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Episode 27

transformed: Growing Enrollment in Higher Ed through Technology

Higher Digital has just published the next installment of its audio interview feature, transformed. Every other week we interview experts on higher education, digital transformation, and the challenges and promises represented by both.

In this episode, recorded on the floor of the ASU+GSV Summit, Joe Gottlieb welcomes Jack MacKenzie, founder and CEO of CollegeAPP, which helps higher ed institutions better target adult learners. Listen to the episode to discover how higher ed institutions can leverage data and technology to grow enrollment.

Joe Gottlieb: (00:35)

Hello and welcome to transformed, a Higher Digital podcast focused on the new whys, the new whats, and the new hows and higher ed. My name’s Joe Gottlieb, President of Higher Digital. And today I am joined by Jack MacKenzie, founder and CEO of CollegeAPP, where the APP in CollegeAPP stands for adult prospect pipeline because CollegeAPP is a database of US adults without degrees sorted by predicted intent to enroll in college. This database helps higher education institutions target, market, and recruit adult, student prospects more efficiently and effectively. Jack, welcome to transformed


Jack McKenzie: (01:07)

Thanks, Joe. It’s great to be here. What do you wanna talk about? 


Joe Gottlieb: (01:12)

Well, glad you asked Jack, I want to talk about your database of prospective students and how it’s helping institutions tackle one of their greatest challenges. But first I want to describe why there’s some background noise, because both of us are sitting at ASU+GSV, the preeminent conference in the higher ed industry. But before we get going, I want to talk a little bit about your background, kind of how you got into this work. 


Jack McKenzie: (01:34)

Yeah. I think it’s actually interesting. I’ve been in market research for 25 years and along that path, I’ve always embraced new approaches to solve research problems. And in 2015, I was running a research shop in Los Angeles. It’s Los Angeles – our home industry is motion pictures and the motion picture industry had a real problem and it wasn’t new, but they were beginning to figure out how to grapple with it. That problem was flat ticket sales for 20 years and increased marketing costs.


Joe Gottlieb: (02:19)

At movie theaters 


Jack McKenzie: (02:20)

At, theaters. Got it. Yep. They were spending more to market and getting fewer people to buy tickets, which is not a good equation in the marketing world.


Joe Gottlieb: (02:29)

Especially back then when movie theaters was your only distribution form.


Jack McKenzie: (02:33)

Exactly. So, as everyone has in their life, I met a guy and I met a very interesting guy. He had been the deputy analytics director for the Barack Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012. And he told me about a technique that they developed, the data scientist in this place, called The Cave in the Chicago headquarters where they created person-level predictive models so that the campaign could more efficiently do outreach on the things that they cared about. Whether or not somebody was gonna vote for their candidate, whether or not they were motivated by the environment or by women’s rights or by tax issues. And then the knowledge and the power that the models gave them was the ability to not market the wrong message to the wrong people, but market the right message more frequently to the right people. Famously, it worked!


Joe Gottlieb: (03:31)

Yes, indeed it did. 


Jack McKenzie: (03:33)

Yes. And after the ‘12 campaign, those people spread out around the country up firms, practices, centered on this new technique of person-level predictive model. 


Jack McKenzie: (03:48)

One of those people came to work at the research firm where I was working in Los Angeles and he told me about the approach and the discipline it took to execute it, but that it worked. And I said, let’s take this to the movie studios, right. Because it’s, in some ways, the same problem. How do you find the needles in the marketing haystack to get your message across? So the studios within a year were all using some form of person-level predictive analytics, Warner brothers, universal, Sony, Disney. And it worked because if you do it right, you can more efficiently market your services. Then I met another guy. And this is a guy who was at the tail end of a long career in higher education research. 


Jack McKenzie: (04:42)

And he had spent the last several years of it focusing on the challenge of adult students. And we began talking about what we were doing for the motion picture industry. And I shared with him that it wasn’t terribly fulfilling for me to be selling movie tickets. But I was really intrigued by this both challenge and opportunity for colleges to find, in some cases, those needles in the adult hay stack, which is adults who want and need more education. And so we tested the concept in the Los Angeles area about three years ago right now. And it turns out there were things that you could predict with a level of mathematical certainty that we thought we had something that we could bring to the industry. I quit my job and started CollegeAPP in November of that year. And here we are two and a half years later and we have a hundred colleges using our data every day at this point. 


Joe Gottlieb: (05:50)

Wow. That’s a great story. And notably like this whole concept of a broad consumer opportunity, right? So at the end of the day selling movie tickets or soliciting voters or finding adults that need and want to go to college, right? These are consumer problems. So you have to understand like, okay, where do these people live? You know, how do I reach them? It’s a large numbers game, right? So that’s why the parallel worked. 


Jack McKenzie: (06:20)

And that’s what the challenge was. Is it because only about 20% of adults want more education, you immediately start out with 80% inefficiency in any marketing campaign, because most adults are not interested in a message from a college. And our job is to help colleges focus on those 20% who are likely to say yes to the question, do they intend to enroll in education or training and focus their messaging on them? And, and I’ll say this, it works because it’s a tried and tested approach to creating efficiency. And when you create efficiencies, good things happen.


Joe Gottlieb: (07:05)

Well, and this is happening at a time when, as you and I have talked about before, we have enrollment challenges driven by multiple trends, right? Not only the demographics in the US yield fewer, fewer available students of college of traditional college age, at least. And that’s just a trendline thing. But then of course we have this other issue with, you know, of post COVID and all the distractions that are presented, right. In terms of that also diminishing enrollment in particular colleges, different parts of the industry. And then of course we have the important objective of many institutions to try to attract non-traditional learners, non-traditional age learners and in particular, the learners that have been underserved traditionally. People of color, people that are under-skilled and people of various ages. Right. So it seems like a really important time to step up a capability to do this more effectively. 


Jack McKenzie: (08:11)

Yes. And colleges, in higher education in general, have always had adults on their radar. Right. But they weren’t successful. And the one thing I know for sure is that if you’re a marketing director and you run an unsuccessful campaign, it’s hard to get your boss to tell you to do it again. Yeah. Right. So if we can empower successful campaigns that have good metrics, that begin to uncover adults that are not currently in their funnel and bring them to the institution for consideration, right. We’re not saying they’re enrolling, but we’re saying that they have education on their mind, a good chance of it. And that the college has a chance at these people to get them through the application and the enrollment process. And if we can help colleges increase that number and increase the quality, frankly, of those candidates as they come in, then they’ll do more of it. 


Joe Gottlieb: (09:12)

Quality has been measured in qualification. The ultimate real interest, the likelihood of conversion.


Jack McKenzie: (09:18)

The intent.


Joe Gottlieb: (09:20)

It’s not a quality judgment on the person.


Jack McKenzie: (09:22)

Not on the person, but as a candidate. Right. So the big word we use, and it’s kind of the organizing theory of our company, is that some people have intent to do things and some people don’t. And we focus on intent, right. That someone intends to enroll in education or training doesn’t mean they will, but it means they have a part of their being that has an intention to do that. And people who have intent frankly have proven to be more qualified candidates once they do reach out to the school or reach back to a school that has reached out to them.


Joe Gottlieb: (10:06)

Which means that a process that many institutions are finding both challenging in terms of the headwinds and the trends that we’ve talked about. And in terms of the efficiency of their ability, the efficiency and effectiveness of their current approach, right? This does represent a great way forward. So give me something, you know, fun to chew on here. What are some of the most compelling insights triggered by your data? 


Jack McKenzie: (10:35)

Yeah, so  this one, I just had kind of a goosebump moment, cuz this is my favorite question about what we do and what we have found. We set out to be an unemotional data company. Whoever had the highest scores, those are the people you should advertise. Okay. Right. Because that’s what the methodology leads you to, that’s the discipline. 


Joe Gottlieb: (11:01)

That’s the discipline. Yes.


Jack McKenzie: (11:02)

Now turns out within that discipline, the people who emotionally, we would want colleges to reach out to traditionally underserved populations, people of color, people of low income, single moms have higher scores. In our disciplined approach, we have created a pathway to a social good. Which is people who ordinarily would be left out of marketing plans at colleges are now included in those marketing plans. And they have the ability to be at home and have a college reach out to them. And without our data, they probably would not get that ad. 


Joe Gottlieb: (11:43)

They would’ve taken the same shortcuts that are taken in the entire process 


Jack McKenzie: (11:47)

Because they would’ve done it by demographics. And those people would, might have been left out. Yeah. And, and we’re so happy that they are now included. 


Joe Gottlieb: (11:56)

So are you then seeing this approach helping colleges to reverse some of the down, down pressure on enrollment and actually get back into a growth growth phase? 


Jack McKenzie: (12:14)

Well turning what, where we are right now into growth. That’s a big one. 


Joe Gottlieb: (12:19)

Well, even, even stemming 


Jack McKenzie: (12:22)

Decline, stemming decline is what I mean, right now there were so many, you brought up several of them, fewer high school seniors, kind of a general and about higher education and the cost and student debt 


Joe Gottlieb: (12:36)

And the value 


Jack McKenzie: (12:37)

All, yeah. All these conversations have depressed the perceived value of education right. Including possibly the real value of it.  and we know colleges need students. And now we know there are adults who need those colleges. So if we can help stem  that turns into we, we think long term that could turn into growth 


Joe Gottlieb: (13:09)

Stem to decline, get to growth. 


Jack McKenzie: (13:10)

Yeah. Cause some decline, one thing at a time, establish yourself as a college, whether that’s a community college, a graduate program as the place where adults get trained, get degrees, get skills to get jobs, and that becomes known then more of it all happen. Right. So we’re essentially our, I think of ourselves, giving the colleges the opportunity to create a generation of role model adult students who will then allow a kind of PA the way for more adult students in the future. Because there’s a lot of people who don’t go to college. Yeah. Right. And at some point the job that they’re in is gonna need, they’re gonna need more skills. They’re gonna need additional training. They might even need a degree. And if, if we can create the belief that that solution is available and accessible and doable for adults, then more will do it. 


Joe Gottlieb: (14:09)

Not only that you mentioned earlier, you cited the scenario where if a marketing person in an institution has not had a successful campaign, they’re gonna, you know, their boss or whomever they’re reporting to, right. Isn’t gonna have ’em run right out and do it again. Right. So with this success, I have to imagine that these programs, these, these efforts within schools, in particular, those efforts that are trying to recruit the underserved can get some lift because they can start to get some success under their belts. And that will hopefully reinforce  the competence that these institutions have in continuing those programs and, and then doubling down and expanding those programs because they’re able to point to results. 


Jack McKenzie: (14:56)

Yeah. That, that that’s exactly right. And we dream of a time that every day in America, all across the country, there is some college reaching out to an adult about what they want and need to improve their lives. And, right now that’s not happening because most of those campaigns are not successful because they cost too much money for what they yield. And if we can make it less expensive, achieve greater engagement with the money that they’re spending, and then they go to work, let’s do more. And let’s keep doing more of that. We think we can, frankly, change the complexion of the higher education system, because there are 250 million adults. There are 4 million high school seniors, it’s a much larger market even taking into consideration the 20%. Right. 


Joe Gottlieb: (15:55)

Well, in in fact, then if you consider, if you zoom out on what’s happening in the higher ed industry, right, you, you, you know, it’s, it’s on the one hand, it’s mostly articulated in the context of the noble social, good of doing a better job finding and, and, and, and helping those underserved learners 


Joe Gottlieb: (16:20)

In particular, the nontraditional age student that is under-skilled  or underemployed and, or underemployed, and there’s often causation there. Right? So, if we, if we, the higher ed in industry right now is really trying to understand how to do a better job serving that broader market. And you’re quite right. It’s a much bigger market. Now. It is a harder to target market because of the things we’ve already talked about, and you could argue it’s a harder to serve market, because it requires higher education offerings that are tailored to the needs of these different scenarios. 


Jack McKenzie: (17:00)

Yes. And in, at different times of the day, and, and absolutely in different patterns of learning availability in someone’s life. 


Joe Gottlieb: (17:08)

In fact, and like we’re here at this ASU G S C conference, a lot of what’s being discussed is the reimagining, the rearchitecting of higher ed along the lines of unbundling degrees, not getting away with degrees, but having hybrid approaches that allow students to make progress towards skills that are, make them more employable and more able to earn a better live thing, right. On the way to a degree, perhaps that they might, they might pursue a broader time horizon and not a traditional full-time student scenario. Right. And while that represents a big change required for higher ed in terms of the structure of its value proposition, its delivery, its operations  it represents a great opportunity and a great need, frankly, to, to educate, educate the country.  and for that matter, the planet, I mean, this isn’t unique to us. 


Jack McKenzie: (18:05)

It is not unique to the US.  but let’s solve one major. You got at a time. 


Joe Gottlieb: (18:12)

Yeah. So that’s not what you do in terms of all the delivery once a student is recruited, but let’s talk a bit more about the mechanics of what you do, right? So there’s a, you have a database you’re making this database available, but if I’m an institution, how am I experiencing this value? How am I adopting this capability? How am I building that muscle? And, and do you offer options for people to get more help versus less help depending upon their skillset? 


Jack McKenzie: (18:45)

Yeah. So the database itself is amazingly powerful and it’s used every single day over the country by politicians, by consumer packaged goods companies, et cetera, we make it applicable to higher education through our data science work that predicts intent that someone intend to get more education and you have a score, Joe’s got a score yep. Of your likelihood to say yes to that question, do you intend to get more education 


Joe Gottlieb: (19:13)

Because you’ve polled a certain number of people. And now you’re, you’re looking at all the data and you’re ascribing a predictive index, a predictive intent index amongst everyone based upon your polling. 


Jack McKenzie: (19:26)

And so it starts for the survey and we do our work state by state. We don’t see any reason to compare someone in Boulder, Colorado to someone in Brooklyn or right, right. I can keep naming the cities, but I don’t need to, you know what I mean? So we did a Colorado survey. We do a New York survey. We do a Minnesota survey because each state, we really have 50 education ecosystems in America. Each state is different. Some have great college systems, others call ’em technical colleges. Some have a lot of private schools, some have almost no private schools. Right? Yep.  The economics of each state are different. The demographics of each state are different. So we don’t state  a national model. We do state by state models.  so that’s why, so we also predict whether or not you’re likely to wanna get that education at a community college, a vocational technical center, or a public or private four year, whether or not you want that education all online or whether not, you want to go in person and those combinations of models along with the other  data that exists at the person level in the database, allows the machines to look for the very subtle patterns of what are the predictive elements of a yes or no answer to the question it’s beyond what a human brain can do. 


Jack McKenzie: (20:45)

It’s called machine learning, AI, whatever you wanna call it. But it takes for a state. It takes really hardcore computers, about 10 days to take the survey data, take the demographic data and find the patterns and, and then create the probability scores. And so it’s those scores and that our colleges gain access to the database itself. Let’s say you are a community college in Kansas. 


Jack McKenzie: (21:15)

You have a service area, two, three counties, maybe even 10 counties, right. Will carve up our national database, give you access to the people in your service area with all of their content tech information and their college app scores. And that’s kind of step one now it’s what do we do with it? How do we market to these people?  how do we take that data and turn it into a social media campaign or into an over the top with they have a video and they wanna attach it to YouTube videos. How can we assign people in that service area in Kansas  and make sure they get, not someone who looks like them, not someone who lives in their neighborhood because of zip codes, but how they get so they can get the ad. And that’s the person level marketing that is new to higher education. 


Joe Gottlieb: (22:09)

Well, and that’s, what’s happening in modern marketing of today, right? So it’s, this is targeted marketing, right? That is directed at individuals based upon what can be known about those individuals. And we all know that this data being collected and being, you know, sold, traded, used in a number of different ways. 


Jack McKenzie: (22:27)

It’s all publicly and commercially available. 


Joe Gottlieb: (22:29)

That’s right. And so it’s just a matter of, it’s just a state of the industry, right? This is, this advertising is what’s happening. And it’s time. We leverage it for higher ed. 


Jack McKenzie: (22:43)

Yeah. There is a part to it that we get asked about. And I think it’s worth  saying, and maybe relieving some concerns that might be going on. Like people, like when I say person level, we are not tra tracking people around the internet. I don’t know their search history. I don’t know what’s on their Facebook page. I, I, I don’t even know what’s on their LinkedIn page.  that’s not the data that we have our data again, commercially or publicly available census data. Good 


Joe Gottlieb: (23:14)

Distinction. Yeah. Yeah. Good distinction. Because that data is and is available and, and is being used by, by plenty of parties. Yes. To do targeted 


Jack McKenzie: (23:23)



Joe Gottlieb: (23:24)

And  I mean, I’ll keep it on just because I’m a troublemaker. Sometimes an institution could trade in that data and merge it with yours. Could they not? 


Jack McKenzie: (23:39)

Well, if they’re advertising, now, they’re already trading in. They’re already using that data and it doesn’t work. It is not, it does not get, does not answer the key question. Does an adult actually intend to enroll in education or training? You can, you can know all kinds. They like dogs.  they work out, they’re Chicago bears fans. You can learn all that stuff. That doesn’t, that answer the important question, whether someone intends to get, 


Joe Gottlieb: (24:08)

So your, your, your methodology here has been very, very explicitly designed because of the primary research. You do, you do these polling that you, you pull people for these questions about intent to attend college. Yep. And that’s the part that you’re marrying with availability of just enough data that’s publicly knowable to be able to find them in target, you know, to send them communications. 


Jack McKenzie: (24:33)



Joe Gottlieb: (24:34)

 Well, I’m glad you clarified that because there is, you know, an ongoing debate and dark, you know, sort of a little bit of a shadow over  programmatic advertising and all the data that is being utilized to try to make that more efficient and effective. And what I’m hearing here, it’s that that’s not what’s being done here. 


Jack McKenzie: (24:55)

 Well, we want efficiency, but we think we gain efficiency by making the number of people you advertise to smaller. Yeah. And therefore getting a higher engagement rate among those who get that advertising 


Joe Gottlieb: (25:10)

For sure. Well, that gets back to the way that institutions can find success here, we all know that the average institution is  overwhelmed with a lot to do and a constrained budget and oftentimes   huge challenge in hiring the people necessary to operate. 


Jack McKenzie: (25:34)

Correct.  We don’t have a lot of people  at colleges who look at what we do and just say, no, what, what is more frequent is, oh, gosh, I know I should. I don’t know if I can. Right, right. Do I have the time? Right. And we want the data to be used. We think the data being used is a good thing for America. It’s a good thing for that college. So we have this, our own little catch phrase, which is having access to the databases and opportu not a responsibility. We will do all the work necessary to get those records. 


Joe Gottlieb: (26:17)

We’re, I’ll remind you, we’re in San Diego. So, you know, it’s, it’s, 


Jack McKenzie: (26:22)

 few military helicopters have just flown.  yeah. And it’s, they’re not even very close, but 


Joe Gottlieb: (26:29)

Yeah, there’s a large, you know, history in San Diego.  it’s well, defended as we know anyway. So, it’s an opportunity, not a responsibility, and you will help them to be successful. I want one of the options. I think you told me that you literally will even help the place. 


Jack McKenzie: (26:53)



Joe Gottlieb: (26:54)

Direct marketing vehicles. 


Jack McKenzie: (26:56)

Yes. We have ads, etc.


Jack McKenzie: (26:57)

We have not required it because we don’t wanna disrupt any other relationship. That’s important. Like a lot of schools have ad agencies they work with. Right.  or they have an in-house team that does that. We don’t wanna tell them, you can’t do that anymore because you’re using a collegeAPP, but we have a number of colleges who either don’t have an agency or don’t have the capability. And so we will place ads for them because again, we want the data to be used. Right. We don’t want their lack of organization or lack of structure to get in the way of doing the right thing. 


Joe Gottlieb: (27:30)

Right. You know  as we bring this to a summary point, I just wanna say to my listeners that  one of the, you know, the reason I wanted to join, have you join me on the show? Jack was because I felt like it was important to articulate these developments because this is an ingredient to transformation. Being able to, to become more effective with your recruiting efforts, by more effective use of data and, and modern techniques that have been established in other industries. To me, that’s an opportunity. And so I like to share these things, these innovations that are, are leading to success, particularly in this case where it’s not only addressing  an obvious challenge of, of, of recruiting volume, but it’s, as you said, it’s also helping to get to this under population, which, which we all wanna find ways to make happen more successfully. So with that in mind  uh  what are three takeaways that you’d offer our listeners just on this topic of leveraging data to grow enrollment 


Jack McKenzie: (28:42)

One, there is significant unmet demand in the United States, among the adult population 


Joe Gottlieb: (28:51)

Demand for, for education.


Jack McKenzie: (28:52)

Education, education training. Yep.  and to address that for the first time, there are modern marketing techniques available to higher education institutions with the data that matters and helps them meet that unmet demand. And I will tell you, it’s actually surprisingly easy. It’s not terribly expensive. We’re priced for colleges. We know that they have limited budgets and what we want is to get the data in their hands. And it’s, it’s, it’s a, it’s a pretty seamless process to do so 


Joe Gottlieb: (29:32)

Exciting stuff. Well, Jack, thank you so much for joining us today. 


Jack McKenzie: (29:35)

 This has been great.  Thank you for allowing us to sit outside and even with a helicopter. 


Joe Gottlieb: (29:40)

Oh. And thanks to our guests for joining us as well, have a great day. And we’ll look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of transformed.


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About The Host


As president of Higher Digital, Joe supports customers with strategy development, change management, and strategic operations. He is energized by the complex challenges and profound opportunities facing higher education and is motivated to have and share discussions around these topics.

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