In higher education, times are changing, competition is increasing, and institutions face more scrutiny than ever from prospective students and parents. In particular, there’s been an increasing focus on employment outcomes as a key metric for evaluating the ROI of college programs.
While these changes bring challenges, they also present an exciting opportunity—institutions now have the chance to leverage innovative tools and data that can help families make informed enrollment decisions.
Interview with Sol Jensen, VP of enrollment management at NIU
To learn more about the evolving landscape of enrollment management, we recently spoke with Sol Jensen, vice president for enrollment management, marketing, and communications at Northern Illinois University. NIU was one of the first institutions to invest in GoRecruit—a powerful new way for enrollment management teams to demonstrate alumni success, engage prospective students, and drive enrollment.
As a 19-year veteran of admissions work, Jensen has experienced the growing demand for outcomes data first-hand. We spoke by phone to ask him about the trends he sees and his perspective on how universities can better leverage employment outcomes data throughout the enrollment funnel. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you come to work in enrollment management?
I’ve been in higher ed now for about 19 years. Like most people in higher ed, it’s not what I originally set out to do, but I fell in love with it; fell in love with assisting students and helping them to achieve their academic and career goals. Especially those underprivileged students, seeing them achieve goals that they were told they couldn’t achieve.
In my current role at NIU I oversee admissions, financial aid and scholarships, orientation, and then all the marketing and communications as well.
How does employment outcomes data fit into the work of enrollment management and marketing today? What trends are you seeing?
In my career, over these last 19 years, what prospective students, incoming students, and their families are looking for has changed, and recently it’s become much more focused on the outcome, the return on investment: “What is this degree going to achieve for me? Is it going to help me reach my career aspirations?”
Times have changed and more than ever, the question is whether or not college in general is worth the investment. So in many ways, institutions are also fighting for the importance of a degree. We have to do a much better job as institutions providing students and their families a better understanding of potential outcomes, and I think that’s not only true for individual universities, but for the industry as a whole.
In your experience, do most enrollment management teams have the kind of outcomes data that they need? What are some obstacles to deploying this data effectively?
Usually, they just don’t have it. This type of data is not easily produced or accessed. There may be some departments, especially smaller departments, that do a better job of tracking their alumni and staying in touch. Some career service offices or alumni offices will do surveys, but the response to those surveys tends to be really small. And especially if you have a large department, like biology, and you’re graduating 400 students per year, there’s no way you could track where everybody’s going. That’s why it’s important to have some other data tools, like GoRecruit, to be able to aggregate all that data and information that we don’t readily have access to or don’t have resources to pull together.
Are there any specific enrollment goals or initiatives that you think employment outcomes data is particularly relevant for? For example, reaching first generation or high-achieving students?
Yes, I think both of those segments, for sure. Just looking at the National Student Clearinghouse data, there are increasing amounts of academically strong students, good enough to be admitted, that just don’t enroll. They don’t even enroll at community college, and for us that’s an issue and a problem that we want to be on the forefront of trying to fix. We know it’s an issue across the state of Illinois, and so we want to use outcomes data along with other value propositions from the institution and use all of that information together to answer questions about return on investment and persuade more students to enroll. Even if they enroll in community college, they may decide to transfer a couple of years down the road. But ultimately, we saw over 1,000 students last year who were admitted to NIU and did not enroll at any college. We know that’s an issue across the state and we want to do something about that.
How can schools leverage outcomes data in different stages of the enrollment funnel?
Right now, this time of year, we’re hoping to use it for our yield campaigns, to just give one final push on the value of an NIU education. While students are looking at financial aid packages from us and others and weighing the pros and cons of each institution, our hope is that a student will choose us as opposed to an institution that does not have access to the same information.
But we’ll also use this data on the front end to gain more interest from prospective or future term students who are already thinking about careers or going on to grad school. This type of information will be helpful for them narrowing down which campuses they want to visit and learn more about.
And how do you envision communicating this data to prospects? What are the most important channels to use?
I think we’ll use it in at least three different ways. First and foremost, putting it on academic program websites so that people find it organically when they do a search. Maybe even have a tab or section of the page that focuses on outcomes and careers.
Second, I’d love to send out emails that are personalized and customized by academic program. Those could include a GoRecruit chart and link back to the program page, to give them more information.
And the third would be taking some of the graphs or charts and putting them into a print brochure. We could have those at college fairs, and open houses, but they could also be mailed—essentially any way to get this information in front of students and their families.
What was most appealing to you about GoRecruit specifically? What grabbed your attention?
To begin with, just the fact that the data’s out there and someone can pull it together! And that you can put it into a useful, digestible format for a prospective student or family to look at, which can help them make a better-informed decision about where to enroll. Beyond that, the ease of getting the data and starting to run reports is appealing. And finally, the visual aspect. It’s not just something that comes back into this Excel pivot table, but it can be put it into visual graphs and charts that are easy to read and digest. This is such a great perk because we know that our younger population doesn’t typically read as much, so to have something that’s visually appealing and understandable makes it pretty easy to jump on board.
To wrap up, are there any stories you can share from your own experience that demonstrate the value of this data and why you decided to invest in GoRecruit?
Again, getting back to the importance of employment outcomes data, it was one of the first things that I was seeking when I started at NIU. I was looking at the career services website, couldn’t find anything. I was looking at admissions, couldn’t find anything, individual academic program pages and there was nothing there, and again, this is information that can differentiate you from another institution, so I wanted to be able to try and find that.
So one of the first things I did was I scheduled meetings with every single chair of every undergraduate program, probably 50 or 60 meetings over the first five or six months. It took a while, but the question I asked every single one of them is, “do you track your alums to see how they’re doing, what they’re doing, where are they?” To their credit, most of them could give me a couple of examples of student success stories. And those types of stories can work, but it’s lacking the sheer numbers. It’s much more powerful if you can say, “Over the course of the last five years we have 50 students working at Microsoft, and 30 of them are doing this position, and 10 are in this position and making this type of salary,” and that information was nowhere to be found, not even from the smaller departments who had strong relationships with their students. They just couldn’t pull all that together. And again, this is often the case across the industry, not just at NIU.
GoRecruit will be able to provide the hard data, and the beauty of this comes as we pair that with the NIU story. Ultimately that’s what I’m trying to do here is have something where it’s all together so you’re getting the facts, the data, plus the emotional or personal side, to make a more compelling story.
This article is part of our Market Programs and Drive Enrollment series — learn how to Enrich Your Marketing Mix (with Data).