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About the Episode
The what's what...
Have you thought about what it might be like to be a high school senior right now? Prom has been cancelled, basketball and soccer seasons have been cut short, and there's a good chance you won't be going to college this fall (well, at least not physically).
We wanted to better understand how the search behavior of high school seniors and high school juniors has changed as a result of COVID-19, so we sat down with Alex Stepien, the CEO of Cappex. Cappex is a platform that helps bridge the gap between student, parent, and institution. Since 2007, they've had more than 13 million students register to use their platform and, in the last 12 months, they have seen more than 1.4 million students create accounts.
On this week's episode, Alex shares detailed insights into the questions and concerns the classes of 2020 and 2021 are asking search engines and expressing in surveys. Among others, Alex answers the following questions:
- Do you think the new NACAC rules coupled with this reality we're all living through will have any meaningful effect on yield?
- What search queries are most popular among high school seniors right now? What about high school juniors?
- How will students whose high schools have chosen to evaluate them with pass or fail criteria, and who are pursuing acceptance at standardize test-optional institutions, stand out?
- What sort of bearing do you believe COVID-19 is going to have on higher education and what do you think enrollment marketers can do to best prepare for this fall and beyond?
Tune in for an engaging, thought-provoking conversation.
PODCAST EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
Zach Busekrus: Hello and welcome to the Enrollify Podcast. My name is Zach Busekrus and I am the host of today's episode. Today I have the privilege of speaking with Alex Stepien, who is the CEO of Cappex. Welcome to the show, Alex.
Alex: Thanks, Zach. Great to be here.
Zach Busekrus: Alex, I would love for you to just start by giving us a quick overview of who you are, what Cappex is, and maybe a sort of Cliff's Notes overview of your career to date.
Alex: My name is Alex Stepien, like you mentioned, and I am the CEO of Cappex. We are a company founded and focus on helping students get to day one at the college that is right for them. For most people, they know us through cappex.com, which is our web platform that helps millions of high school kids navigate that process of searching for the right institution, navigating the process of applying to school and then finding scholarships and ways to pay for that education. We have helped over 14 million kids who have registered on our platform since we were founded in 2007 and then in turn, we work with about 600 colleges and universities. These are traditional four-year institutions across the country. So everybody from Harvard, to University of Michigan to here in Chicago land, Northwestern or Elmhurst College and everybody in between. Those schools use the platform then to connect with, you know, roughly a million and a half kids who will come over the next 12 months to use the platform on their journey.
Zach Busekrus: Fantastic. What were you doing before Cappex?
Alex: So I had the privilege of joining Cappex pretty, early in my career. I have actually been with Cappex it will be 12 years in October and I was just about 15 months outside of school. I had cut my teeth in some early sales jobs before I came to Cappex when we were still in very early start-up mode, I was actually one of the first account executives hired to start the team that would go out and recruit college partners who would grow our clientele to pay for the service.
Zach Busekrus: I am sure you said you have seen a lot of change as the as the company has grown. That is really, exciting. All the way to the top there. That is awesome.
Zach Busekrus: Well, so, Alex, I want to talk today about the thing that everyone is talking about, the thing that I wish maybe we talked about a little bit less, but it's hard to not have a conversation today that doesn't start with something along the lines of what is your experience of COVID-19 been so far? What I want to specifically, chat about with you is really the way in which high school juniors and seniors are researching and evaluating college during this moment. You put out an awesome article that I stumbled upon on LinkedIn, which is, you know, how we connected last week.
What I am really just interested in you doing is kind of briefly explaining how students interact with Cappex and why you believe that the data that you all have is at least directionally accurate for what's sort of going on in the broader kind of college bound population search behaviour at this moment.
Alex: Yeah, I think it is a great question, Zach. So just by way of a little background, I mentioned a few statistics a couple minutes ago, but every year we're going to get about one point four to one point five new students who will register on the platform.
So what that equates to by the time a class leaves high school is roughly 50 percent of the college bound seniors across the country will have signed up and used the Cappex platform in some form or fashion to help them on that journey. So we have a variety of tools and the resources that students can use for free, whether it's calculators to help them understand their chances of getting into an aspirational school or organizational tools to keep them on top of their college lists and deadlines across the application process to scholarship search.
With numbers like that, we found historically is that we have a pretty, representative sample of the college going audience across the country and we see that through our work with these 600 colleges and universities that do span the gamut from Ivy's to small private to regional public institutions across all 50 states. With those kind of numbers, we see some pretty, predictable patterns in terms of seasonality and the time of the year that kids are doing certain activities on the site.
So interesting wait for us here in the month of March, we started to notice some changes in behavior that I think were worth talking about and really was the genesis for the article that I shared on cappex.com about some of that student search behavior, specifically some of the patterns with seniors versus juniors and their relative activity levels.
Zach Busekrus: Talk to us about kind of search traffic in general. How as it especially over the past just few weeks, if at all, has search change? Are you all seeing, you know, the amount of search, the kinds of queries that are being search sort of more or less consistent with where they were at last year? What sort of effect has this moment had on the ways in which you all are seeing activity through your platform?
Alex: Yeah. Awesome questions Zach. And I think really what stood out to us is in the month of March, we've started to see some declines in search traffic and in particular for us new users signing up for the platform, specifically more with the class of 2021 than anything else. We started to dig into this data, juxtaposing it against previous years on the Cappex platform, where we certainly got a longitudinal history dating back over 10 years.
We have been able to also kind of triangulate that against activity that we are seeing on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, where we do a lot of engagement with this high school student audience. As well as through the Google Trends tool, which is showing across a litany of college search and research related terms a drop compared to the typical expected volume in the month of March.
Zach Busekrus: Alex, do you have any sort of just for our listeners' sake, is there quantity of volume that you can kind of speak to here, or is that sort of hard to quantify?
Alex: Well, I think on a very macro lens, it is tougher to quantify and it is certainly a fluid situation but I can speak a little bit more to the Cappex traffic specifically. I think one of the things that was encouraging that I relate in the post on cappex.com last week was that for seniors, they are just as active really as ever.
So we're seeing really little to no change in terms of either new students who are signing up on the platform to use tools in their decision making process here as we hurdle towards the fall timeline and or return engagement from our existing user base so that's pretty much unchanged. For the last couple of weeks, we had seen pretty, dramatic drop offs in terms of new students, in particular from the class of 2021 that we are down 40, 50 percent over the same time period last year but even since the writing and release of my piece last Wednesday, we started to see a return to normalcy there. That I think is pretty, encouraging.
We are seeing over the last five or six days return activity from those that junior class in terms of new registrants that really kind of, matches our expectations for this time of year. So, you know, it's only a few days' worth of data, but it is encouraging sign. It is something that, you know, we are going to keep obviously tight reins on and report out to our client base here in the very near term.
Zach Busekrus: Absolutely and, you know, that sort of is a nice transition into one of the questions that I thought you all asked in this survey, which was fantastic. I am really kind of, curious and hoping you can shed a little bit more light on in terms of the responses to this question but in a survey you guys recently conducted, you asked high school seniors, what has you most concern about your college journey in this particular moment? I am just curious; can you speak a little bit to how participants responded to this question and if there's anything, you know, notably significant in terms of response, if you could highlight that here, that would be fantastic?
Alex: Yeah, I think one of the fascinating things is we're really trying to look at both sentiment data express from students via a survey coupled with then data that we're seeing on the activity on the site and, you know, maybe surprisingly, those two are not exactly matching.
So specifically, if we look at students' behavior on the platform, you know, the types of schools that they're engaging with, their relative rank in terms of the order of their college list, things of that nature are fundamentally unchanged say for some small variance. So really, not a huge story there. Doesn't necessarily match, though, with what we're hearing from survey results and something that I think there's been a lot of student surveys across the industry and kids may be expressing concern and trepidation around the financial picture, their ability to pay for school and how that might be severely impacted.
Whether they have had parents who is already undergone, you know loss a job or reduction in hours for little things of that nature or maybe it is the fear that that is going to happen. That, combined with maybe some reticence to travel for school, is one of the early kind of signals that is coming out of sentiment in particular. So does not match what we are seeing in terms of activity at real scale on the platform but that's what comes out in some of the verbatim as you talk to kids.
Zach Busekrus: Just a quick follow up there. What about in terms of any search related to extending deadlines? Have you all seen kind of an uptick at all in traffic about moving you know, the college admissions deadline to June 1st or potentially even later than that? I know that many schools have opted in to kind of, push that deadline back and I am just curious from a traffic standpoint, from a search query standpoint. Is that representative of what is happening or not particularly?
Alex: Yes. I think, you know, as things started to unfold a couple of weeks ago, our team responded by setting up a COVID-19 research center. So it was a collection of data across the college landscape that we put together to give students and parents the ability to answer some of these questions.
Are there virtual tours or virtual events, options to engage with the schools I have been looking at? How they changed or extended their deposit deadline? Are they going to stop some of the movement that we are seeing within the industry? I do not know that students are specifically searching on that stuff but we have seen a great response to kids engaging with that content, which I think, you know, backs up what we hear then in surveys. Which is, again, I think some anxiety in particular around still sticking to a May 1st deposit deadline as opposed to the June 1, date that I know a lot of schools are responding with flexibility there.
Zach Busekrus: One of the things that stood out to me most about this article that you published on cappex.com was you guys noted that one of the answers that you received to survey question that you posed was that I'm trying to convince my parents to let me go out of state. It really struck a chord with me because it really inspired this greater question which is that, was this feedback somewhat representative or not particularly?
Again, obviously, we are still kind of early on here and seeing how all of this unfolds for the fall but do you all anticipate any sort of particularly meaningful impact? Are you all seeing any search behavior or activity that suggests that there's growing concern, not necessarily about going to college or not necessarily about not moving forward with an individual students kind of top choice, but with leaving their home state to pursue any education in the fall?
Alex: Yes. I think this is another one where it really stuck out to us that there was a mismatch between behavior on the site in terms of student activity we are talking about tens of thousands of students at a given time. So really some heft to the amount of data that we have there versus the survey responses, which are obviously in a much smaller quantity.
And I think to your point, its early days and I think if we talk to those same students now, you know, 10 days later a bet we'd already have different responses that they've been adapting, their families are adapting to new realities. I think specifically the disconnect there is the kids are maybe expressing some of the same anxiety but broadly, we're not seeing dramatic shifts in terms of their willingness to engage with schools out of state or in different locals or regions .
I think it is certainly one to watch and obviously, I think this is a fear that makes sense. If you kind of, take a step back and put your human hat on for a second that mom and dad might be more concerned about sending someone away for school, especially if maybe that school was in one of the hot spots that's obviously talked a lot about on the news right now. I do not know that there is conclusive evidence as to how that is actually going to play out as we think about yield seeking here.
Zach Busekrus: Do you think that based off of any of the data that you will have and or even, you know, survey responses to that you might consider that, again, may or may not be congruent with the actual activity that you're seeing on the platform? I am curious about whether or not schools who likely know that X percentage of the people that they accepted these institutions were, let us just say, the students safety schools.
I mean, I am curious if there has been any sort of kind of, uptick in traffic from audiences that an institution previously would have considered not reliable in terms of a yield standpoint, simply because they were higher caliber students or they tested higher or what have you. Maybe it is just too early for this but I am just curious, has there been any sort of activity on the institution side of things that you all have seen with respect to student preferences shifting and or even just engagement in conversation with institutions that otherwise, you know, may have not had the attention of these audiences?
Alex: Yeah, it is a great question and it is one that I really, think about you know, looking at the activity that our client facing teams have had over the last couple of weeks. I have read myriad conversation notes about, you know, the lack of faith that most institutions have in their typical yield models.
At this point in time, I think there was already some concern just with the NACAC guideline changes coming into this year that it might be a whole new world but clearly, with the COVID student behavior, you know, all bets are off in terms of predictability in the funnel. I think it really does vary on a school-to-school basis. Right. If you think about some of the dynamics, whether it is, you know, where they typically enroll a class from, but maybe importantly some of the second order effects.
Who do I compete with that might be maybe a more academically selective school that might have counted on an international population to fill their class historically? Are they going to reach deeper down the waitlist to fill those incoming freshman seats due to softer enrollment from, let us say, Asia or other parts of the world? I think it really is kind of case-by-case, but universally I think there is a great deal of anxiety and distrust in historically yield models. So I think for a lot of our clients, what they're seeing and it's similar to the attack we're taking, is just trying to stay close to those families and those students to really understand what those dynamics mean. It is, I think, in a very institution to institution, region to region and so on and so forth.
Zach Busekrus: I want to switch to the class of 2021, which we have touched on a little bit here but just broadly speaking, are there any additional/particularly interesting insights into their search behavior? The search behavior of current high school juniors that you all are seeing.
Alex: Yeah. Actually even since, we produced the piece last week I think we are starting to see some more interesting data. So specifically in the March, April timeframe, a lot of student activity historically is driven by testing behavior. So whether they're preparing for their SAT or ACT tests and or getting those results back, we see that that a lot of times drive activity in terms of a real signal for kids to get serious about their college search process. And so in the absence of that, I think as tests have been cancelled or delayed now until the June timeframe, I think that was one of the driving forces behind a little bit of a lag.
In fact, last Thursday, there was an SAT score release for students who were able to take the test earlier this month and we saw a real return in terms of that student activity that I think was really, precipitated by that signal. So I think what this says is that, you know, for admissions officers across the country, clearly that typical calendar that kind of drives students through this process.
Whether it is the college counsellor and their high school who might be in their ear, the spring break trip they might have taken with mom and dad to check out prospective campuses, the testing behavior that would preoccupy their time and attention. Those things are certainly going to change here in the immediate term and so you have to find new ways to start a conversation with students. This is something that my team has had success with in the social media atmosphere in particular, kind of changing that conversation to drive students to start that behavior in a different fashion.
Zach Busekrus: Have you all seen any search behavior that has indicated any sort of kind of fear or concern as some I would even say, kind of many based off of the at least news reports that I'm reading. Many of the high schools who are moving this semester to kind of a pass or fail model for many courses.
You know, many juniors, are reporting when they're applying to schools in the fall, especially those that are doing kind of early action, early decision, they're sending kind of their last semester of junior grades and also kind of if you have them on hand the first semester of senior grades to the colleges that they are applying to. Have there been any trepidation around what happens where if my school pursues a pass or fail model for evaluation for this semester? Is there any concern over what that might do for their chances at getting into their top school?
Alex: Absolutely. You know, I think this is something that we see somewhat through search traffic but those are far more seldom searched terms but I would really draw our intelligence from some of the conversations we have with users and their family. We also have a college advising area of the business.
So some families opt for more premium experience beyond the free platform and then we work one to one with professional advisors to kind of shepherd those families through the admissions process. I can tell you that in particular, with our work with juniors there is just a great deal of confusion. You know, I think already you are seeing colleges respond with content meant to inform and educate about how they might look at the process differently but I don't think, for the most part, students and families understand how this is going to impact that trajectory that maybe they've been planning on for some time.
So if I'm applying for and, you know, an academically competitive institution like Tufts that has just gone test optional if I took the test one time in February and was planning on retaking it, maybe to super score my way to a competitive SAT or AAC score. Am I better off now, being silent on that, if my school is pass-fail, how does that impact my ability to show upward trajectory on my academic performance?
These are real questions that families are grappling with but clearly, there is not clarity being provided by institutions. I think there is a real opportunity for schools to educate and, you know, lean into those conversations with families to help them understand. It is a tough process to grasp a lot of times making even more challenging based on the lack of historical context.
Zach Busekrus: Wow. It will be very, very interesting to see how schools adapt very interesting to see for the class of 2020, but even more interesting, I would say, for how schools kind of, change the admissions process and the how they determine what sort of evaluation criteria they're going to use for the class of 2021 it be very, very, interesting. I have two final questions for you.
One, you briefly touched on, but I was hoping you would just elaborate on this a little bit more for us and that is, do you think that the new NACAC rules sort of coupled with this reality that we are all living through, is going to have a particularly meaningful effect on yield?
Obviously, you know, the answer to that seems obvious that, yes, of course, it will have some sort of meaningful effect on yield. I am curious to know, even if it is just anecdotally, whether or not there is any sort of evidence or any sort of conversation happening around schools that are scared that another institution is going to now kind of step in and poach from kind of their pool of people that were before this crisis. A relatively secure population that would matriculate. What sort of conversation, if any, is happening and is there any sort of kind of meaningful takeaways that our listeners should note?
Alex: Yeah, I think it is a great question. You know, it is obviously a dialogue that we have been having with our clients dating back to the last NACAC at the end of September in 2019. I think the prevailing perspective that we have heard is that many schools are secretly very afraid of, you know, maybe some of these more poaching type behaviors, offense related behaviors coming from their competitive set and so I think in many ways schools have been leaning in to trying to get out in front of that themselves.
You know, staying very close to their student population, their families, they would normally count on their yield models, you know, having good conversations with them and in some cases taking proactive steps to go on the offensive themselves to encourage a deposit or to package more aggressively or whatever the case might be to kind of, solidify that class. I think clearly with the events of March, in many ways, that just throws that into further chaos and I know that schools are concerned that the actions that they have taken may leave them exposed. If the school down the street, that might be suddenly very desperate for enrollment because of kind of some existential concerns about their institution, might suddenly go back to students and repackage and things of that nature, which is just going to drive pricing pressure in particular on that tuition dollars.
I think that, you know, this is certainly one where I think people lose a lot of faith in their yield models. They are questioning some of the steps they might have taken early in the year and trying to prepare for what might come as schools respond to kind of this big unknown as students deposit now May or even into June or beyond.
Zach Busekrus: So we are obviously really, really just on the cusp of being able to understand what sort of bearing COVID-19 is going to have on higher ed. in general. Based on these, you know, initial survey results that you all have reported based off of this, you know, initial site activity that you're pulling from specifically for the month of March. What do you think enrollment marketers can do to best prepare for not just this fall, but, you know, next spring and next fall? Are there any sort of opportunities that you see in this moment and if so, what are they?
Alex: Yeah, I think it is a fantastic question. I think based on the data that we are seeing, especially with some of the return activity coming from juniors of the last several days. You know it is clear to me that at least aspirational, the class of 2021 is viewing this process much the same way that the class of 2020 and '19 before them, and so on has always looked at this. They are still aspiring to the same institution, maybe across the country.
They see themselves at NYU, you know, strolling through Manhattan or on the West Coast at Stanford. Whatever the case might be, that has not really changed. So who you interact with in terms of your prospective student base, I don't think has fundamentally shifted yet until we know a little bit more on how that might change.
I do think for institutions, the ways in which they have historically built an audience, built a tunnel to engage with prospective students and their families is certainly shifting underneath our feet. So with the lack of ACT or a college board data available that most schools rely on, we think it's really critical that schools lean into digital first opportunities whether it's platforms like Cappex or there are others that we compete with certainly.
Thinking about using social media for more prospecting activity, you know, it is something that I know a lot of schools count on more for conversion and yield type elements in terms of the tool bag that has been adopted pretty, broadly over the last five years or so. There are other ways to harness those platforms, you know, more proactively to get in front of students and parents as well, to make sure that we are not taking for granted and compressing a timeline for the class of 2021. So I think more than anything, it's finding new ways to build that audience, the same kind of demographics and students that you might historically expect and then just really leaning into being close to the customer.
When I say customer here, I really mean those students and families obviously. No one is going to know better, how things are changing for your specific student audience and that specific student audience.
So we hope that Cappex to continue to provide some guidance with macro data. Our team is also available to speak with you about what we are seeing on a more local level for your institution as you think about how to adapt toward that class with 2021, really in particular.
Zach Busekrus: Well, Alex, this has been incredibly helpful and hopefully for our listeners, insightful. I know it certainly was for me. I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy new reality to speak with us and I encourage our listeners to go check out cappex.com for other resources.
Any last kind of resources or our kind of places you would point our listeners if they are looking for more information on your guys as offerings and or just solutions or resources to tap into during this time. Alex.
Alex: Zach Busekrus, thank you for having me today. Certainly would encourage your listeners to check us out at cappex.com for our college related offerings, for admissions officers, enrollment professionals, go to cappexsolutions.com and you can see more information there about our college related recruitment offerings.
Certainly would welcome touching base with anybody on a one to one basis. You can reach my team at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be back in touch shortly and would love to share more insights with the data we have been seeing, as well as show you maybe how you can leverage the Cappex platform to reach those student audiences that are so critical for you.
Zach Busekrus: Well, thank you again, Alex, and I look forward to staying connected.
Alex: Awesome. Thanks, Zach Busekrus.
Zach Busekrus: If you are an enrollment marketer working in marketing and communications or enrollment management and would be willing to be interviewed on the podcast, or if you have an idea for a topic that you'd like to hear covered on the podcast, please reach out directly to me at Zach Busekrus@enrollify.org. We sincerely look forward to working with you to make Enrollify the most trusted go to digital resource for enrollment marketers out there.
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About the Podcast
Zach is the Founder of Enrollify. He thoroughly enjoys building new brands, developing and executing content marketing strategies, and hosting podcasts. When he's not working on Enrollify, he enjoys discussing life's quandaries over coffee (or a good bourbon) with friends, building Sponstayneous (his travel brand side hustle), trying out new HIIT workouts, and adventuring across the globe with his wife!
Alex Stepien is the CEO of Cappex, a company that connects students and colleges by allowing colleges and universities to build their brands, connect with prospective students, generate qualified inquiries, and meet their enrollment goals. He graduated with a BS in Economics from the University of Michigan. Alex first started at Cappex as an Account Executive in 2008 and since moved up the ranks where he has served as Cappex's CEO for the last 3.5 years.
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