Valuable Conversations and Lessons From the 2021 NACAC National Conference
I’ll admit it: I was really nervous about going to Seattle last week for NACAC’s National Conference, the first major in-person event higher education marketing or enrollment has hosted since before COVID-19 shut things down. I just wasn’t quite comfortable being around large crowds of people from all over the country with the pandemic still not under control and a nine-year-old, yet-to-be-vaccinated son at home.
But I’m really glad I went. Why? Because it was so incredibly wonderful to connect with friends and colleagues I hadn’t seen in person in so long. The conference was long overdue therapy that brought about a kind of collective healing and, as NACAC always does, provided a welcome reminder that this profession attracts some of the smartest, most passionate, and most dedicated people in the world. And we’ve all had a tough couple of years.
I had dinner Thursday night with an eclectic group of enrollment leaders from schools literally coast to coast, and we went around the table sharing our stories about how we stumbled into working in college admissions (I know very few people who planned on this as a career). Each story was truly unique and inspiring, and the exercise laid a foundation of vulnerability that led to some very rich and engaging conversation throughout the night.
Here are some takeaways from that conversation and others I had throughout the conference.
Enrollment leaders have never been more serious about access and serving underprivileged and underrepresented populations
I’ve always heard people talk about wanting to increase diversity on college campuses and overall access to higher education, but, to be honest, the tone was usually self-serving. It was about vanity metrics and/or rankings and not about bettering the experiences and outcomes for underserved populations in higher education. That conversation seems to have changed. Whether because of the increased threat to access brought on by the economic impact of the pandemic or the social movement following the murder of George Floyd (very likely both), I have never heard enrollment leaders talk as openly and honestly—and with such urgency —about truly improving access to higher education. It’s well past time, and I’m encouraged by the shift.
Retention and student success are a growing focus
Like diversity and access, retention and student success have always been a part of the conversation at NACAC, but never so prominent as this year. And that opens up so many considerations that haven’t typically been a focus for enrollment and marketing leaders. Like, “How are we communicating with current students?” Traditionally, we market to students like crazy until they enroll, and then we cut them loose and hope they make it. There seems to be an awakening to the fact that we need to continue to market to current students in a way that keeps them engaged and keeps selling them on the institution.
Slate schools want to bring Student Search in-house
Slate quite literally was at the center of the NACAC Conference, with a massive exhibit booth in the atrium of the convention center. I heard someone refer to it as the “Slate-rium,” which I thought was a pretty solid dad joke. Almost every person I talked to works at a school that has Slate, is getting Slate, or is dreaming of getting Slate. And a common theme in those conversations was their desire to eventually execute Student Search campaigns within their Slate instance rather than outsourcing it to a third-party vendor. It makes so much sense from an efficiency standpoint, not to mention there are significant cost savings that can be achieved. I’m very excited Carnegie has joined forces with Underscore to lead this movement in the industry.
The importance of refinement, optimization, and efficiency
Admissions marketing has come a long way over the past few years. It wasn’t that long ago when many of my conversations at NACAC would be dominated by campus-side folks telling me how bad they were at marketing, how they didn’t have any digital presence or social presence, or how they weren’t tracking anything to demonstrate ROI. It wasn’t like that this year. Most people seem to have figured out the fundamentals and are now looking for solutions to refine, optimize, and be more efficient. The focus for many was on audience segmentation and how to better appeal to students’ emotions and motivations in their messaging. Of course, we can help with that too.
Closing the loop on my safety concerns around the pandemic, I thought NACAC and downtown Seattle did an admirable job putting precautions in place to protect attendees and the communities to which we returned home. It was indeed a surreal experience trying to recognize faces behind masks while riding up and down escalators and maybe a little tough carrying on muted conversations. I was asked several times to produce my vaccination card when entering a restaurant. Maybe this is the “new normal” I keep hearing people talk about, and maybe that’s okay. The upside of enduring the new normal was the forgotten feeling of normal, the feeling of making real connections with people again. That will be my lasting memory of NACAC ’21.
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