My dad grew up just south of Boston, and while he was a fairly reserved person, I could always count on the Car Talk guys to make him laugh. If you’ve never heard of “Click and Clack,” they were two M.I.T. grads who owned a car repair shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they served as hosts and advice-dispensers on a long-running National Public Radio show.

I kept listening to the show for years after my dad passed away, since the hosts’ accents reminded me of him, but also because in the midst of their jokes, they generally offered sensible counsel.

On my favorite episode that my dad missed, however, two guys called in and described the increasingly outlandish things they had done to their car. The conversation culminated in one of the hosts laughing and asking, “What the heck were you thinking?”

“We were thinking outside the box!” announced one caller, clearly pleased with himself.

“Get back in the box! There’s a reason there’s a box! You belong in it!” the hosts yelled, to their own delight and to mine.

So what are we seeing in higher education now? A worrisome number of institutions are veering to one of two detrimental extremes: staying strictly in or leaping unreservedly out of the box. We recommend a third way. 

Get Back in the Box 

Anxiety and uncertainty can exacerbate the natural human desire for a fast and simple solution. We see this manifesting itself across the board, whether it’s emotion-driven pinballing to a single list source; investing enormous resources in undertested outreach strategies; or deciding that something flashy, even if it can’t be measured in meaningful ways, might be the proverbial silver bullet.

But as a reminder… there’s a reason there’s a box, or in our case, that there are rational and familiar courses of action. Current declines in the numbers of College Board and ACT names do not mean younger students have vanished. They mean we need to be more creative in how we identify those students.

Flavor-of-the-month strategies pay off for about the same length of time. Remember when MySpace was going to transform interaction with students? Or how nothing could better sell a student than 360-degree photographs on your website? Or how you simply had to build climbing walls and expand the campus quota of hot tubs? Now it’s, let’s say, TikTok. What is your confidence level that it will still be the cool thing next spring? In uncertain times, why would anyone invest in more uncertainty?

We know consistent, personal communication with the right students at the right times delivers meaningful, measurable results. Unfocused, untested, and impersonal recruitment “strategies” do not. 

Maintaining focus does not preclude innovation. On the contrary, it enables innovation, since you can accurately measure and appropriately evaluate the impact of tests when it matters the most – at the point of enrollment.

Act, yes. Pinball … no.

Get Out of the Box 

At the other extreme, we’re also seeing many enrollment leaders trapped in figurative boxes. There’s overwhelming evidence of recruitment paralysis at some institutions. Student surveys, including the one we completed last month, indicate that students and families expect more communication, not less, during the current turmoil.

Yet we see some colleges falling silent at the exact time they should be aggressively expanding their outreach. Students in the classes of 2021, 2022, and younger still want to go to college. Reassure them that you’ll be there for them in the years ahead!

You’re not going to see a perfect moment to restart all your traditional recruitment efforts – we expect lengthy conversations about on-campus visits and recruitment travel for months or even years to come – but the perfect moment to communicate with students is now.

Over the past several weeks, Fire Engine RED has launched dozens of new searches, and we’re seeing terrific response rates – often running ahead of those from previous years. In addition to new College Board and ACT names, we are utilizing a half-dozen new and alternative list sources that have proven successful.

Changing times demand new approaches, so we’ve conducted a new round of A/B tests in modeling, design and messaging, delivery timing, and list sources. Based on the results, we’ve continued to refine and enhance our tactics. If you’re not innovating now, you’re falling behind at what may be the crucial moment.

Check the Boxes … and Then Move Forward 

It’s always a good time to verify the basics. (More on this in a future post.)

Even in the best of times, our consultants often uncover serious operational issues on campuses, particularly as data and communications systems have grown more complicated. If you have an operational or assessment to-do list that you’ve been hoping to address, now is the time to make progress.

Verifying the basics ensures that student inquiries are being imported accurately and responded to quickly. It ensures that your website is updated, visually and factually. It ensures that you’re training your staff, who are crucial in reassuring families that your institution remains a great investment.

Investing in any or all of those activities will pay off immediately – and for years to come.

My dad also taught me to drive (we did NOT listen to the radio) – and his core lessons still apply today: Know where you’re going. Stay calm and avoid distractions. Be aware of what’s going on around you, but keep your eyes focused on the road ahead.

So if you’re still waiting to enter the highway, get up to speed. If you’re getting ready to execute a high-speed course correction, don’t. And if you need to call someone for directions, you know how to reach us.

Read more by Jeff:

Now Is The Beginning
Keep Calm, Act Expeditiously, Look Ahead
First, Tie Your Shoes
What Enrollment Professionals can Learn from the Airlines and Fire Engine RED
What I Wished I Knew About Student Search When I Was Dean


Jeff McLaughlin is the Executive Vice President of Data, Strategy & Analytics at Fire Engine RED. He has led Fire Engine RED’s data team since 2015. Prior to joining Fire Engine RED, he was Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN.