Admissions is hard, grueling and anxiety-filled work today. It is as much an art as a science. The best enrollment leaders must have great gut instincts that allow them to see the relationship among strategic planning, university budgets, friend and fund raising, federal and state regulations, and a common vision set by the president and embraced by the university’s board of trustees. It’s about numbers but even more about how numbers support the academic program, differentiate it, and enhance program quality.
The best institutional enrollment leaders are devoid of agenda and unwilling to play petty internal politics. They do not establish the University’s agenda; they understand that enrollment supports it. Enrollment deans are trusted colleagues because they look both inward to build a class and outward to represent the institution to prospective students and their families. Enrollment officers effectively offer each student an implied social contract with the University. Theirs is a reputation built on knowledge, credibility, diligence, transparency, collegiality, and personal and institutional loyalty. Enrollment deans – like old friends –must never violate one cardinal principle. Once trust is broken it cannot be restored.
These conditions are about to be tested by some combination of factors including shifting demographics, recent rules changes in the federal Parent Plus program, growing discount rates, family cost to benefit analysis on the value of college, and consumer preferences that strain an outmoded student financial aid system in mid stages of collapse. The stories circulating this week about enrollment weakness at institutions like Loyola University of New Orleans and Xavier over the past two years mask one very important point. The challenges representing these universities are “points in time” problems that disguise a fact critical to the full story – they are excellent, highly-respected, and market-differentiated institutions that can correct assumptions that led them to where they are.
The real story is not about the woes this fiscal year at a particular institution. The same story will play itself out next year with a different set of colleges. Even the best leaders can guess wrong or move too fast. It is much more about where enrollment is headed as we move deeper into the new century.
With the exception of a blessed few, colleges and universities are tuition-dependent. This fact is fundamental and will not change. Since financial aid is linked to how a college operates and is the largest potential variable in a college’s budget annually, it is important for college and university presidents to understand how the game is played. Those who risk taking a pass on their enrollment lesson will pay dearly for their decision.
In their conversations with enrollment deans, here are some first questions:
- What is the college’s traditional application market, how strong is it, what changes are occurring within it, and what opportunities exist?
- Within a pattern of overall academic excellence, what programs differentiate the university, and how does enrollment support these programs and the faculty who teaches and researches within them?
- Does the enrollment strategy advance the institutional vision put forth by the president, including new directions proposed and the operational and fundraising strategies to support it?
- How has enrollment invested faculty, alumni, parents, students and donors in supporting enrollment, developing programs, and predicting trends and emphases that should be fostered through shared governance?
- Is there a clear and aggressive overall recruitment strategy that includes some effective combination of student athletes, legacies, transfers, and foreign students that strengthen the financial profile, improve persistence, globalize the campus and enhance diversity?
- Is the admissions team “institutionally situated” or is it aggressively working in the field with constituencies to open identified markets?v
- Is the enrollment dean throwing darts at a proverbial dart board or is there a sophisticated, tested, numbers-driven financial aid model – agreed to and monitored daily by the CFO – that moves the art of enrollment more closely to a science?
- Is the president and senior staff kept fully informed of enrollment-related issues?
- Is the president doing everything possible to support a strong admissions profile, realistic financial aid budget, assessment-driven review, and public and donor support for the enrollment program?
- Is the enrollment dean a vocal advocate for education that addresses breadth supported by the liberal arts and outcomes, beginning with development of strong, innovative internship, externship, persistence, and career center programs that educate the student “from cradle through career”?
Enrollment provides the resources to achieve the mission at tuition-dependent colleges and universities. It has a privileged role but not a privileged place; indeed, enrollment is the workhorse that puts the students in the classroom of faculties who teach and encourage the ideas that makes good education extraordinary.
As new enrollment strategies emerge from a transformation of admissions and financial aid soon, enrollment practices must embody the innovation of a university’s strategic plan. Implementing them will require dynamic entrepreneurs in a new generation of enrollment deans who imagine better how to adapt, strengthen, increase and differentiate the resources they provide through tuition revenue.
Through all the chaos and uncertainty, the position of enrollment dean may be one of the best jobs to hold in higher education. Enrollment must become a center for innovation and bold, confident and integrated strategies. But these jobs won’t be for the faint of heart.