Meeting today’s college enrollment goals while preparing for the future

Higher ed Leaders must establish ‘institution first’ culture to engage all departments in enrollment efforts
By: | Issue: April, 2017
March 23, 2017

Now more than ever, enrollment leadership requires a coordinated campus team to respond to emerging internal challenges as well as shifting external forces. One college president likened the job of chief enrollment officer to a pilot flying the plane while building it.

In short, the immediate drive to fill enrollment goals today competes with the time necessary to plan and develop effective strategies that address future markets. Clearly, this cannot be accomplished solely in the admissions office.

Understanding threats and challenges

The Higher Education Research Institute’s “American Freshmen: Fifty Year Trends 1996-2015” report shows the steady increase in the number of applications submitted by individuals.

Since 2012 the percentage of students who submit six or more applications has increased to 36.3 percent, up from 27.5 percent just three years earlier. In 2015, 7.6 percent of students reported submitting 11 or more applications.

In other words, each applicant is engaging more colleges as possibilities, but often without any clear focus or purpose. In many respects, today’s applicants are yesterday’s inquiries.

Six key characteristics of the successful enrollment leader

The chief enrollment officer should embody the following characteristics:

1. Compatibility with campus leadership. A shared vision and clear direction is vital, but equally important to this relationship is that the enrollment manager must be one who acts from a core of honesty and dedication to the institution, displaying personal integrity and credibility.

2. Ability to share complex information effectively. Clear communications in both oral and written work will earn the respect of a wide range of audiences. A successful leader must build trusting relationships with campus partners, but also strengthen connections to outside constituencies—such as guidance communities, trustees, alumni and local civic groups—through thoughtfully constructed and regular communication flow.

Significant demographic shifts have impacted the enrollment landscape as well. Between 2010 and 2014, overall undergraduate enrollment declined by about 800,000 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This continuing downward trend highlights changes in race and ethnicity patterns.

For example, the anticipated decline in Caucasian students is more than double the expected decline of African American students, and the rise in the Asian student population outpaces the anticipated increase in Hispanic graduates by more than 2 to 1.

By anticipating declines in the market share of some populations—and identifying potential increases to others—institutions can ensure that internal resources are aligned to meet market changes.

The demographic pattern also marks stark differences among families’ ability to pay for college. The College Board reports that although the average white/non-Hispanic income was $76,658 in 2014, African-American and Hispanic families earned about 42 percent less.

As college prices continue to rise, reliance on grants and institutional funding will not only keep pace, but likely increase—unless income disparity among the populations decreases.

Price sensitivity will continue to be a factor. The College Board’s most recent Trends in Higher Education Report reveals that undergraduate borrowing has declined by 18 percent since 2010 (inflation-adjusted dollars).

Some experts suggest that borrowing for post-secondary education may well have reached its upper limit.

Continuously changing options for delivery also challenges enrollment professionals. From accelerated programs to MOOCs, and from noncredit classes to YouTube videos, students can choose their learning environment, cost and delivery mode with a variety of options.

Shifts in prospective students’ expectations for a postsecondary experience need to be analyzed before curricula, student support, recruitment strategies and enrollment targets are developed.

Six key characteristics of the successful enrollment leader (cont.)

3. An efficient and collaborative management style. Given the complex and technological demands of today’s enrollment operations, the enrollment leader also needs to be efficient at management. The leader must have the ability to organize, make decisions, supervise, delegate, plan and build a competent and diversely skilled enrollment team that can work collaboratively.

4. An innovative and creative approach. The enrollment manager should also be entrepreneurial, and should also be able to cope with ambiguity and push forward or, if the landscape changes, redirect efforts with grace. In order to help drive the institution forward, the enrollment manager must be willing to take calculated risks and experiment with creative strategies that promote forward thinking across the campus.

Setting the tone

So how does the enrollment officer help ensure that the institution has the right mix of programs, delivery methods, price points and recruiting strategies to attract the students needed to meet fiscal and enrollment goals?

First, the president must emphatically set the tone for the campus to engage with enrollment leadership.

The president’s senior team can provide the cross-divisional leadership necessary to energize key members—including faculty, advising, athletics, student services, IT, marketing—to focus attention on enrollment challenges and opportunities.

This cross-campus engagement features an “institution first” culture, encouraging colleagues to think beyond their departments in working toward goals that reflect institutional priorities.

John McCloskey, vice president for enrollment management at Alvernia University, says campus leadership paved the way for meeting the school’s enrollment challenges. Trustees established an ad hoc committee to research market trends and employment projection data.

The committee also explored new majors and athletic programs that merited further study with an eye toward future expansion.

Several programs—including business, communications and criminal justice—were identified for renewal, while new ones, such as healthcare informatics, were identified for further study.

Six key characteristics of the successful enrollment leader (cont.)

5. Data-driven. A healthy respect for data with a basic understanding of quantitative analysis is needed in today’s environment. When approaching decisions based on empirical evidence, the enrollment manager can advocate for and allocate resources more effectively.

6. A broad-shouldered “people person.” The enrollment manager needs a toughness in the face of competing demands and critics, while remaining politically astute. As noted earlier, no leader, no matter how skilled, can do this alone. Therefore, strong alliances with staff, faculty and other managers are critical. The successful enrollment manager understands that these important relationships will be tested during difficult enrollment cycles, and thus nurtures them carefully.

Moreover, several athletic programs—including men’s volleyball, equestrian, women’s ice hockey and wrestling—were marked for feasibility studies.

“Engaging trustees and faculty in the conversation regarding the external enrollment challenges was productive and opened the door for subsequent faculty and staff discussions,” McCloskey says.

Recipe for success

Success can be boiled down to a leader who can manage creatively and build a community with institutional confidence in its enrollment-related functions.

Once armed with these key attributes, however, it is critical that the enrollment leader move the institution to develop a strategic enrollment plan that reverses the typical planning sequence. Specifically, the institution needs to focus on campus priorities, mission and ROI, based on data-driven research.

Tough choices must be made along the way, especially in the current higher education climate. Nevertheless, the best opportunity for success occurs when the campus, led by a strong chief enrollment officer, works together in employing carefully constructed methods for achieving institutional goals.

Leslie Crosley is an enrollment management consultant for Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Jim Scannell recently retired as senior consultant for enrollment management at Ruffalo Noel Levitz and is the former president of Scannell & Kurz.