q+a: takeaways from eduventures summit

a conversation with brittany trafis

joe adams
21-minute read

June 5-7, Brittany Trafis, Fathom’s Vice President, Account Partnership, had the opportunity to attend this year’s Eduventures Summit in Boston. A few things make the event unique: first, the committee’s ability to draw distinguished leaders from within and outside higher ed like Mitch Daniels, Bill Belichick, and Mitch Landrieu; and second, the commitment to keep the conference small, limiting attendance to 500.

When Brittany got back to the office, we sat down to discuss her experience. Over the course of this 20-minute conversation, we talked about the major themes at the exclusive conference, why Brittany thinks generations are overrated, and what higher ed marketing and admissions leaders need to do if they want to better connect with their prospects.

This is just a portion of a larger conversation, so we join mid-discussion:

Brittany Trafis: Why was I at Eduventures?

Joe Adams: Yeah, I think that’s important.

Brittany Trafis: Yeah. So Fathom is partners with Eduventures, so we’ve been partners for a few years now. They put on a summit every year. I don’t know what year this was, but we’ve been going the last four years. But they have a theme every year.

So it’s a mix audience of everyone from marketing to enrollment, analytics, good mix of attendees, all the way from large institutions to very small privates, even large online schools to your state schools. So it’s great for networking, had a lot of great conversations with people, really trying to understand what they’re seeing at their institutions, what their challenges are. Lots of good sessions, big themes that really popped out though. Online. Everybody’s talking about online. Went to quite a few sessions on that.

Joe Adams: Online programs? Online degrees, online classes? Online, all of the above?

Brittany Trafis: All of the above. So really the big topics were around online for local versus nationwide. So this Inside Higher Ed article came out Monday or Tuesday last week, right before the conference, which was perfectly timed.

Joe Adams: Interesting.

Brittany Trafis: Right. They already have these sessions planned. So the timing was very on point. But that article said that students are starting to pick online schools to get their degree online within a 50 mile radius. And so that’s changed over the last year, as they’re moving from choosing these large national online schools to these small local schools.

Now small local could be, University of Akron down the street has an online program. That’s what you would consider local. Or Cleveland State University has an online program, that’d be local compared to your Southern New Hampshire University, which is national.

So they’re saying that students want more of that brand awareness. They want to be more local. Big part of the conversation was they want to attend graduation, so it’s easy to attend graduation, it’s just right down the street. And if they want to pop over to campus they can. So the convenience factor.

Brittany Trafis: Big debate at Eduventures, though. A lot of the data that they’re seeing is, well we’re not really actually looking at some of those changes that happened over the last year. Grand Canyon went from for-profit to nonprofit. Western Governors starts building some locations. So now it’s a difference in the entire environment for online, and now online is a commodity too. So you have all these schools that know that they have to have an online degree, where are the students going to pick?

Brittany Trafis: So I went to a really good debate session where you had everyone from Southern New Hampshire University attending, you know, UMass to some small privates. And we just had a nice debate around what is happening within online and how do you really compete against the big competitors. Is it a marketing spend pool competition? Is it a degree program competition? Like what really is it?

Joe Adams: And the competitors themselves are having this discussion.

Brittany Trafis: Yes, that’s what was really interesting. That’s what was really interesting.

Joe Adams: So what was, I mean was a consensus reached? How do you reach the student best when they have so many options in their backyard and around the country?

Brittany Trafis: That’s the big debate. So a lot of the conversation was around… It’s a commodity. So what do you do? And everyone offers an MBA online. Everybody does. So maybe you should look as an institution to actually have programs that are more specific and actually meet the needs of the employers around your city.

So if I am a small private, in let’s say Connecticut, I would then look and see what are the jobs that are in demand within my city. Understand from employers, what are some jobs that they just can’t fill because there’s just not enough people to fill those jobs? Align your degree programs around those jobs and get really specific. Like you can help people get jobs immediately by answering what the needs of the city are, what those openings are.

Brittany Trafis: And that’s something that I think we’re really missing within higher ed and all across all the institutions is, what do employers need? We talked a lot about how Google for example, you don’t even need a degree now. They’re really looking at what is your skill set and how can we help really develop you.

So with all those changes, we need to start looking at the employers and aligning the degree programs around their needs. And maybe it’s not a full degree, maybe it’s a certification. But if you can help those who want to go back to school, who want to better themselves, that could be a different approach than let’s offer an MBA that everybody offers.

Joe Adams: And that’s not specific to adult learners. Traditional undergrad students care more about career outcomes earlier in the process than they ever had before. So are the traditional brick and mortar institutions taking, I mean they’re lagging further behind.

Brittany Trafis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joe Adams: Are they as engaged in that conversation yet?

Brittany Trafis:They’re starting to. They know… It’s no secret, right? Enrollment’s declining. So the report came out last week that enrollment across all institutions is down 1.7% this coming up year. So as you look at that, everyone’s-

Joe Adams: So 1.7% less new freshmen in 2019?

Brittany Trafis: In 2019, fall 2019. So as you look at those numbers, you have to fill those seats somehow. And so that’s why everyone’s turning towards online. And those adult learners, or those people who want to go back to school, or even want to attend school but they need a full time job, or they’re a single parent, knowing that you have this larger population that you can help.

So yes, you have your new freshmen, traditional students who are more focused on career outcomes, but you do have a large population that wants to better themselves and they want a new career or they’re looking for a new job, but they need the certification or they need some more of that training and that degree.

Brittany Trafis: That’s where you can really focus some of that attention of maybe there’s a high demand. We hear it on the news a lot here in Cleveland, high demand for nursing. They really need nurses here in Cleveland. So what could you do about that?

You could have some online degrees that are specific to nursing where you can take most of your classes online and then you can take your labs and your clinicals on campus, because you’re near here. And it gives you that flexibility. But you know coming out of school you’re going to get a job, compared to maybe some other degree where that job is not as in demand. And there’s a lot of people that want those jobs. It’s harder to compete.

Joe Adams: That’s a great point. We were on campus with one of our partners last year. We were at the call center with their online admissions advisors and they were explaining a challenge of awareness when faculty drives program creation. Right? And so you mentioned sort of with nurses in Cleveland, that’s demand that’s already there.

Whatever institution realizes that, takes advantage of it, there’s search volume, there’s people who are aware of the issue, right? So I guess what opportunity do universities have to listen to their environment and make changes based on that?

Brittany Trafis: So I think the, I mean the big opportunity is to lean into employers. So talk to the big employers in the area, see what that demand is, but also talking to the students. So understanding who did get a job in their field after they graduated? How many of us talk about like, “Oh yeah, I got my degree in this. But actually, I’m doing something completely different.” Like what was yours journalism? PR?

Joe Adams: Well, so it was journalism with a focus in advertising management. So I sort of backed into it.

Brittany Trafis: You did kind of back into it a little bit. Okay.

Joe Adams: Like all things, I got lucky.

Brittany Trafis: Yeah. But like so many people it’s like, “Oh yeah, I majored in this, but I ended up doing something completely different.” So lean into your alumni, understand what did they end up going into, what are some of those fields? Where did they find those jobs?

And really take that to, if you want to say back into it, but understand where should you be spending and focusing some of those degree programs. Because we are changing, you know, one institution even said we’ve been really good at addressing the needs of some of these older generations, but we’re starting to fall behind on what the newer generations need.

So if you can lean into your employers, lean into your alumni and really understand your current students’ needs. If you take that as that magic combination, I really believe that’s going to help you identify what those key programs are, degree programs that students are looking for to help them fill those jobs.

Joe Adams: You mentioned generations. One of the things we’ve been talking about recently is whether or not changes in prospective student behavior are related to generational shifts or something else.

So there’s a lot of talk right now about adapting to Generation Z, the generation that follows millennials. And the effect that that shift has on sort of enrollment marketing leaders and the work they do every day. Do you think generational shifts really play the role that they’re made up to, or is there something else at play?

Brittany Trafis: Before I give you my perspective on it, I was really surprised that Gen Z was not mentioned at all at Eduventures Summit.

Joe Adams: Really.

Brittany Trafis:The look on your face shows you’re really surprised too.

Joe Adams: They just released a report on Generation Zs and the shifting needs of Generation Z and the impact they’re having on prospective student journey.

Brittany Trafis: Right.

Joe Adams: That just happened.

Brittany Trafis: Right.

Joe Adams: So they’ve abandoned it already too?

Brittany Trafis: I think people are sick of hearing it. I think people know that Gen Z is here. They know that they have to change. Now they’re slower to adapt. Now that’s always loaded with some excuses and some of those limitations within an institution, but I think people are really just sick of hearing about Gen Z and how they’re different as a generation. Whereas they’re really looking at it in terms of, we know their behavior is different, but how do we adapt to it?

Brittany Trafis: So it’s not really a Gen Z thing because you have adult students now in the mix who can be everything from Gen X to Gen Z.

Joe Adams: The baby boomers are still-

Brittany Trafis: Baby boomers, right? Yeah. There are quite a few baby boomers are still going to school. So you have this wide range of generations that are all wanting to go back to school.

Brittany Trafis: As we were just talking about a little bit ago, we’re seeing this shift of we have to have online, we really need to focus here to help with our enrollment problem. So now you’re trying to have your marketing go after Gen Z.

You’re trying to have your marketing go after baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y. You have this wide range of generations who all have different behaviors, but really they’re asking the same questions. And I think that’s where we really have to start to change how we look at it from an institution and within an industry of what do students need. Students are asking questions.

Brittany Trafis: Students aren’t looking at it in terms of, “Okay, first, I’m going to be an inquiry. Then after I become an inquiry, I’m going to apply from application, then I’ll get admitted. Then I have to have a deposit. Oh, let’s talk about financial aid. I think I’m going to go to orientation. Now I’m going to enroll.”

They don’t think about it in that way. They think about it in terms of questions. So, “Where do I want to go to school?” Then they apply. “Where did I get in? What type of package did they offer me?” We know financial aid is the big decision maker and then in the end it’s, “Who’s the right fit for me?”

Brittany Trafis: So they’re really thinking about in terms of questions and we really need to lean into that. And that was one thing that Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue said at Eduventures Summit, so he was the keynote, was he said, “We need to stop thinking, oh they just need to hear from me. The students just need to hear more from me. I just need to tell the students what they need to hear.”

Brittany Trafis: And he came out with a really motivational speech and said, “Really, we have to change. They’re our consumers, they’re our students. We have to change. We have to stop getting so focused on, we have our tenures. Well we’ve always done it this way. This is how we’ve always decided our degree programs. Well this is how tuition works. And really need to reflect internally and say, how do we change for the students?”

And I think Purdue’s been a good example of that, and he shared like a lot of the success he’s had. He froze tuition, he lowered the cost of books, he lowered the cost of housing. What happened? Huh, enrollment went up. Because he was meeting the needs of the students instead of trying just to meet the needs of the institution. And that, I think that’s where we need to move away from, like, “Oh it’s a generation thing,” to “What does the student actually need?”

Joe Adams: So how can marketing and admissions leaders better understand the questions their ideal student is asking?

Brittany Trafis: I think if you look at your own institutional data, but also take the time to talk to your students. What are the students saying? How did the students make their decision? We all do the admit to enroll survey. We all get the survey back that says, this is why I chose your institution or this is why I didn’t choose your institution. We usually look at those. Okay, that’s helpful, and then we move on.

But maybe we need to dig a little bit deeper there and really understand why students aren’t choosing our institution. So you’ll hear a lot about like clearing house reports, so everyone has their clearing house reports to see where students are going. I think if we can really dig into that, along with some of those conversations with students, that can help us start to understand how we not only tailor our marketing, but we have to tailor ourselves as an institution.

Joe Adams: I think the conversations with students point is a really key one. So you know, an admitted but not enrolled survey might tell us that the students who chose our competitor institutions cared about academic rigor. How many 17-year-olds are talking about academic rigor, right? What does it actually mean, in their language? And I’m confident in if you ask them at orientation and campus visits, they’d likely tell you. Beyond those conversations, how do you scale that information collection?

Brittany Trafis: And how do you frame the questions too, so the students understand it? Because there are institutions that’ll ask you about academic rigor and they give you the answer that they think you want. So how do you get the real story from the students? What are they actually looking for? What does that actually mean to them?

Yeah, you can scale that through interactive content as you’re going throughout that student experience. You know, one of our institutions, they sent out a survey like around February, March, and asked students who were admitted, do you intend to enroll, and if you’re a maybe, what institutions are you looking at?

So based on that information then, they had academic advisors reach out to them and have some personalized conversations with them and talk about what the differences are between their institution and the other institutions that they’re looking at, and answer any questions that had them on the fence. Personalizing that experience alone, along with that, you’re collecting data and you’re personalizing the experience for the student. I feel like that’s a win win for both.

Joe Adams: In that example where this institution is sending out surveys and then following up with specific personal conversations, human to human, what sort of results has that driven for that institution? Has it improved their yield rate?

Brittany Trafis: So it hasn’t improved the yield rate overall for the institution, but it has improved just within that segment of those maybes, they saw a larger percent then turned to a yes. Now it’s the first year, so what did we expect? We had a benchmark going in. I think next year will be really interesting to see if we can use that information going forward. We’re now going to be tailoring our nurture messaging to include information based on what those maybes were.

Brittany Trafis: So there were big themes that popped out. We’ll include that in our messaging ahead of time to help get ahead of this student, and answer some of those questions before it gets to a point where they’re like, “Ah, you’re a, maybe, I’m going to be looking at other schools.”

So I think that’s where we need to really start thinking through, what are we doing that’s different as an institution than my competitors. We’re all going after the same population. Population’s shrinking. What can I do that’s different, that leans into students?

Brittany Trafis: I mean there’s research out there that I’ve dug through with Eduventures that shows, “I received a handwritten card from my academic advisor or I received a handwritten card from my dean.” That’s different. That’s something that stands out.

Joe Adams: When everything is digital, handwritten card means so much.

Brittany Trafis: Right? Like what’s this thing coming in the mail to me that’s not a postcard or a view book? That’s how you really stand out is sending something different. Or even an email from the dean if you don’t want to invest in the hand written letters. I mean I’m not saying send hand-written letters to everybody, but if there are students that you know that are really considering and you want them to go to your institution, take the time.

Joe Adams: So that’s a good point. You can’t send handwritten letters to everyone. So how should you decide who to send handwritten letters to?

Brittany Trafis: You know, one way that at Fathom we look at that, is we can take the student’s data, which is inclusive of SAT, ACT, GPA, location, interests, and create a composite of that to understand how do we segment them out. Maybe we have a segment that these are like your premiere students. These are going to be your honors students. These are the ones that have a lot of options, so we’re really going to have to compete for them.

Whereas there might be this sweet spot segment that we say, these are our ideal students. They fit into that GPA mix. They fit into our degree mix. They’re close. Their higher interest. We’re really going to focus here and we’re going to lean in and have a lot of our messaging tailored to them so we can recruit more of those students, but also we can leverage that messaging throughout the nurture and yield process to really help communicate what they need.

Brittany Trafis: For example, first gen, everyone loves to talk about first gen, but it is a reality within our industry. There’s a lot of first gen students. First gen students need hand-holding. There’s going to be that rare group that doesn’t need the hand-holding, but they need the information served up to them piece by piece. No one in their family has ever gone to school. They don’t know the steps to go through.

So unless they have a amazing guidance counselor next to them that’s helping them, they’re going to need some help. So if we know that, hey, they’re in that sweet spot for our composite based on GPA, SAT, we can then take that in combination with some of that messaging because our first gen student, and serve it up piece by piece.