Given the bewildering number of changes roiling the enrollment landscape, it’s no surprise that we’re fielding increasing numbers of questions about our modeling. These come from existing clients, who have relied on us to refine purchases and communications, but also from prospective clients seeking clear direction about their next strategic steps.

A Look Back

Before we look ahead, though, let’s look back. Way back. In the summer of 1612, or twenty-four years before the founding of the first college in what became the United States, Galileo Galilei recorded a remarkable series of drawings that charted the movement of spots upon the sun’s surface. While you can find a number of websites that display these, my favorite is here:

search modeling galileo

In case you’re wondering, we are seeing no correlation between sunspots and enrollment patterns. But Galileo’s observations remain relevant to us, even in a very different modeling world, for two key reasons.

First, he observed and recorded his data consistently. We’ve written about this before, but if it was worth Galileo’s time to be comprehensive and accurate, it is for all of us, too.

Second, he acknowledged missing data. During his period of observation there were some cloudy days in Florence, and the sun could not be seen. It would have been easy enough to falsify data – after all, the patterns were clear, and no one else had the scientific tools to challenge him – but his integrity is exemplary.

How does this relate to us, in enrollment, in 2020?

As we started to grapple with unpredictable changes in February, we wanted to be able to continue to make confident predictions. We relied only on data we could trust, we aggressively added to our knowledge base, and we constantly reassessed our models as we collected new information.

To start, we continued to believe that some long-standing patterns would remain in play. If they could afford it, students would want to go on to college, especially given the lack of other meaningful opportunities. We had historical precedent we could trust. In the two most-recent economic downturns, in the early 2000s, following the September 11th attacks, and in the late 2000s, as the Great Recession deepened, students from affluent families did not dramatically change their college-bound behaviors, while students from less-affluent families stayed closer to home, or did not enroll anywhere.

Everything’s Changing. But How, In Particular?

However, the presence of a pandemic, and the absence of standardized tests, college counseling, college fairs, and so forth, would mean that student paths to college would look very different than previous years. We wanted to see those potential paths, but how?

We asked students directly. An aggressive surveying regime successfully shed light on their changing approaches, as well as confirming most of our initial hypotheses. Our results showed no evidence of a pending enrollment cliff for four-year institutions, but we did see signs that most students were more likely to stay within driving distance for college. Collectively, our surveys suggested slight shifts in outcomes for traditional institutions, and for colleges in densely populated areas.

But they also reconfirmed that for low-income and many underrepresented families, the combination of economic turmoil, absence of testing options, and generally poor college counseling meant many were going to remain invisible to colleges, and less likely to go to school at all, unless we found new ways of reaching them.

Despite loud voices declaring the end of residence life, our survey also showed increasing interest in an on-campus experience. As early as April, students were expressing the strong desire to be with friends (or away from their parents!), and incredible dissatisfaction with online learning.

Armed with actionable data, we moved quickly. We located, tested, and retested new name sources. We also began to make adjustments to name purchasing strategies and predictive models. We halted some interesting A/B tests and started other more-urgent ones. And we closely measured and constantly challenged our own assumptions.

Looking Ahead

Our ongoing research continues to reveal key elements that will help drive students to apply. On the modeling and data side, we are already seeing application trends for 2021 that mirror 2020 … but search trends for high school juniors that mirror 2019. We’ve spotted shifts in responses to messages, and changes in the efficacy of timing, from email sends during the day to the drop dates for print.

We vigilantly guard against complacency – our modeling worked last year because we are both disciplined and nimble. We continue to keep close watch on economic indicators, early application patterns, and campaign engagement. We leverage our cross-client data to better inform models for every client. And we continue to survey students to identify changes in their thinking and planning.

Our clients have counted on us for years to be proactive – and while the world has changed at a remarkable rate – our relentless focus on the future has not. Our commitment to making accurate, actionable assessments and our long history adjusting to shifts enables us to lead with confidence for the rest of this cycle, and cycles to come.

In summary? You don’t have to stare at the sun for forty days to see something remarkable. We’ll dive into your data, supplement it with ours, and set you up for success, no matter how long the current clouds remain.

Check out our Data Services and Student Search offerings, or read more by Jeff:

Are You Asking the Right Questions?
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.