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Leveraging Deferral As An Enrollment Growth Strategy

by Signal Vine | August 3, 2021
Leveraging Deferral As An Enrollment Growth Strategy

The Power of Deferral: An Enrollment Strategy

Deferral: The process of admitted students postponing their start date.

Deferral rates are typically around 1-2% for US colleges and universities, but COVID caused significantly higher deferral rates. Even Harvard reported a 20% deferral rate in 2020. The jury is out for 2021, and there is speculation that many campuses will be packed with both 2021 enrollees and 2020 deferred students. Yet, as more students have become comfortable with remote learning, the financial wellness of families continues to be dubious, and the Delta variant spurs new restrictions, colleges can use their deferral policy to grow enrollments and excitement around their institution.

Ensure the right path

Recognizing that more and more students are going to take alternative paths is an enrollment strategy onto itself. From the time of recruitment “apply now, and take a year [or two] to make it to class.” The deferral is an insurance program that can be a great selling point to students and their families. Deferral enables students to make decisions earlier and stops their search from other institutions.

There are three ways to support students and increase the likelihood of students attending in the future when they defer: policies, communication, and attitude.


It is important that institutions have a deferral policy that is clear. It needs to be obvious as to whether deferral is an option, what they give up by deferring, and what they can retain when they arrive on campus. This could include allowing students to retain any scholarships that they received in this current year, or giving them priority registration ahead of other freshmen next year. Or, even giving them a financial incentive by showing up the next year. In particular, clearly articulating the implications on future FAFSA completion, how the institution will change or allow for the students to keep a similar package, and options for students to take courses online if they decide they want to start slow.

For students that may have taken AP courses or dual enrollment credits in high school, understanding whether any credits that they take during the deferral year is absolutely critical. Including specific information on pre-approval, timing, and transcript processing ensures students understand what needs to happen for credits to be accepted.


There are many ways to respond to a deferral request with two primary philosophies; recode the student’s start date and refocus on the students immediately entering, or reinforce the student’s connection to the institution with an eye towards finding value over the next year.

The first may sound something like: “Ok, I’ve updated you in the system to start in Fall 2022; you will get an email next year on what you need to do.” The student knows that they are set up in the system, but has not been given any specific guidance on what they need to remember to do [or not do] over the next year, much less, how to engage with the institution.

tips to optimize messages to students

The other philosophy has a modified intent: “OK! Let’s talk about how deferring works and get you set up for success.” There is now an opportunity for the student to get reinforcement on what they should plan for and avoid over the deferral period and also be exposed to any support that they may be eligible to receive.

Deferral often has a stigma of negative change or the privilege of a gap year.  However, clear communication normalizes deferral and provides students with a differentiating reason to choose an institution. Staff providing consultative guidance through the admissions cycle, including deferral, are building the student’s connection with the institution.

Finding ways to keep the student engaged with the institution through their deferral period is key. Encourage students to stay in touch by linking their deferral year to valuable learning experiences that they can leverage as a student. Provide support and communication with career centers, experiential learning offices, and other departments across the year. Identify key dates for them to plan towards, like completing their FAFSA.


We know that positivity wins the day when communicating with students. This positivity will bleed through into options for them to get credit for the things that they’ve done.

Be excited for their deferral period and articulate how their  learning and experiencing will make them a more successful student when they get to campus.

Considering the long term benefits of deferral, to both the student and institution, has never been more important. By recognizing the value of deferring and looking at the long-term relationship is a differentiator. You want the student, when the student is ready to be successful.

Learn More:

If you are interested learning more about enrollment strategies and the importance of communication and engagement, check out the 'Gen Z's Jam: Should I Stay or Should I Go? How 'Bout Both?' webinar. Or you can read more in our 'Recruiting for Fall 2021 During COVID-19: A Communications Guide to Strategize Outreach' Ebook.

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