as societal and economic volatility reshapes attitudes towards enrollment. Two of the larger changes involved:  

  • The number of “Laggards” grows as uncertainty increases while motivation and financial comfort weakens
  • The number of “Strivers” contracts as confidence wanes and fall 2020 plans become tentative

An entirely new mindset cluster emerges—“Ambivalent Searchers.”  Students who are indecisive and risk averse and try to accumulate college-going options to manage uncertainty. Despite being admitted, they tend to have low affinity for many of these colleges and so manage their options quite passively. Private U must gain these students attention, build a connection, and motivate actions.

Most Viable Enrollment Outreach Strategies Emerge

Private U’s messaging encouraging depositing is guided by outreach strategies tied to attitudes. DA’s AI-model assigns one of four outreach strategies to each admit. The two most relevant strategies are:

  1. Career Outcomes (about 60% of students get these messages)
  2. Fit for Me (about 25% of students receive these messages)

The career focus is unsurprising as COVID-19 stokes uncertainty about job security and unemployment. This prominence also reflects issues around affordability—the cost of private education must deliver well-paid job opportunities. The fit between Private U and the student’s desired campus experience is always a major factor in determining college choice. 

Outcomes: Deposits Trending Positively

Private U’s attitudinal communications boosted deposits through April and the May 1st deadline. The deposit numbers are impressive given:

  • The irrelevance of traditional predictive modelling given pandemic induced volatility; and 
  • The withdrawals created by COVID-19’s impact on families and finances.

Private U's Student Deposits

From Mindsets to Messaging: How Private U Does It

DA helps Private U develop communications targeting admitted students in stages. First, DA’s AI-model evaluated each student’s individual attitudinal profile and grouped likeminded students (sharing attitudes) in these four think-alike clusters 

Private U 4 Mindset Clusters

The first blog describes the four clusters.

Next, the AI assigned an outreach strategy—categorical messages that nudge students to enroll—to every admitted student. The following graphic summarizes the AI model’s steps and outputs.

Process to create attitudinal nudging

Four Enrollment Outreach Strategies

Based on the student attitudes shaping enrollment outcomes, DA developed four outreach strategies, which are applicable to nearly all 4-year institutions:

  1. Career Outcomes targets students prioritizing the ability of college’s graduates to obtain good jobs. The outreach underscores Private U’s portfolio of career exploration, career services and experiential opportunities that enable students to acquire real-world work experience. 
  2. Invest/Affordability engages students wanting to ensure the value of their degree justifies the cost of a private college. The outreach underlines Private U’s high-quality private education and its affordability. 
  3. Core Academics targets students focused on academic reputation. The outreach highlights the range of liberal arts and professionally focused programs enabling each student to pursue the major that matches their skills and interests. 
  4. Fit for Me targets students assessing the fit between Private U and their desired college experience. The outreach highlights how the environment, learning opportunities and campus services enable a student to find the right place for their learning style, social character, intellectual interests and talents.

The next stage involves developing messages activating the different outreach strategies.

Creating Personalized Messaging aligned to Student Attitudes

Private U’s Admissions and marketing teams develop messages to nudge admitted students to deposit. The messages target student attitudes by:

Step One—Understanding the attitudes characterizing the four mindset clusters; and

Step Two—Developing a set of four outreach strategy messages for each mindset cluster. This entails shaping the subject lines, the language, the calls to action, and positioning of Private U’s value proposition to the mindset clusters.

Private U’s communication plan for admitted students is summarized in the following attitudinal message portfolio:

Private U Outreach Cluster

The message portfolio is updated weekly based on DA reports identifying the number of students in each mindset cluster and their assigned outreach strategy. Additionally, DA provides a weekly payload document specifying the outreach strategy message for each non-deposited student in Private U’s CRM system, Slate.

DA’s ongoing reporting enables Admissions to prioritize the students (clusters) and the messaging (outreach strategies) within its communication plan.

In the next blog, we’ll discuss the (on-going) lessons from Private’s U summer melt campaign, including:

  • Using nudging (behavioral economics) in crafting the outreach messages
  • Crafting deposit calls to action that tie to other enrollment steps

To learn more contact: [email protected] 

Private U’s summer melt campaign exemplifies Nudge Tech, using AI to personalize nudges that improve student outcomes.  Nudge Tech and Discourse Analytics feature in Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technologies Impacting Higher Education in 2020.