Institute for Higher Education

5 Enrollment Forecast Models to Consider in an Unpredictable Environment

Better project your next class with modern models.

It’s one of the top questions asked around your institution when wrapping up a new class: what’s the plan for the next year’s class? Answering it and building an enrollment plan for next year—as you scramble to enroll and evolve to the changing scenarios for the fall class—poses never-before-seen challenges.

Those challenges stem from the unknowns that come with all that’s occurred in 2020. How will students and family behaviors change in their search for colleges? Will students stay close to home, go online, or do both? How has the financial environment changed their plans? How is the rise of health and safety concerns impacting choice? What is the risk versus return today?

It will be months before we start to have answers; but when it comes to planning, there’s no time to spare.

There are things we do know. We know college remains a great investment. We know unemployment numbers show that a college degree makes a difference: you are more employable, have more professional opportunities, and have a much higher earning potential throughout your career.

We also know students will attend college next year and the year after and they will need to search and apply in new ways.

That means the historical models that have been a pillar of enrollment forecasting have lost their utility. How will you identify and properly connect with the right students to drive your enrollment goals in these uncharted waters?

Based on our discussions with many enrollment leaders and our own experience, we propose five enrollment forecasting models worth considering in these uncertain and fluid times.

1. Ask your prospective students in a modern way

Like the “old days,” the most direct way to find out who is interested, considering, or not interested is to ask them! How you ask is key, though.

Send a modern survey, mobile designed and deployed. Run it continually and ask a few times. Make it fun. Consider an offer for filling it out: a bookstore or Amazon gift card is a nice option. Make sure it’s easy to get to from your digital channels and promote it. Be timely and use real-time behavior to send the survey. Retargeting or remarketing are both great strategies to deploy a quick online survey.

Ask very specifically about their interest level, offering three very distinct choices: yes, no, maybe.  You want to get enough respondents to apply the percentages against your total inquiry population.

You can sanity check this against one of the next models, but this approach will likely provide the most reliable approach—as it always has.

2. Weekly conversions

A weekly model is a solid approach that is rarely embraced.  Take your conversion analysis across all rates: inquiry-to-applicant, applicant-to-completed applicant, admit, and then yield rates from last year on a week-by-week basis across the entire student recruitment process. Apply those rates on a week-to-week basis historically and forecast forward.  This is also a powerful way to set weekly inquiry, applicant, and admit goals. Weekly yield rates show the nuances of enrollment projections in a new light and are a very powerful way to use time-driven data to project enrollment outcomes. In addition, it empowers the enrollment leader to act nimbly and fluidly, adjusting course as soon as they identify an issue jeopardizing their ability to meet goals.

3. Historical analysis or predictive modeling with caveats

Many enrollment leaders will cling to the familiarity of historical projection reporting, regardless of how uncertain the times. In this case, we recommend building scenarios.

Scenario planning is good to apply to any model because it helps everyone see a realistic range of outcomes.  As a leadership team, you can then plan steps to take in each scenario so there are no surprises.  Your board, leadership team, and key stakeholders will all be aware ahead of time of the options under consideration. This dramatically lowers the shock factor of dealing with difficult choices later and lets you build a plan for each of these situations over time, allowing stakeholders to process and come to terms with the options in advance of having to execute any of them.

When you run your historical models, discount those projections given that these models are less accurate today. You should run scenarios planning to come in 5%-15% lower than the model projection.

4. Real-time predictive models with caveats

In today’s technological world, real-time behavior scoring is readily available with the online tracking capabilities of artificial intelligence. When used properly, real-time behavior can be used to predict enrollment. This method requires a data scientist who understands online behavior and enrollment. While it is simple to track behavior, putting the appropriate “weight” on the right behavior requires expertise. When done well, real-time predictive models can be very powerful.

5. The best enrollment projection tool for uncertain times: real-time behavior models overlaid with real-time surveying capabilities

In this modern world, the best enrollment projection tool is the combination of surveying and real-time online behavior scoring. You will never be able to track 100% of the students in your pool online, but you can track approximately 75% of them. You will never be able to survey 100% of your pool, but you can get survey results from approximately 40% of them. These two powerful data points build the best projection tool. A student who answered an online survey and has a high degree of online engagement will have a much higher likelihood of enrollment than the student who has no online engagement and never completed a survey. While this is complex to achieve, it is the most reliable enrollment projection method.


If this past cycle has taught us anything, however you ultimately forecast your upcoming class, you must consider the ability to adjust and re-assess as the environment changes. While you can’t prepare for everything (we doubt pandemic closure plan was actually built into any enrollment plans last year), having some scenario planning in place would be a best practice. Yes, we’re in uncharted territory, and yes, it can be a bit unnerving, but it’s also a great opportunity to chart a new course in how you recruit, engage, and enroll your class.

Jim Rogers is the CEO and Patricia Maben is the President of 3 Enrollment Marketing.