I joined Fire Engine RED, in 2014, after I left my job as dean of admissions and financial aid at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. Truth be told, I had never used Fire Engine RED for Student Search and I had some good reasons for that.

Our most recent two experiences with outside vendors were nothing short of painful. The first, a major industry player, neglected to purchase all the names we had approved, including those from a key core market. The second, a local boutique firm, managed to misspell our institution’s name on an expensive print piece (a mistake attributed to “an on-press decision”). 

Operationally, we had a CRM that enabled us to send unlimited email messages to students at no additional cost. I could point to a strong creative team that represented our college well and my own extensive data experience. Over the past ten years, I had worked as a data consultant for a wide range of colleges and universities and was a power user of the College Board’s Segment Analysis Service™ leveraging it for search, travel, and financial aid.

So we did it ourselves. I thought I was being smart and prudent, using our existing investments  and tools.

And, honestly, given what I knew at the time, I was pleased with our results. We didn’t make any dramatic mistakes. We improved response rates, and as we tracked students into their senior year, we knew we were generating more search-initiated applicants. 

All well and good, but we lacked access to meaningful comparative results, and we suffered from depth of expertise.

Comparisons. While we diligently measured everything we could, our only points of comparison were internal. While we were getting better every year, we didn’t know if we were closing a gap, or falling further behind our competitors or aspirant institutions.

We also executed a handful of A/B tests, but again, could only compare our results internally, and for obvious reasons I wasn’t comfortable taking too many risks. This meant we were limited to very slow, incremental improvements, unless we stumbled upon something remarkable (which we did, in a bad way – more about this in a future post).

Expertise. Successful enrollment professionals focus on the area in which they add the greatest value: creating and implementing their strategic vision. This requires close coordination with their board, president, senior leadership in communications and advancement, while simultaneously leading their staff and proactively engaging with faculty, parents, and alumni.

Those responsibilities leave no time to develop the necessary expertise in some core skill sets required to execute successful searches in the current environment. These include Search modeling, list development, name source evaluation, list purchasing, creative expertise focused exclusively on high school students, project management, cross-client evaluation, development of verifiable A/B tests, and so forth.

An accelerating pace of change further complicates the development of expertise. Witness, in just the last few months, shifts in NACAC guidelines, the massive reconfiguration of ACT data, and the decision by the College Board to drop the ability to identify low-income students. Meanwhile, relentless demographic shifts grind away at traditional enrollment patterns.

The question is not IF staff on campus could develop deep skill sets in any or all of those areas. The real question is if the substantial investments required to hire, train, and manage such a team would be WORTH it for a single institution. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can say, with confidence, that it is not. 

Clients who moved to Fire Engine RED after running searches internally (or even through other vendors) generated 11% to 27% MORE applications from search. Those are actual, actionable applicants, and since we only search admissible students, we see stronger admit rates, which results in higher enrollments.

For my institution, 20% more applicants from search would have meant over 350 more applications to consider. A stronger, better, and larger applicant pool would have allowed us to drive our profile higher. And our discount lower. And diversified our campus. And helped with gender balance. And improved retention.

In short? My well-intentioned decision to utilize our existing team and tools saved us money. But it cost us where it mattered most.


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.