Very early in my career, my first boss told me, “As you move through your professional life, keep in mind that anyone can identify problems, but the most valuable people suggest solutions.” 

Now, further in my career, it’s obvious that anyone can ask questions. But it takes expertise and discipline to ask the right questions. Expertise because you can’t ask a good question without a deep understanding of the content, and discipline to avoid settling for the “easy” answer.

Every day at Fire Engine RED we see how not asking the right questions could have led to missed opportunities, bad investments, and poor decision-making.

Example 1

One of our clients asked a new list provider and Fire Engine RED the same question: How many applicants and enrolled students came from 1,387 names they purchased from the new list source?

They received two different answers.

  Application Rate Deposit Rate
List Provider’s Answer 38.4% 8.7%
Fire Engine RED’s Answer 12.4% 2.6%

The list provider used simple math:

533 applications / 1,387 purchased names = 38.4% application rate
121 deposits / 1,387 purchased names = 8.7% deposit rate

Although the calculations were right, the question was framed incorrectly.

Instead, the client should have asked: How many applicants and enrolled students can be exclusively credited to the new list source?

Why? Because 776 of those students had ALREADY inquired or applied BEFORE the institution had purchased their names. Therefore, 611 (not 1,387) was the accurate starting point for this assessment.

This resulted in very different, but more-accurate, calculations based on the 611 NEW students who entered the institution’s funnel.

Asking the right question led to the right answer:

The application rate for the new list source was 12.4%; the deposit rate was 2.6%. 

76 applications / 611 purchased names = 12.4% application rate
16 deposits / 611 purchased names = 2.6% deposit rate

Example 2

Another client asked one of their admissions counselors and the Fire Engine RED data team to answer the same question: Of the students who visited the residence life web pages, what percentage enrolled?

They received two different answers.

  Web Page Visitors Non-Web Page Visitors
Admissions Counselor’s Answer 18.4% 12.5%
Fire Engine RED’s Answer 11.3% 13.3%

The counselor used their CRM data and created this table for the incoming Fall 2019 class:

  Web Page Visitors Non-Web Page Visitors
Yield Rate 18.4% 12.5%

Again, the calculations were right, but the question was framed incorrectly.

The chart above suggests that the residence life web pages enhanced yield. But they didn’t.

Why? Timing.

Because this school had a hard and fast May 1 deadline in 2019, we focused the question to assess the results when they mattered most – before, during, and after yield season.

As the table below indicates, residence life web pages were NOT improving yield the way the counselor had calculated. 

The implied outperformance was driven by students who visited AFTER May 1 – which shows that visitors were confirming their commitments, not building interest.

  Before April 1 April 1 – April 30 May 1 and later
  Web Page Visitors Non-Web Page Visitors Web Page Visitors Non-Web Page Visitors Web Page Visitors Non-Web Page Visitors
Yield Rate 15.8% 16.1% 11.3% 13.3% 88.3% 2.1%

Even worse, as the table above indicates, the lowest yields occurred for April visitors, those who browsed residence life content while they were making their final enrollment decisions. Students who avoided these pages before May 1 yielded better!

Answering the right question empowers meaningful action: a review of content and approach to drive results when they matter most.

Overwhelmed by Data

Everyone is capturing more data. Everyone is reporting on more data. Everyone needs to be data-driven. But … are you struggling to ask the right questions that will help you develop better strategies and more-actionable tactics? We’d welcome that conversation.

Read more by Jeff:

A Winning Admissions Strategy ≠ Extreme Approaches
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.