Strategic Enrollment Management: A Review
May 31, 2012
by Robert J. Massa
In July of 1974, I began my career in what I thought was college admission and financial aid. Later that year, up the coast from New York, Frank Campanella and Jack Maguire of Boston College began talking internally about “enrollment management” as a means to secure and sustain student enrollments, thereby helping to assure a steady income flow to the institution and to enhance the quality of students and of their experience at the college and beyond. It was to be a way of looking at enrollments in a broader context than that of admissions alone (Henderson, 2001). And it turned out to be a process of integrating existing functions that often worked at cross purposes rather than synergistically. Whether “enrollment management” changed the nature of college admissions, student life and alumni affairs, or whether the environment that was thrust upon us in the eighties and nineties did that with “enrollment management” as a strategic response, is less important than the fact that student recruitment and retention would be changed forever.
Campanella and Maguire were, as the popular commercial goes, “ahead of the curve.” Enrollments were surging at American colleges and universities in the seventies, and the demand for higher education resulted in a significant investment in building and expanding colleges and universities in the independent and public sectors. There seemed to be little need, particularly at some of the nation’s oldest institutions, to be concerned about issues other than the “gatekeeper” function. But some schools were beginning to notice or at least predict changing pressures. I recall, fondly now, an article I wrote for a 1978 edition of the Colgate Scene (my employer’s alumni magazine) predicting that demand for higher education would drop off once our total price tag exceeded $10,000! That we were thinking this way back then demonstrates, in retrospect, that the seeds of enrollment management were planted even though, at that point, I had not even heard the term.
Although the number of high school graduates declined 15% from 1976 to1986 (Powell, 1987), predictions of vast enrollment declines in the 1980s never materialized, in part because of increases in college participation rates. Still, organizing for enrollment management was not the typical institutional response during the early part of the eighties. Rather, colleges and universities began to shift their missions and established “cash-cow” continuing education programs that would help to fund their primary enterprise. By 1992, the US Department of Education had revised upward its college enrollment projections for the next 10 years (Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/22/92), though increases were projected to be modest for the first half of that period. Interestingly, it was at about this time that enrollment management began to gain in popularity. The devil, of course, was in the details. Increases in the number of high school graduates would occur regionally – primarily in the south and the west – and also within certain minority groups. Coincidentally, the same issue of the Chronicle reported on the results of the annual freshman survey out of the Higher Education research Institute at UCLA. The headline read: “More Freshmen Say They Are Choosing Colleges Based on Cost.” Sound familiar?
Other environmental factors contributed to the rise of enrollment management. Few would have predicted upon the publication in 1983 of the first college rankings by US News & World Report that ten (and now 20) years later, colleges would be positioning themselves strategically to fare well in this annual popularity context. And the application declines that many independent colleges experienced in the early nineties served to jump-start new ways of looking at student recruitment. Colleges began to realize that it was much less expensive to retain a student than to recruit one (never mind one rose in the rankings with a higher graduation rate) and that positive and successful educational and social experiences in college translated to more satisfied alumni.
What is Enrollment Management?
Definitions of enrollment management abound in the literature, but none is more comprehensive than that forwarded in 1990 by Hossler and Bean in their book, The Strategic Management of College Enrollments. Enrollment management is:
an organizational concept and a set of activities designed to enable colleges and universities to exert more influence over their enrollments. Organized by strategic planning and supported by institutional research, enrollment management activities concern student college choice, student retention and student outcomes. These processes are studied to guide campus practices in the areas of new student recruitment and financial aid, student support services, curriculum development and other academic areas that affect enrollments, student persistence and student outcomes from college.
Of course, today we understand that enrollment management is more than an organizational concept – it is also a process, through whatever structure makes sense to a particular institution, that enables disparate departments to work together synergistically toward the improvement of services that, in turn, allows for the strategic management of enrollments. It is active and purposeful – not only allowing institutions to “exert more influence over their enrollments,” as Hossler and Bean correctly state, but also to manage the process of recruiting the right students at the right cost, retaining them with programs and services that meet their needs while enrolled, and connecting them to the institution forever as alumni. Strategic enrollment management is, in the purest sense of the phrase, a “cradle to grave” process.
Organizing for Enrollment Management
Much has been written about effective structures for carrying out enrollment management. Hosler and Bean (1990) describe Kemerer, Baldridge and Green’s discussion on this topic. Generally, enrollment management can be structured in at least four ways:
1 The EM Committee, where faculty, students and select administrators gather on a weekly basis to share information and analyze trends that inform institutional planning. This form could be led by a faculty member, an admissions officer or a student affairs administrator. Advantages include educating all members about marketing and student retention. Disadvantages include a lack of authority and continuity.
2 The EM Coordinator, who is charged with overseeing recruitment and retention activities but without line responsibility for the component parts of enrollment management. In this model, a mid-level administrator is charged with the task of bringing academic and student life programs into the equation of strategic thinking about enrollments – a tall task for anyone, let alone a mid-level manager.
3 The EM Matix, that usually tasks a senior level administrator with bringing together the directors of departments such as admissions, financial aid, advising, registrar, research and student life to analyze enrollment and retention trends, set goals and discuss strategies to achieve them. In this model, department heads retain their traditional reporting lines. It can be an effective tool for identifying and accomplishing institutional objectives because it has support from the top levels of the administration. But it can also be ineffective if senior administrators to which the component departments report do not agree on a set of common principals (for example, viewing financial aid as a “budget” not be exceeded vs. a tool to maximize net tuition revenue).
4 The EM Division, headed by a VP for enrollment management responsible for all of the component parts. While this model carries with it the most institutional support, it is indeed rare that this VP will have all the necessary departments within his or her jurisdiction. The academic affairs division may, for example, have authority over records, registration and advising. The student affairs division may have jurisdiction over housing policy and support services. The athletic director, who influences the recruitment of student athletes and thus plays a significant role in the marketing of the institution and on its graduation rates, may report directly to the president or provost. On the whole, however, the divisional approach can be the most effective (albeit the most costly) in that the head of that division is “at the table” with senior staff when decisions are made that will influence enrollments, revenue and outcomes.
There is no “best” organization for enrollment management. Much depends on institutional preferences and climate. But it is clear that for enrollment management to work – that is for institutional objectives to be achieved – assessment, planning and institution-wide budgeting must be integrated. In an unpublished paper entitled, “The Enrollment Management Organization,” Jonas and Popovics (1999) forward a “fifth” type of organization that essentially combines the structure of the EM Division with the synergy of the EM Matrix. In the “EMO,” the EM division shares enrollment management responsibilities with those in other divisions, particularly academic and student affairs. This, in many ways, can compensate for the fact that the VP for Enrollment Management rarely has all of the core components for effective enrollment management within the division. It can address the typical recruitment, marketing, retention and advising functions while also involving other administrative officers who can impact graduation rates, student outcomes and alumni involvement. All this said, at the end of the day, the best enrollment management organization is the one that works for your institution.
Core Enrollment Management Competencies
Enrollment management is a profession, and professionals need an appropriate skill set to lead and manage. Enrollment mangers must therefore learn and develop core competencies in order to successfully manage institutional enrollments at every stage. These include:
1 A knowledge of institutional and national enrollment trends
2 Effective leadership and an understanding of motivation strategies and collaborative decision making
3 An ability to design and lead a strategic enrollment management plan effort institution-wide, including the role of assessment and evaluation
4 An ability to build and/or use enrollment projection models at each stage of the enrollment process (suspect to prospect; prospect to applicant; applicant to accept; accept to enroll; enroll to graduation)
5 A knowledge of the relationship between price and enrollment
6 An ability to conduct and implement a marketing plan
7 A service orientation
8 Data analysis and interpretation skills
9 Knowledge of research design and statistics
10 An understanding of the relationship between research and data to marketing and modeling
11 Knowledge of management theory
12 An ability to understand how technology can impact enrollments at every stage – recruitment, retention and alumni relationships.
13 An understanding of student characteristics, values and demographic trends
14 A knowledge of student development theory and practice, critical to retention issues.
15 A knowledge of academic advising, and patterns of student course-taking to prepare for a career or graduate school, also important to retention.
Rarely will all of these competencies be present in one person. The successful enrollment manager, therefore, will learn how to surround him or herself with staff and faculty whose collective talents will be brought to bear on these competencies. As a result, leadership and “coaching,” become important talents. The enrollment manager will know how to link various campus functions together as they impact and influence enrollment, net revenue, student experiences, institutional image and alumni support.
Characteristics of Successful Enrollment Management
It is critical to understand the basic purposes of enrollment management before defining what makes it “successful.” Enrollment management is concerned with the number and quality of the student body, the net revenue to the institution, student experiences that lead to graduation and outcomes, and the image and “position” of the institution in the minds of various publics, including prospective students and parents, high school teachers and administrators, current students and parents, alumni and the media. It is influenced by institutional mission, the type and quality of academic programs, the student life environment, the ways in which students are recruited, how the institution is priced and how financial aid is used and, even for independent colleges, the impact of public policies.
In order to be successful, enrollment management must be linked with strategic planning. It must be data driven and analytical, though the policies and practices that emerge from enrollment management must always be consistent with institutional mission and vision. Massa (2001) states that institutions must plan early and frequently in order to prosper and that, as a part of the planning process, they must constantly assess their progress. For that assessment to work, colleges must be “nimble enough” to move quickly when the environment changes or when goals have not been met.
Strategic enrollment planning requires strong leadership. Sevier (1998) tells us that “plan leaders” must be committed to listening carefully, thinking critically and acting boldly. They must earn the trust of those who can effect change by articulating a clear institutional direction and by achieving consensus, based on institutional mission, of long- and short-term goals. Beckwith (2000) adds that plan leaders must communicate a “compelling reason” for being. It is this compelling reason – or the attitude that we have no choice but to excel – that motivates staff to achieve.
Planning, of course, is just the beginning. A plan is of little value if it sits on a shelf or if it is not funded to allow its execution. Therefore, in order to be successful, additional characteristics must be in place:
1 Enrollment management needs the healthy involvement of the president and provost providing support and general direction (not micro-management).
2 Departments from across the institution must work together synergistically to refine mission and to develop a distinctive institutional identity.
3 The structure of EM must make sense for the institution in order for it to work.
4 Systems must be developed – technological and human – guided by strategic planning and data.
5 The institution must commit itself to a purposeful research orientation, studying impacts of various college policies on results and then using this information to guide future decisions.
6 Risk-taking must be encouraged at all levels, and creative thinking and “connecting the dots” must be the norm. Rarely is a decision irreversible, and staff must believe that occasional failure will not be punished.
7 High staff morale and commitment, even under pressure, is essential. This stems from staff involvement in planning, implementation and evaluation.
8 Successful EM requires a people orientation and a service attitude among all faculty, staff, students and alumni.
9 Leadership in enrollment management must be action oriented; successful leaders will gather information, process it and make decisions based on facts, knowledge and instinct.
10 Enrollment managers must share information in order for it to have value, and they must be accessible to their staffs and to senior management.
11 Successful EM requires the ability to get broad support for institutional goals and objectives and the strategies to achieve them.
Core Components of a SEM Plan
Enrollment planning must be related to institutional mission. The character and quality of the student body and their academic and non-academic experiences and outcomes need to be directly in sync with what the institution is all about. If, for example, your mission is to educate citizens and leaders, then you will want to attract students who can understand the nature of citizenship in a community, and you will need a community that, through its policies and programs, promotes a sense of responsibility. Enrollment planning without regard to institutional character is doomed.
Hossler and Bean (1990) identify two important ways in which enrollment planning impacts overall institutional planning – financial resources (net revenue and ultimately alumni giving) and the quality and character of the student body (impacting student academic and non-academic experiences). Institutional strategic planning and enrollment planning are clearly related. One may be able to build an enrollment plan without an institution-wide plan (more likely in large universities than in small colleges), but one can rarely conduct institutional strategic planning without an enrollment plan.
In his chapter on developing a SEM plan, Massa (2001, pp 153-154) identifies the core components of a SEM plan:
1 Marketing and recruitment – including an analysis of key market areas, institutional position and targeted and segmented recruitment strategies
2 Pricing strategies – including econometric analyses of the demand curve at various rates of discounting and the need-/merit-based financial aid policies
3 Academic programs – articulating “niche” programs, conducting a demand analysis of current programs and identifying competitors’ successful programs
4 Retention – understanding where and why your institution retains and loses students and identifying institutional weaknesses which must be addressed to improve retention
5 Advising – articulating how students are guided through the maze of curricular and career choices and assessing whether outcomes are consistent with plan objectives
6 Academic assistance – identifying student needs for tutoring and the structures to meet demands
7 Co-curricular programs – taking inventory of the planning and support provided to student organizations to engage them in the life of the institution beyond the classroom and assessing the effectiveness of these programs in terms of student satisfaction and lifetime affiliation
8 Data and technology – identifying what trends need to be understood at the institution to better serve students and to meet students’ expectations in a timely fashion
9 Budget—specifying the resources you need to accomplish institutional objectives in each area and identifying funding priorities and sources
In addition, an institution must determine its optimal enrollment. As a response to declining demographics and with an understanding of admission selectivity and student “quality,” several competitive colleges actually decreased the size of their enrollment in the late eighties and early nineties. Accompanied by a decrease in expenses (primarily salaries but also “overhead”) and by financial aid policies including leveraging and an awareness of need on the margins of admission, some of these institutions were actually able to increase net revenue while decreasing class size. Conversely, an institution that has excess capacity may be able to increase enrollments without an increase in the financial aid discount (or the percent of tuition that is allocated to grant aid) and without adding staff or facilities. The SEM plan needs to determine the “tipping point” for optimal institutional enrollment.
Enrollment planning also seeks to determine the characteristics of the enrollment according to institutional goals. These include such items as standardized test scores and GPA (not only appropriate for the academic environment, but also to attract and retain a sufficient number of “appropriate” students), special talents (music, sports, arts), race and ethnicity, and geographic diversity. A complicated but necessary component of the plan must address family/student financial background. An institution committed to enrolling a large percentage of first generation college students, a racially diverse student body, students from rural and inner city backgrounds and international students from third-world countries while also decreasing the discount rate (or the institutional commitment to financial aid) will not be able to achieve all of these goals. The plan must address how enrollment goals will be funded in light of tuition pricing, demand and supply.
Research, research, research
Planning is informed by research, and successful and strategic enrollment management depends on this. A serious enrollment manager will identify as a top priority the integration of student data from prospect to applicant to enrolled to alumni. It is less important today that huge integrated student/alumni system be installed and more critical that data from various departments can be linked and used to study trends and relationships in student attendance patterns and the impact of financial aid on first-time enrollment and retention.
Though not meant as an exhaustive list, data must be collected on students as they:
1 Pass through the admissions “funnel” — geographic origin high school and “market area” (to track market share over time); gender and race (to understand different rates of moving through the funnel); scores, grades, need for aid, grant or scholarship aid awarded (to model the complex relationships among these variables); and legacy or VIP status
2 Enroll and progress to graduation — net tuition revenue, aid per enrolled student and discount rate (to meet financial goals and to understand the impact of price on recruitment and retention); retention rates by class year, race, gender, academic program, academic qualifications, athletic participation, aid status (to help inform decisions about where to target resources and programs); four, five and six year graduation rates by these same variables; and student satisfaction surveys at least twice — at the end of the first year and the final year (analyzed by the same variables to gauge areas of the campus that need attention and to celebrate those areas that are rated highly)
3 Become alumni – immediate post-graduate plans (outcomes data showing where students are going to graduate school or working with starting salaries, by academic major); alumni satisfaction surveys (to keep alumni connected); alumni volunteer trends (admissions representatives or career mentors); alumni giving rates (to help understand how current enrollment goals and academic and social policies could impact future giving)
Understanding internal trends is important as enrollment managers and other senior campus officials use the information gleaned from research and data analysis to make decisions. It is critical, however, that enrollment managers benchmark their data against data available from similar institutions – and not only because of US News & World Report! Benchmarking gives us a clear sense of how our trends over time compare to others and it helps us adjust our goals in light of what we could be achieving. In their chapter on benchmarking tuition and fee decisions in the New Directions for Higher Education series from Jossey-Bass, Loomis Hubbell, Massa and Lapovsky (2002) put it well:
Colleges and universities must make complex trade-offs, balancing their role, mission and values with financial viability. Ambitious goals are admirable, but when they lead to a deficit on the bottom line they require a change of course. Benchmarking against an institution’s past, against a national database, against a select group of peer institutions, and against best in class can provide a clear and informed framework for institutional decisions. (p. 63)
Making Enrollment Management Work
Earlier, we discussed the core competencies of successful enrollment managers and related these to the major components of a SEM plan. While a background in EM theory and a thorough knowledge of research and data analysis are critical, enrollment managers must have the ability to put this all together and to execute multiple strategies simultaneously. There is no one “best” model, but in understanding how to put theory into practice, it is often helpful to review how theory is interpreted through an institution’s experience in making enrollment management work.
Not all enrollment management organizations embrace the “cradle-to-grave” model. But for Dickinson College, after experiencing a 36% decline in admission applications from 1989-96, an actual decline in net tuition, room and board revenue of 6.5% from 1993-99 in spite of a 31.5% increase in gross revenue, a 6 point drop in the one-year retention rate from 1991-96, a 4-year graduation rate in 1995 that was 9 points lower than in 1991, and a declining percentage of alumni participation in the annual fund during those years to a low of 38%, significant change had to take place. With the arrival of a new administration in 1999, a comprehensive enrollment management organization was put in place, encompassing the traditional EM areas as well as institutional research, athletics, student life, alumni affairs and communications. The goal was to integrate these functions to improve the enrollment stream, net revenue, retention and graduation and alumni participation. Four years later, the results are clear.
Applications for admission were at an all-time high in 2003, jumping 35% since 1999. Net tuition, fees, room and board (TFRB) revenue was up almost 50% during the same period. While improvements in one-year retention (2 points) and four-year graduation rates (3 points) were modest, these typically take longer to achieve. The number of entering freshmen met the budgeted target each year, and minority enrollment doubled. Alumni participation, due to the efforts of a new development staff with assistance from the communications and alumni affairs team, increased 5 points to its highest level in history. With all of this, the quality of the incoming class as measured by SATs increased almost 80 points.
Of course, with success comes even greater expectations. The scope of this enrollment management organization is broad, and that presents coordination and communication challenges daily. To make certain that the staff in financial aid understands the experiences of those in residential life, to assure that the admissions office knows what actually happens in the classroom and on weekends, and to have the student affairs staff understand the impact of student experiences on alumni satisfaction, and their participation in fund raising and in recruiting students for the college, the senior directors in each department meet twice per month around important, shared issues, and the professional staff meets together twice a semester. In addition, planning sessions are held twice a year. This helps to keep all informed and tuned in to the “systems thinking” that needs to occur to maximize success. Concrete goals are formulated and staff are evaluated on their ability to achieve them. And risk-taking is encouraged, even if goals are not met in the short term.
Before the enrollment management team could function as a coordinated unit, the college had to undertake a strategic plan. It had inherited in 1999 more than 1200 pages of planning documents from the 80’s and 90’s that had seen varying degrees of implementation. Those were reviewed thoroughly by a college-wide task force that understood the need to move quickly. The task force also went back to the college’s roots, examining the charter carefully and identifying the founding principles of the college from 1783. Within six months, the mission, vision, environmental analysis and strategic objectives were identified. The enrollment management division had the tools it needed to operationalize the vision, moving the college forward, positioning the college to the public (especially prospective students), establishing programs to enhance retention and graduation, and reconnecting alumni. Once the community agreed on the college’s identity and its purpose for being, once it was able to identify its distinctive elements of the liberal arts, once it understood its mission clearly, then it was able to embark on an integrated marketing campaign that sought to attract the students for whom the college was the right fit, to provide them with the experiences they expected while enrolled, and to keep them connected as alumni to help the college in the future by sharing this vision.
Marketing: In order for marketing to work for a college, it must be integrated. Sevier (1998) claims that most of marketing as it functions today in higher education is “promotion.” Rarely does it go beyond addressing marketing from a “single perspective: public relations, recruiting, recruiting or fund raising. It is not integrated marketing.” He continues, asserting that a marketing plan must be consistent with the institution’s mission and vision. This is key, because it requires the institution to characterize itself in a way that is consistent with reality – otherwise, the students attracted will not remain to graduate and those who do will be disconnected alumni.
In accordance with Sevier’s theory, Dickinson formed a marketing and communications committee that evaluated all of its current publications. It engaged an independent higher education consulting firm – Neustadt Creative Marketing in Baltimore – to assess its current position and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. And it used the results of the consultant’s study to reshape its admissions publications, its communication with current students and alumni, its internal marketing (which was non-existent), its development pieces and its alumni magazine. The college also understood that the way the campus looked conveyed its position. Colorful banners, sporting a bold, newly designed logo, appeared all over campus. Red Adirondack chairs were placed randomly on the academic quad to promote conversation and reflective moments, posters highlighting successful alumni were strategically placed in the student union, and messages that engaged the student body and alumni were regularly sent, either by email or posted on the college’s Web site. A professional web manager was hired to coordinate the web presentation with the college’s position and its publications. Admissions publications were completely overhauled to concretely demonstrate what was “Distinctively Dickinson.” A new media relations staff was hired to promote college experts to the community, the nation and the world, aggressively positioning key administrators and faculty to comment in the national and international spheres on issues that mattered.
Marketing Theory and Practice: Much of the traditional marketing literature is wonderful for background, but I would commend Bob Sevier’s work at Stamats to every enrollment manager. A thoughtful and insightful professional, he knows how to convey, in understandable language, what we need to do to be effective and thorough. In his most recent article in University Business, Sevier (2003) lists twelve keys to successful integrated marketing execution. I will not explain them fully here, but simply will list them with some editorial comments and recommend that you read the piece, which helps to integrate theory with practice:
1 Recognize that planning is an organized attitude
2 Match your definition of marketing with your campus climate
3 Increase the effectiveness of your integrated marketing efforts by tying them to a burning platform (e.g. an issue or event that has captured the attention of the campus)
4 Make sure that all of the institution’s marketing efforts – and resources—are coordinated under one plan
5 Make sure your plan is supported by a realistic budget (this is critical – otherwise, you will not achieve your goals. I would add to make certain that strategies you identify in the plan are assigned to a staff member and that someone has responsibility for both implementation and evaluation).
6 Focus on the needs of your most important audience, your customer (and we must define our customers broadly to include our stakeholders – faculty and staff in addition to students)
7 Develop a market-centric organization (all marketing functions under one VP)
8 Don’t just collect data; be willing to share it widely and use it to inform decisions
9 Go for the well-conceived goal (don’t be unrealistic, though you should be ambitious!)
10 Be willing to treat some customers differently from other customers, based on their ability to return value (a tough one for those who think consistency of policy application is the fairest way)
11 Establish clear criteria for evaluating how well you are executing your plan (every goal should have measurable outcome criteria)
12 Celebrate the wins (staff appreciate this and, although some may think it “corny” to take a “victory lap around the campus, for example, this energizes and motivates staff to keep on track toward even more ambitious goals).
Do not underestimate the power of integrated marketing. Understanding your institutional “story” and communicating it effectively to all constituencies, will give your institution an advantage over your competition, most of whom do not realize the power of a consistent and accurate message across the entire institution. At Dickinson, staff across the EM division from admissions to athletics to media relations to alumni affairs understand the power of consistent thematic communication. And so do the faculty and the senior management team. EM staff are constantly reminded in training workshops on image and branding that they must “connect the dots” – they must see relationships between and among various institutional, student, faculty and alumni accomplishments and must organize these for public consumption in a way that supports the college’s position. This is what has made the difference at Dickinson.
The Audience: The most well conceived integrated marketing will not achieve institutional objectives unless it is targeted. Dickinson knew it had to increase its applications in order to enhance diversity, geographic representation, the academic quality of the student body and their willingness to pay for the value added in the college’s program and environment. With the message in place, new publications designed and written to attract the type of student the college needed, a defined and distinctive position and an integration of this throughout the college, the EM staff set about the task of identifying students that would “fit,” and more of them. Among the strategies employed:
1 Studying student search trends and eliminating candidates with marginal records while increasing geographically and racially diverse candidates
2 Identifying key market areas and increasing travel, programs and communication in these areas
3 Developing relationships with college counselors in key areas by volunteering to speak on selective college admission to junior and seniors and their parents, and by also inviting these counselors to campus for specialized programs at our expense
4 Communicating constantly, though not excessively, with prospects who fit our profile, using mass print, web messages and personal messages from current students, alumni, parents, faculty and staff to “hot prospects” in their regions
5 Evaluating the promotion and content of on-campus visit programs and structuring the content to demonstrate Dickinson’s distinctiveness rather than simply “telling” students and parents about the college
6 Conducting thorough training of all volunteers on- and off-campus to assure, to the maximum degree possible, a consistency of message and an accuracy of factual information
7 Initiating strategic partnerships with urban foundations and organizations to help get more underrepresented students in the pipeline, and doing the same with regional community colleges to bolster transfer applicants
8 Opening secondary and tertiary markets with targeted and repeated visits and counselor contacts
9 Communicating with teachers who wrote recommendation letters for enrolled students and asking them to nominate similar students
10 Employing a media relations strategy in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC (three relatively “local” regional areas within two hours from campus) to get Dickinson more exposure through responding quickly to media requests for experts and by writing op-ed pieces on major higher education issues. National press coverage in the New York Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal and in local papers throughout the country through the wire services was also pursued successfully
11 Reducing non-need based aid and targeting it to the top 10% of our pool
This list is not exhaustive, and there is little that is new or unique. But executing all of this simultaneously, and evaluating the results as each year concluded, helped Dickinson to achieve the dramatic results stated earlier, chiefly by allowing us to significantly increase applications from qualified students nationally (which gave us enormous flexibility in the selection of candidates) and then executing yield strategies to impact their enrollment decision. Note also that this approach to student recruitment is indeed integrated – throughout the college, to prospective students and their parents and to the public at large through the media.
Pricing and Aid Strategies: I inherited a tuition discount rate in 1999 at Dickinson of 52%, meaning that only $.48 of each dollar charged in tuition went back to running the college. This was an intolerable position, and one that would clearly bankrupt the institution within a matter of years. Within one year, my staff had reduced the tuition discount rate to 37%, and within four years to 32%, with a TFRB discount of 25%. At the same time, the average SATs of the entering class increased by almost 80 points, the percentage of underrepresented students in the class doubled, and the size of the entering class, which had fluctuated for years, stabilized at the targeted number, thereby significantly boosting net revenue (a low discount rate with low enrollment does little to help the institution financially). The key to making this happen was three-fold:
- Understanding the demand and value position of your institution to students of various academic backgrounds, geographic locations and academic interests
- Basing a portion of the admission decision at the margin of qualifications on a simple question – “Is the admission of this student worth the investment in financial aid that the college will need to make?”
- Searching for those students, working to convert them to applicants, and yielding those for whom my college’s environment and programs would be the best fit
The informed use of predictive modeling, combined with professional “instincts” of the enrollment manager and the staff, can guide our decisions toward achieving these ambitious goals. Using a faculty member in statistics and the talents of the director of institutional research, a model was developed to help us predict the impact of admission decisions on the enrollment – quality, male/female distribution, minority students, geographic representation and net revenue. By adjusting our admission decisions at the margin, all of these factors could be impacted by running “what if” scenarios through the model. While this did not guide us in individual admission decisions, and exceptions were made frequently for a variety of reasons, it did give us a road map to shape the class in terms of quality, distribution and aid. The results were very effective. Minority enrollment was up, geographic distribution was greater, quality increased as did net revenue. Of course, an integrated marketing plan and an understanding of how to communicate the college’s distinctive position was also critical in achieving our net tuition revenue goals.
Dickinson’s results from the freshman survey, administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, indicated that an increasing percentage of our freshmen place our college as their first choice—demonstrating that our marketing efforts and our pricing/aid strategies were working.
Pricing, of course, is a related but separate issue from discounting or aid. Most institutions will want to price themselves to cover costs minus aid and other income. In addition, the “list price” at one institution is related to the “list price” at its competitors. A college that is really competing with a peer group may not want to lower its price and risk being disassociated with that group. On the other hand, if a healthy majority of students are benefiting from discounts, a college may wish to reduce its price to increase enrollments (if it has excess capacity) and thereby revenue. This is a risky proposition, because the unintended result could be to move the college out of the competitive sphere it is currently in, and down a notch to another set (which will ultimately influence the quality of the students it attracts). In recent years Muskingum College in Ohio and Bethany College in West Virginia experimented with this paradigm. Visit their Web sites to see how they have done since the change.
Loomis Hubbell, Massa and Lapovsky (2002) tell us that all but a handful of colleges are tuition-dependent. As such, the management of tuition rates and discounting is critical. The simple theory of discounting, they say, is that “by offering a discount to selected students enrollment could be increased to capacity” and revenues could be maximized. Of course, the use of discounting, or financial aid, should also be targeted to influence the enrollment mix (e.g. diversity in all of its dimensions) as well as academic quality. What has happened, of course, is that discounting has become a competitive tool, pitting one school against another. A subject for another paper, discounting gone wild can handcuff a college (as it did at Dickinson in the 1990s) where it either does not have enough revenue to cover expenditures, and/or it reduces expenditures and thereby threatens the quality of the educational experience for students.
Done appropriately and related to institutional mission, discounting can be used as a strategy to manage the composition of the student body while increasing revenue and remaining true to institutional objectives. The setting of price, also, must position the institution with its peers. This is a part of marketing strategy, and while price is not totally unrelated to cost, it is in part determined by the number of enrolled students who pay a majority or all of the price. It is therefore related to market strength and the perception of value we discussed earlier.
Academic and co-curricular programs: Aside from the ability to continue to afford a college (assured by an adequate aid package at the time of admission – which is why the practice of “gapping” is counterproductive since it costs more to recruit a student than to retain a student), there is nothing more important to retaining a student to graduation than delivering on the promise made during admission regarding academic programs and student life experiences. Sevier (2002) tells us that a brand is a promise, and that we must deliver that promise in order to continue to attract students to our institutions and to graduate grateful and committed alumni.
At Dickinson, we talked about how the college helps students to “Engage the World.” We even trademarked the phrase to highlight its position as central to the character of the institution. Aside from using (some may say “over-using”) the phrase on posters in the student union, on our Web site and in some admissions publications, we strive in the senior management team to make certain that directors, staff and faculty understand this “promise” as they make decisions about academic and student life programs that impact students.
Study abroad programs are expensive to run, but Dickinson manages 35 programs in 20 countries on six continents. These are programs in non-tourist cities where students, under the supervision of a Dickinson faculty member, truly experience the culture of another country as they are studying in major universities across the globe. An aggressive program of international internships supports this. So when a faculty member proposes a new program that fulfills this promise, it is likely to be approved even though it may not contribute financially to the college’s bottom line.
“Engaging the world” does not simply mean on foreign soil. Our world consists of our campus, our community and our nation, as well. Volunteer programs are on the rise, for example. During my first year at Dickinson, a part-time volunteer coordinator “managed” a fledgling program – students that year volunteered about 8,000 hours in our community. To fulfill the promise, we hired a full time director to provide opportunities for students. In 2002-3, Dickinson students devoted over 30,000 of community service. Putting dollars behind the promise is essential, and viewing all of this as contributing to long term enrollment and financial stability helps to justify expenditures today.
A student cannot “engage the world” unless he or she is a citizen and a leader. Our student activities programs, and our residential life policies were revised to reflect this. Students set community standards in the residence halls and hold each other accountable. The college “says what it means and means what it says” with regard to student conduct and discipline. Students understand that there are consequences to behavior, and while they may not like it at times, they have come over the last four years to accept it.
Students are also given a great deal of autonomy, under the watchful eyes of the student activities staff, to plan their own programs and to even create new clubs that meet student interest and demand. Last year, for example, a group of students approached me with a well thought-out proposal to start a TV station. The college had the infrastructure to support this and a good relationship with the local cable company for public access. Their proposal was to broadcast an original show each month – “On Second Thought” – that would pit two teams of two students each debating a significant issue such as gay marriages, affirmative action and censorship on the Internet. In addition, they proposed to televise certain lectures given by invited guests on topics of major interest. Engaging the world? You bet. But we had to find a way to afford the equipment, the space to house the equipment and to provide a “set,” and the time of a faculty or staff member to advise the group. We were able to do all three, with the help of an alum and a parent in the “business” and with an understanding on the part of staff not in the EM division that this was indeed important to fulfilling the promise.
At the most basic level, living the promise has to do with how students, parents, alumni and the public are treated on your campus. As with many small liberal arts colleges, part of the promise is “personal attention.” Staff who answer questions at the initial point of contact rather than transferring calls, for example, understand this. Faculty who are willing to spend part of their evenings or weekends helping a student or assisting in recruitment activities understand this as well. Through periodic HR training, and through an effective faculty committee structure where faculty (rather than the EM staff) can communicate this promise to their colleagues, staff and faculty are frequently reminded, often in subtle ways, of the need to fulfill our promise.
Effective enrollment management does not stop here. If part of your promise is quality, it must be reflected in intrusive academic and career advising. This had been weak at Dickinson for some time, and was not fulfilling the promise. Recently, the provost and I teamed up to combine under one roof a new academic advising unit and the career center. Though the directors report to two different senior officers, the synergy created by this union will have a significant impact on students and outcomes. We located this service at the center of the campus (they had been on different ends of the campus before) and hired new directors to make it work. To symbolize the relationship between academic advising and career/graduate school planning, the staff in these two offices will in fact be integrated. There is no “academic advising office” separate from the “career center.” A campus culture that embraced the college’s mission and vision allowed two departments in different divisions to work together to deliver on the promise.
Finally, the characteristics of the campus community are defined not only by the quality of the relationships but also by the physical space. Recall in the marketing section that I spoke of colorful banners sporting the college’s new logo and the red Adirondack chairs placed on campus to promote conversation. In the same vein, the physical appearance of the campus speaks volumes to the promise that this institution cares about the student. A campus with overgrown grass and weeds, cracked sidewalks and tiles, chipping paint, etc. indicates to the visitor and the resident alike that the college simply doesn’t care. The enrollment manager typically does not supervise the director of physical plant, but the campus-wide education necessary for understanding the college’s position, its brand and its promise will pay dividends in many different areas that ultimately impact on our ability to attract and retain students.
Data and Technology: With the current generation tuned into the latest conveniences of technology, enrollment managers must be aware of the recruitment advantages available (without being obvious about it – students do not want to be bombarded with glitz), and they must also understand how the use of technology in registration, course work, and communication can enhance the quality of the educational experience and the connection to the institution.
Dickinson’s computer system to support admissions was, in 1999, more of a records system than a recruitment tool. The EM staff moved quickly to evaluate stand-alone systems and selected one that would allow admission counselors to identify students and communicate with them by region, high school, gender, race, activity (including athletics), SAT score, legacy status, academic area of interest and the need for financial aid. It also provided staff with a powerful tool for data sorting and analysis. One lynch pin to successful enrollment management, therefore, is having the right technological power available to evaluate your market and to target your messages to students in a strategic way.
Recognizing the power of the Web, the college moved from a half-time Web master with only “on-the-job” experience, to a full time director of Web services (who was a registrar at another institution and understood the academic mission of the institution) and an assistant. These positions report through the College Relations unit that is a part of the Enrollment Management Division. They work closely with the director of admissions, with alumni affairs and development, and with the faculty to assure a uniform, accurate, up-to-date and vibrant Web presence that reflects the college’s image and position. They designed a special site for admitted students and their parents, and one for enrolled students as well. One feature on the admitted site allows parents to email parents of enrolled students from their area for feedback on the college, and permits accepted students to do the same with Dickinson students from their area and/or in their intended major.
Chat rooms and the like are becoming increasingly popular with students, and Dickinson has just started experimenting in this area. What is more important, though, is giving students the ability to access their data on the Web – admissions application information, course registration, room registration, making appointments, etc. Students expect that today, and a successful enrollment manager will ask the tough questions of IT and Web staff to make sure the institution is up-to-date in its services.
Johnson (2002) says that communication creates and sustains relationships and that a good communications plan relies on technology to support (though not replace) personal contact with one another. When using print, email, the Web and contact by phone or in person, the most critical element, of course, is consistency of message across all contacts. There also must be a relationship among various contacts. Institutions, for example, have successfully drawn students to the Web through their printed materials and by Web-based email. This is all part of an integrated communications plan that must be supported by technology. At Dickinson, this plan lists in a sequential calendar all communications including those that are web- and email-based, their purpose and their relationship to other forms of communication. An outline of the communication flow helps to identify the purpose of each contact and aids in the evaluation of each program. It also guards against the inevitable “great idea that we have to do now” syndrome, in that it forces staff to look at the impact of an additional piece of communication on the entire program and sequencing of messages.
In addition to the use of technology to recruit students and to provide prospective and enrolled students with necessary services, technology must be used to support research that will guide policy decisions, the creation of new strategies and the evaluation of present efforts. The data, of course, must be integrated at the student record level. Dickinson collects as much data as possible on prospective students (often a challenge) and of course on admitted and enrolled students. Along with demographic and academic data, the college tracks contact responses, the need for aid and the percentage of need met by grant, legacy or “VIP” status, athletic interests and student activity participation and leadership. By doing this, the college is able to model the class prior to final admissions decisions and to make adjustments if enrollment results are projected to fall short of goals. The logistical regression enrollment projection model, designed by a statistics professor and the director of institutional research, is an invaluable tool for staff as they refine the characteristics of the class – diversity (race, gender, geographic), academic and financial. The model will not guide the staff at the individual level – in other words, it will not tell them who to admit based on the likelihood of enrollment. It simply projects the class in the aggregate by adding all of the enrollment probabilities and the proportion of each characteristic that is appropriate to that probability (e.g. if there are 100 admitted minority students, and the addition of their individual enrollment probabilities is .33, the model will predict 33 minority students in the class – but it can not predict who will enroll).
Kimberly Wright Sinha of San Diego State University prepared an unpublished tutorial in developing such a model at the 1999 Association of Institutional Research Forum in Seattle. In it, she lists the following data elements that could, if tested, predict enrollment and aid expenditures or net tuition revenue (Dickinson used most of these elements in the construction of its model):
1 Academic ability – predicted GPA, application type (e.g. early deciusion, regular), application date, HS GPA, test scores, class rank
2 Actions – initial applicant inquiry, multiple contacts, campus visit, applied for aid
3 Interests – department, major or college/division, athletic, activity
4 Demographic – race/ethnicity, gender, citizenship, home country, home state, home zip, resident/commuter flag, high school code, Enrollment Planning Service code (from the College Board)
5 Financial aid – family income, estimated family contribution, institutional grant, loan, work-study, merit funding, request appeal, appeal granted, appeal award amount, appeal denied, other gift aid, athletic scholarships, total gift and grant
The data collected and analyzed by different institutions will depend upon individual needs and what looks to have a significant impact on the enrollment decision. I have found the model at Dickinson to be an essential tool in crafting the class in the right number, distribution, quality and net revenue.
At Dickinson, we divided data elements into six areas in order to understand our students, our competitors and how we accomplished our work:
1 Trends – the admission funnel from suspect to prospect to admit to enrolled — by sex, race, major, feeder school, aid, contact; total enrollment over time by the same variables; job and graduate school placement rates by the same variables plus major
2 College selection – what is important to prospective students; how is our institution seen relative to others; how do applicants and matriculants differ from non-applicants and non-matriculants; where do admitted students enroll if not here
3 Enrollment – student ratings of our institution on factors important to them; program demand changes over time; factors that influence student persistence; what distinguishes completers from non-completers
4 Post enrollment – alumni rating of experiences and preparation for career or graduate/professional school; ratings of graduates by employers; parents ratings of child’s experience and outcomes; differences in ratings among majors
5 External – national demographic trends, supply of high school students in a specific market (resources: http://www.nces.ed.gov/stats.html, Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY by Tom Mortenson in Iowa City, Student Poll by the Art and Science Group in Baltimore)
6 Operations – track volume to assess staff, supply, budget and computer needs at various points in the cycle which can be used to justify the support required to achieve institution-wide objectives
This matrix has helped us to understand how our programs, policies and practices affect demand and student experience, and has provided Dickinson with the necessary information to make appropriate adjustments. Of course, survey data on the admissions process and on the perceived “quality of life” on the campus can help enrollment managers assess the impact of programs on student decisions and experiences. The most popular national instruments are the College Board’s Admitted Student Questionnaire; the Higher Education Research Institute’s (UCLA) freshman and senior surveys and their relatively new College Student Survey (the latter measures student satisfaction with quality of life while the freshman survey gives a baseline of student characteristics compared to national norms and the senior survey allows an institution to see differences over the four years, including student post-graduate plans); and the new National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), that attempts to give a college information on the degree to which students feel engaged with their education in and out of the classroom. Dickinson has participated in all of the above. We are currently assessing the characteristics of campus “social life” in an effort to understand why only two-thirds of our students are satisfied (compared to a 95% satisfaction rate with the academic program), and to take “corrective action” if that is deemed necessary. This is a strategic retention issue and one that the college is addressing as a result of survey data and analysis.
Finally, other data must be collected to help in the assessment of enrollment management strategies. First year academic performance on an individual level should be compared to academic indicators at the time of admission to determine whether different standards should be applied during the selection process. Data on current academic performance must also be used by academic advisors for early intervention to help students succeed. On the other end, students with high grades should be identified and cultivated for major national and international post-graduate fellowships. Dickinson is beginning to do this with our new academic advising/career center program described earlier.
Budget: All of the ambition in the world, with appropriate planning, will not be achieved unless the institution realizes how much it will cost and provides the necessary resources. I arrived at Dickinson in the midst of a three year deficit, with five more years projected. When I said that we may have to go a little further into deficit in order to come out of it, the president and the chairman of the board did not blink. In fact, we did spend more money than in the past, but the college came out of deficit in three years rather than in five, and, as all now conclude, the investment in staff, equipment, marketing studies and student and alumni program refinement was well worth it.
A budget is a spending plan and a means to help staff fulfill the vision of the strategic plan. Once the college community agreed on the institution-wide strategic objectives, divisions and departments began to assemble strategies to achieve the objectives. Each strategy had attendant tactics that, for the most part, required either additional financial support or a re-direction of resources away from non-strategic initiatives. It is always preferable to seek the latter, but in Dickinson’s case, because it had been under-funded and under-capitalized through most of the 90s, much new financial support was required. The adage “you have to spend money to make money” was not a hard sell considering the college’s deficit position and enrollment weakness in 1999. Obviously, the college could not fund every tactic that could be suggested by the plan, so funding priorities were set at the divisional level and then negotiated among the senior officers of the college.
Earlier, while describing the impact of academic and co-curricular programs on enrollment management, I discussed Dickinson’s top-rated global education program. A strategic objective of the college is to infuse a global perspective throughout the curriculum, acknowledging that the leaders of tomorrow must know and understand a complex world. As a major objective of the college, programs that support this objective should be funded. Those that do not contribute to this, though perhaps worthy in their own right, should have a lower funding priority.
It is easy to identify additional funding needs – everyone could use more money. It is also difficult to identify areas to cut, and these tend to come slowly and over time. Without buy-in to the strategic direction, the vision and the “promise” of the institution, cuts can rarely be made. But trade-offs are indeed necessary in order to sustain a strategic position. At Dickinson, programs in wellness were scaled back in favor of a push in community volunteerism; a program in public speaking was eliminated in favor of a program in journalism to train student reporters (and to save a dying student newspaper); and an expensive program that awarded future teachers $20,000 after 4 years of teaching (and that was unfunded) was first reduced and then eliminated when its marginal impact on admission and retention was revealed.
Enrollment managers must be at the table to help set institutional spending priorities in conjunction with campus-wide objectives. They must help set realistic revenue targets including net tuition, endowment earnings, government appropriations or grants, annual gifts and auxiliary income. Ideally, revenues should be set in the budget before expenditures. Of course, external factors such as the stock market, state budget deficits, federal student aid programs and health insurance premiums for faculty and staff all impact on the process. Dickinson has a planning and budget committee with faculty and student representation that meets weekly throughout the academic year on which all the senior officers (except the president) sit. This promotes an institution-wide understanding and helps to secure buy-in with all constituencies. It consumes a great amount of time, but I am convinced that Dickinson could not have achieved what it did as quickly as it did, while coming out of deficit in three years rather than five, without the support of the entire campus community. The Planning and Budget Committee was a critical link in this success.
Divisional and department budgets must be related to institutional priorities because again, we cannot do everything. For example, if the objective is to be a global campus, what do we fund in admissions– an outreach to DoD schools, American schools abroad and Governor’s schools for international studies in the U.S., or the extensive development of secondary and tertiary markets to increase the geographic distribution of our students. At Dickinson, both were important, but it was clear that we would fund the former before the latter based on the strategic objective.
Enrollment managers must have a thorough knowledge of institutional budgets. They must understand what drives the budget and they must share with their senior colleagues how their competitors fund similar items, particularly staff and programs. With a clear understanding how costs relate to capacity (excess classroom, library, residence hall space) and quantifying the cost of enrolling an additional student on the margin in below- and at-capacity scenarios, enrollment managers can help their institutions see revenue opportunities and secure the resources necessary to achieve their objectives.
Enrollment management had its earliest roots in admissions, but quickly spread to almost all areas of the institution that could possibly impact enrollment. It has evolved into a comprehensive approach to managing institutional priorities. There is really very little at the institution that it does not touch. But enrollment managers cannot supervise the academic program, nor the physical plant nor the fundraising efforts and management of institution’s budget. Whether EM is admissions, aid and registrar, or the most comprehensive “cradle to grave” organization as at Dickinson, it is absolutely necessary that enrollment managers build strategic alliances with other senior managers – communicating the importance of the promise we make to students and alumni and considering the impact on that promise before any decision is made to spend resources, develop new programs or change institutional policies.
Enrollment managers must be coaches in the best sense of the word. They must be able to rally staff in different offices toward common goals, they must hire excellent managers and give them the resources and tools necessary to do their jobs, and they must be careful themselves to see relationships between seemingly unrelated areas to leverage these to the benefit of the institution. They must also share information frequently, with staff and senior managers in order to maximize the chances of success.
Enrollment managers must be data driven but human-relations oriented. They must be compassionate and ethical, but demanding of evidence and pragmatic. They must possess a future orientation in their thinking, while at the same time concerning themselves with how current systems will affect the institution in the next fiscal year.
It should be clear by now that enrollment management is both a conceptual framework and a process that integrates the campus community. While it is complex, it can be broken down into component parts as described in this paper and in the references listed below, and to the extent that it is, EM becomes “manageable.” Results are not achieved overnight, but can only be achieved over time with commitment from the top and throughout the institution. Forming the necessary foundation with trend data analysis from your institution overlaid with competitor data, understanding what “could be” if the institution made some strategic decisions and provided the funds to achieve these, and communicating this effectively to staff, faculty, students, alumni, trustees, senior management and the public at large – these are the building blocks of successful enrollment management.
Robert J. Massa, Vice President for Enrollment and College Relations at Dickinson College from 1999-2009, is now Vice President for Communications at Lafayette College in Easton, PA