Enrollment ‘Crisis’ Management: The Art & Science of the Bump

Crisis has a way of blinding folks to clear thinking, realistic strategy development, focused tactics, and forced implementation on yield. One of the tactics that are very effective in the short term is what we call the ‘Bump Strategy.’ A bump is a short term windfall in enrollment that is based upon specific institutional characteristics. The Bump Strategy goes like this. An opportunity is discovered and developed to achieve a one time elevation in enrollment. These can be pockets of 40, 60, 100, even as high as 250 enrollments that can usually be achieved over no longer than three years; many are just 1 year. Looking at a longitudinal analysis they appear as a bump in enrollments if more serious long term strategies are not developed in parallel. We often deploy a bump strategy when dealing with an enrollment crisis. When engineering a bump we look for under recognized opportunity, incomplete or incomprehensible academic narrative, underestimated market/program of study value, or precious pockets of unrecognized market opportunity.

Bump strategies are a two edged sword. They do yield a temporary bump in enrollment. Because they are pocket opportunities, they cannot sustain a growth trajectory although they often can sustain a higher enrollment plateau. They have one lethal unintended outcome. They take the pressure off and derail investment in new long range strategy and allow reversion to the ‘old ways.’ If the money from the bump is wasted then meaningful growth falters. No institution has an unlimited number of bump opportunities and once they are used they do not yield forever. Each bump is unique to the institution and is dependent upon finding the right enrollment alchemy using indigenous curricular elements to exploit known enrollment dynamics.

The Tyranny of Cycles and the Magic of the Bump

If enrollment were a cake, it would take three years to make. Curriculum initiatives achieved this academic year get recruited for the next academic year and yield enrollment in the third academic year. Enrollment problems are failures to bring the academic and enrollment management functions into alignment in enough time to impact a recruitment cycle. Because the development cycle for any enrollment strategy is so long (tree years), and the focus on enrollment yield is so short (annual budget cycle), it is common to derail meaningful strategies underway prematurely. A bump is akin to a chef creating a tasty, satisfying meal from a marginally stocked pantry. Once it is consumed, well, the pantry just doesn’t yield it again. The magic of the bump strategy is that in an enrollment or fiscal crisis it does bypass the three year development cycle and gives a bump in resources on which to get by.

The Secret

It’s the Curriculum Stupid” Sorry to be so blunt but as explained in our post the one inexorable truth, “Curriculum drives enrollment, enrollment drives revenue, revenues drive everything else!” Because the curriculum generates the primary source of revenue by enrolling students, it is the first place to look in the treasure hunt for a bump. Remember a bump strategy is unique to the institution, there is no secret list somewhere you can just copy. To get the secret to yield turn to yield analytics. Social Media, inquiries, recruiter feedback, and historic enrollment build profiles. Next turn to market dynamics. It is not enough to just know from where your students come but where they are and what motivates them. For those of a certain age, bumps are more of a MacGyver type of operation.

Barriers

There are a number of barriers to engineering a bump. If enrollment managers are too panicked and pressured to think, then they are unlikely to discover such opportunities. Resources being what they are, in limited supply; the team may be too busy to build the bump. Cycles are relentless, and timing is everything, this post appears in prime bump strategy season. If decision makers are too risked averse to try (and fail), a bump is impossible to engineer. Decisions can also be crowded by too many opinions and too many with veto power. I recall a board member who asked me (and most enrollment managers have this experience) ‘this all sounds like it takes too long, do you think they should try sending letters, visiting high schools, putting up a billboard or maybe doing a TV commercial?’

In closing

The bump as a crisis mitigation mechanism can be very effective. But it is not a remedy for long term enrollment issues. If used wisely, a bump strategy can give a needed boost in morale and enough fiscal oomph to energize an enrollment management team. No one can guarantee the success of bump initiative. October begins prime bump engineering season for next falls enrollment. But it is a short season and has serious limits. Please consider Joining the ASEM Group in Linked In, and joining us in Claremont on December 8th for the Institute for Academic Strategic Enrollment Management and Sustainability where we will discuss the bump as an option.

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