Thoughts on the “Right” Sort of Enrollment Management Executive: Research Universities in Complicated Times

FALL 2013 ENROLLMENTS MARK A SECOND CONSECUTIVE YEAR of overall enrollment decline in American higher education.  Much of the decline was in four-year, for-profit institutions and two-year public colleges and appears to have resulted primarily from older students returning to work.

Still, these numbers may well be harbingers of a period when identifying, attracting and recruiting undergraduates are likely to be a bit more challenging than has been the case heretofore in the nation’s research-intensive institutions.  Public flagship universities may find that they have more in common with some of their private counterparts who have long had to worry about and plan carefully for sufficient numbers of students.  This is especially the case in the MIDWEST, which experienced the largest decrease in this fall’s enrollment.

Straightforward means of addressing enrollment challenges – recruiting more out-of-state and/or international undergraduates – involve costs and risks for public flagships but are nevertheless familiar strategies that do not necessarily entail reorganizations or recruiting new leadership.  These, then, can be expected to be preferred strategies, at least initially.

Complicating matters will be renewed pressure to provide additional financial assistance to undergraduates who – along with their parents – struggle more than ever before to pay the price of attending college, especially higher prices charged out-of-state and international students.  And because more students will be members of racial and ethnic groups both under-represented in higher education and with lower household incomes, price will be especially challenging.

In all, the days when enrollment challenges were matters of finding space for a few more students or dealing with the fallout from denying admission to sizeable numbers of freshmen or transfers who heretofore would have been admitted – those days may be slipping away for public research universities.  Enrollment will be more problematic and strategic and require plans and leadership that may not have been required in previous years.

For some time now, private and increasingly tuition-dependent public institutions recognized that retaining a larger number of incoming freshmen and transfer students into their second year supplemented recruitment of a new cohort and could offset somewhat lower numbers of incoming students.  But retention and progression turn out to be more complicated than recruitment and usually entail a fuller measure of close coordination among academic and student or co-curricular efforts than may have been the case even in institutions that pride themselves on strong integration of the classroom, laboratory and/or studio experiences, on the one hand, with student affairs, services and activities, on the other hand. 

What’s more, the traditional organization of the units and people providing those two dimensions of students’ lives – academic and student affairs – can make it difficult to align efforts and clarify responsibility and accountability. 

It may be that in those regions of the US – in particular, the Midwest and Northeast where demographics foretell fewer high school graduates - that public flagships will take on the long-held habits of their private counterparts.  Much as hanging tends to focus one’s mind, unpredictable enrollments can readily become a matter of intense concern for everyone on campus, whether it be public or private.  This, in turn might foster closer alignment and improved coordination among offices and persons, notwithstanding being housed in the “academic” or “student” boxes of institutional organization charts.

Early signs are that some public flagship universities may opt to approach enrollment in a more comprehensive and strategic fashion, including recruiting leadership whose span of responsibility (if not authority) includes everything from identification, recruitment and admission to retention, progression and graduation.  As a result, freshman-year experience programs come under the aegis of enrollment management and be coupled with academic advising and housed under the rubric of “University College.” 

Traditional organizational boundaries that once demarcated academic versus student affairs may blur into “academic services” and the typically large-enrollment general education, introductory courses in mathematics, the social sciences and the liberal arts coupled more directly with freshman seminars made up of 15-18 students.

Career counseling is introduced to undergraduates much earlier in their program of study, regardless of major.  “Marketing” – a term not usually warmly-received within academe – begins as early as middle school and engages and tracks potential recruits via customer relationship management (CRM) systems that accompany most student information systems these days.

But just what sort of administrator is equipped to oversee such an undertaking at a research-intensive university?  Appropriate titles remain fugitive since the role is neither fish nor fowl and career paths hard to sort out. 

To date, tradition holds sway more often than not and the executive-level positions being developed at public flagships tend to require candidates with a doctorate and academic experience, including teaching and research.  At larger institutions with colleges and schools in which associate deans for undergraduate education exist, these persons often experience the full range of the academic and personal problems of students and thus gain perspective that may serve them at the university level.

Alternatively, registrars and institutional researchers often earn advanced degrees to go along with skills in enrollment projections and “yields” and can thus satisfy the doctoral requirement even if they do not have the full range of instructional and research experiences of the traditional academic.  Indeed, enrollment management has assumed enough of an identity and acquired a level of sophistication with respect to methods, techniques and skills to constitute a professional niche within private/independent and some regional public universities.  It remains to be seen, however, whether specialized expertise can trump academic credentials and credibility at research-intensive universities.

These are early days and most public flagships may not yet feel the need for a “strategic enrollment manager” among the executive offices of the university.  In fact, State U in the south and southwestern states will need to deal with large high-school graduating classes for some time to come, albeit, more will come from under-represented groups than was previously the case. 

Elsewhere, however, research-intensive universities appear to be recognizing that demographic trends do not bode well for conventional wisdom or approaches to enrolling sufficient numbers of students and will not likely suffice as means for dealing with retention, progression and graduation rates that will no longer be accepted by policymakers and legislators.  But finding Ms or Mr Right remains a challenge.


Richard A Skinner, PhD

Senior Consultant

December 2013

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