Although our 2020 plan had been to write a monthly blog post … plans change. I know you know the feeling! As the leader of Fire Engine RED’s data, analytics and strategy team, I’d like to share some strategic thoughts on the rapidly emerging new challenges our clients are facing.

By now, we’ve all been forced to come to terms with the fact that none of us have seen uncertainty like this before.

Among the things you’re probably discussing on campus:

  • International enrollment will certainly fall, but to what extent?
  • Given behaviors in previous times of crisis, students are likely to stay closer to home for college, but how much closer?
  • Where and how will you house students who otherwise would be heading abroad?
  • We know that many colleges had already decided to increase aid expenditures in the face of shrinking applicant pools and concerns about retention, so discount rates are likely to rise, but by how much?

Although no one knows all the answers to these questions, here’s what we do know (and you’ll hear us echo these points in our previously planned posts):

1. Clear, concise, and accurate EXTERNAL communication is key to assuaging parent fears (initial student surveys suggest that students themselves are blissfully under-concerned about this particular challenge to public health). Ensuring that your entire team, from senior staff to student workers, can clearly articulate your value proposition is important in the best of times. It’s absolutely essential in challenging times.

2. Clear, concise, and accurate INTERNAL communication about the challenges you’re confronting is key to building long-term confidence in your operations. This means to presidents, provosts, boards, and the greater campus community. This is one year when on-campus novices might actually appreciate the complexity and difficulties of enrollment management.

3. Your institution is counting on you to clear time and intellectual space to focus on alternatives to possible – even probable – shifts this fall, as significant reductions in college fairs, on-campus visitors, and standardized-testing dates should be anticipated.

4. Overreaction to single-incident feedback is distracting. We watch even the best enrollment managers get derailed by one piece of news – something from one upset parent, a single board member, or a passing conversation your president has with a colleague. Part of effective management, though, is compartmentalizing those items and keeping focused on the big-picture strategies that will deliver big-time results.

5. Appropriate optimism is a hallmark of effective leadership. Your team will reflect your approach. If you convey anxiety – even if that anxiety is rooted in reality – they’ll amplify that. If you need to have a safe conversation where you can express concerns or say things you can’t say on campus … don’t hesitate to call us.

On a positive note, history offers some reasons for optimism:

In 2001, the stock market recovered to pre-9/11 levels within six months. Even in the Great Recession, values returned to pre-crash highs within five years. If the markets reflect the underlying value of successful organizations, your institution can do more than simply bounce back – you can get ahead.

In 1929, the breakfast cereal market was dominated by two companies, Post and Kellogg’s. One of these two redoubled their marketing and outreach efforts, and one retreated. Almost 100 years later, Kellogg’s retains a market-leading position, thanks, in part, to the long-term view it took at the toughest times.

Tumultuous times don’t have to preclude innovation, or even the development of entirely new markets. McDonald’s started serving breakfast systemwide in 1975 (the same year it built its first drive-through window). The iPod was launched in October 2001. And an iconoclastic firm named Fire Engine RED launched later that same year.

Even with well-documented demographic declines, 3.5 million students will graduate from high school in 2025-2026. The majority of them will want to go to college.

American higher education remains the broadest and most innovative system in the world. No other country has the number of open-enrollment community colleges developing new training programs to help local economies AND a remarkable reach of public and private research institutions. No other country is going to replicate that system in the next five years. This suggests a high likelihood that international enrollment will return to strength.

So what should you do? Don’t panic – or if you do, put a timer on it. Then get planning. This year is going to be tough, no matter what any of us do. But now is the time to make decisions and invest in strategies that will pay off in the years ahead.

At Fire Engine RED, we are, of course, here to help. We’re 100% remote, so we don’t need to make any operational changes to confront this current crisis – which means we will retain a high level of focus on you and your needs.

Thanks for all you’re doing to keep your students safe, and your institutions strong.

Jeff can be reached at jeff@fire-engine-red.com or 612-325-4281.