Monday, October 1, 2012

Running Against the Wind...

"Well those drifter's days are past me now
I've got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out..."
- Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band

After my last post, and the subsequent articles that resulted from our decision to drop our early action program, I received many comments from counselors and parents that were very supportive of our decision (thank you for the kind words and messages). However, I also had more than a few comments from readers who were surprised at the notion of  “shaping our class”, a reference I made regarding the process of trying to recruit, admit and ultimately enroll students with a variety of personal characteristics. This appeared to some as a dubious activity at best – providing an unfair advantage to some at worst. In reflecting about these comments, I realize that for many students, parents and even counselors, the concept of “enrollment management” and how it affects an institution's admission and financial aid policies is not widely understood. Even on our own campuses, I suspect not everyone could clearly define what it is we do. So I thought I would take this opportunity, with the help of Bob Seger, to try and explain why managing enrollment is so important and what we as enrollment managers hope to accomplish.

The profession of enrollment management is a relatively new one, appearing on campuses in the mid to late 70’s, mostly in response to dramatic changes in demographics and a poor economy that put many colleges and universities in financial trouble (sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it?). Its history is often traced back to Boston College, and a mathematical physics professor named Jack Maguire. He was also the Dean of Admissions at the time and in order to help rescue BC from what was a financial crisis at the time, he and his colleagues began to apply concepts such as market research, predictive modeling, financial aid leveraging and many other activities that are still being used today. The basic idea was that colleges and universities needed to behave more like businesses – very special kinds of businesses – but they had a bottom line and needed to take in enough revenue (tuition) in order to fund the buildings, classrooms, faculty, and staff that it took to enroll and graduate its students. In order to do that it had to manage its enrollment – from how many students were interested in the school, to how many and who it was going to admit, to how much aid was required to make it possible for students to enroll, to how services across the campus worked together to ensure that students made it through to graduation. All of these things were being done already, but in very disparate and uncoordinated ways. Enrollment management sought to bring a level of intention to the way schools did business.

Since then, the world of higher education has changed, like most things, in some dramatic ways. But fundamentally, colleges are still struggling with that basic issue: how to manage its enrollment in such a way that it remains competitive in a consumer driven marketplace, that it enrolls enough students and generates enough revenue to provide the education and the outcomes that it intends. To some, that may seem like a very cynical approach to education, but the fact is that in order to keep the doors open, it is essential that enrollment is managed in an effective way. When done well, the decisions that drive the enrollment process – from recruitment through graduation – are rooted in the institution’s mission and academic values. But whether done well or not, all institutions – public and private – manage their enrollment by applying many of those same business practices used back at Boston College in the ‘70’s.

At the University of San Diego, we manage our enrollment by connecting our activities with the mission and strategic directions that have been formed by the campus and approved by the Board of Trustees, President, faculty, and other community members. You can see our strategic directions at Through our Mission, our core values, and vision statement, our community has defined who we are, what kind of education we are going to offer and what we want our students to become. The strategic directions provide us all with a set of priorities that support those definitions. From the enrollment management perspective, we formulate our goals, plans, marketing, financial aid and student service strategies with those objectives in mind. Enrollment management is where the institution’s mission meets the realities of the marketplace, and at that intersection, it can sometimes get a little messy.

Enrollment managers have to balance institutional aspiration with a whole set of market forces that often are working against those aspirations. Whatever an institution may think about itself, or the direction it is going, parents, students and counselors have a perception of the school that may not align with that vision. Attracting students with the qualities and characteristics that will ultimately support the mission and vision of the institution is challenging. Admitting students who will not only be successful in our classrooms, but who will help us achieve our institutional goals requires careful training and execution. Enrolling enough students to fill our classrooms and providing them with enough financial aid requires incredible amounts of data analysis, financial planning and modeling, as well as regulatory navigation. Ensuring that students receive the advising, support, and career counseling they need to persist and graduate requires careful coordination and planning. While not all enrollment managers are directly responsible for all of these things, we are all impacted by how well and consistently they are done. Balancing all of these competing priorities with the staffing and budget constraints found on most campuses can often feel like…well, running against the wind.

This is not meant to make anyone feel bad for the work that we do – I could not have a more challenging and satisfying job and I know that most of my colleagues feel the same way. Instead, I want to help people understand that all of these things – marketing, admissions, financial aid, and student services – don’t just happen. They are carefully balanced, managed, and coordinated activities and they have a great deal to do with how an admissions office recruits, who gets in and who doesn’t, and how financial aid is awarded. They involve tradeoffs and decisions about “what to leave in, what to leave out”.

Over the next several posts, I will look more closely at each of these areas: marketing, admissions, financial aid, and student services. In doing so, I hope I can help explain how these things influence prospective students and parents, and how counselors can better understand an institution’s policies by looking at them through this broader lens. Things have gotten much more complicated since I joined the profession 26 years ago. Like Seger sang, “wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then… I am much older now, but still running against the wind…”

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