The Rise of the Strategic Enrollment Manager

The Rise of the Strategic Enrollment Manager

Reforms and innovations crowd the educational landscape. Some are focused on new thinking or the latest research in curriculum design and assessment, which may or may not demonstrate institutional staying power. Others are more systemic—focused on the institutional policies and practices put in place to achieve successful outcomes. One such reform that effectively shifted institutional strategy in higher education over the past 25-30 years is enrollment management.

As Don Hossler and Bob Bontrager describe in the Handbook for Strategic Enrollment Management (published by the American Association of College Registrars and Admission Officers), the idea of enrollment management was first conceived in college admission offices in the 1970s in response to a projected decrease in demand, and was characterized by new demographic research and revamped, segmented marketing efforts. By the late 1980s, the concept had grown to include all of the functions necessary to attract and retain students, and thus strategic enrollment management was born.

Defined in Hossler’s book The Strategic Management of College Enrollments (with cowriter John P. Bean), as “an organizational concept and a systematic set of activities designed to enable educational institutions to exert more influence over their student enrollments,” enrollment management is institution-wide, research-based, and encompasses the totality of the student experience. Most importantly, enrollment management is not simply a title bestowed, but rather is implemented through a committee or hierarchical structure that amasses and utilizes the appropriate resources and levers to secure an institution’s future enrollment.

Therefore, the work of admission—getting students through the door—is an important component of enrollment management but is just the beginning. As independent schools are increasingly challenged by the same external forces that have shaped the adoption of strategic enrollment management structures, processes, and policies in higher education, the national conversation on K-12 enrollment management has taken center stage.

With net tuition revenue issues concerns building in most independent schools, a softening market for “tuition capable” students, and financial aid requests on the rise, this article seeks to explore the growth of enrollment management in independent schools, to understand decisions around enrollment management models, and to look specifically at how schools are staffing for these positions.

Introducing the Concept of Enrollment Management

Bob Riddle, head of Crossroads School for the Arts & Sciences (CA), said that in 2014 the school was fortunate to have a healthy enrollment, but he felt that the strategic planning work so carefully formulated in the advancement department needed to expand to admission.

“I never worked in admission and while I certainly knew how it functioned at our school, we needed to do a deeper dive into our practices and planning for what admission and our applicant pool could be five or 10 years out,” he explained. Riddle approached his board with his concerns and hired Ian Symmonds and Associates, an educational strategy consultant who works with both higher education and independent schools. Riddle’s initial thought was that Symmonds could provide feedback about the operations of the admission department and how to staff and plan for the future. After Symmonds’ initial review, however, Riddle came to understand that it was about more than just the admission operation. “Ian and his team helped educate me about enrollment management, and frankly, it was a whole new world I hadn’t considered,” he said. “We started discussions about demographic trends, admission operations, and institutional research that could help us with predictive modeling. After some discovery, we realized the complexity of enrollment, and Ian helped us realize that Crossroads needed somebody to manage the larger enrollment picture and connect it to what we were doing with the rest of the school, from facilities to data management. That led us to bring in a new director of enrollment management, Eric Barber, in 2015.”

Riddle knew that planning in one area, namely admission, was necessary, and it led him down the path to enrollment management via a consultant. But sometimes internal discussion with high level admission directors, such as those who are involved with the board on a regular basis, can spur a school to consider a different paradigm.

Steve Bristol spent the last five years leading The Hun School of Princeton’s (NJ) admission team. He studied the demographic projections for the area, and noticed the movement by Hun’s competitors, both successful and challenged schools, to capture more of the market.

“We could not afford to be comfortable simply with the success we’ve had,” Bristol explained. “It was and is naïve to think success is insured. When I had this conversation with my head and our board, there was agreement that after we had completed the work for our most recent strategic plan, we didn’t really have a roadmap going forward. So we started a discussion about the interconnectedness of enrollment with facility and staffing, data, financial stability, etc. We wanted to develop a culture of strategic planning that was more nimble and dynamic than the traditional three- to five-year plan... to build a process and a mindset of strategic thinking to carry us forward indefinitely, allowing us to adjust and change as necessary. At that time, our board and head recommended that I oversee both enrollment management and strategic planning.”

In 2010, the Walnut Hill School for the Arts’ (MA) then new head of school, Antonio Viva, introduced the concept of enrollment management to the school’s faculty, based on the idea that enrollment was everyone’s job. While his message delivery was strong and passionate, it needed to go beyond an institutional pep rally to become an institutional plan that involved staffing, and restructuring, to ensure and secure the school’s enrollment.

In 2013, Viva hired Susanne Carpenter as director of admission and financial aid (and subsequently promoted her to assistant head of school overseeing enrollment management), and Carpenter then hired Jason Hersom as associate director of admission. “Despite our titles, we had really started to look at it as much more of a strategic enrollment management process rather than the traditional admission operation out of the gate,” Carpenter explained. Both Carpenter’s and Hersom’s previous experience helped in immediately focusing the program beyond just the entry point to include strategies for attrition, retention, and financial aid.

Prior to Carpenter and Hersom’s arrival, the school conducted an admission audit with The Baker Group, so there were marching orders that could be put in place along with Carpenter’s plans. “We had to look at admission outside of inquiry-to-enrollment, from initial point of contact with the institution to graduation. We immediately wrote a strategic plan. I bought our team and other administrators copies of NAIS’s The Enrollment Management Handbook and with the head of school we formed a 10-person enrollment management committee. We had to communicate with the committee and our community that in order to be as impactful as a tuition-driven school needs to be, we need to think about the entire experience of the student when it comes to enrollment.”

Polly Fredlund, director of enrollment management and marketing communications at The Bush School (WA), had the opportunity to talk with school leadership about how the function and form of her position reached beyond admission to enrollment management, while also making a case for bringing marketing and communications under her purview. “My argument was not only to create an accurate descriptor that captured the strategic nature of my position, but also to bring in a key function critical to successful enrollment management—marketing and communications— in order to create a cohesive message for the students we are recruiting and for those we currently have enrolled, and to then shape this message to the broader alumni community,” she explained. In advocating for this opportunity, Fredlund submitted a position paper to her head of school. In it, she mapped out the many ways she was an admission director already doing the work of an enrollment manager due to her work on the school’s strategic planning task force, finance committee, and campus master planning committee, all while serving as a member of the senior administration that reported at the board level. This strategic thinking, collective knowledge, and the relationships the work entailed were also ideal for implementing and leading the school’s broader communications needs. As a result of her well-articulated position, Fredlund's position changed from director of admission and financial aid to director of enrollment management and marketing communications.

What about the Admission Office?

Fredlund explains that while admission is operational and enrollment management is strategic, admission is still crucial to successful enrollment management execution. ”In my mind, the financial crisis gave admission professionals a seat at the leadership table. This time in schools allowed our value and unique perspective to be fully realized by the board of trustees, by heads of school, by other administrators. Today, school leadership continues to recognize the importance of having admission professionals and enrollment managers at the table, so as they make key decisions, they engage in thinking about the competition, about the relevance of key programs to students and families, and how this work is critically tied to the fiscal health of the school. It’s about bringing critical data to the table that goes well beyond how many families attended the open house.”

Walnut Hill’s Carpenter adds: “Schools hear the term ‘enrollment management’ and know it’s a data-driven process—and the first emotion is fear. They worry about data collection and how that impacts the day-to-day admission process. There is still a need for the warm, welcoming people we are with families, but, we need to reframe our mindset to think beyond what happens after students enroll. It’s using data to make strategic decisions. Admission is critical part of enrollment management, but it’s not the entire process.”

Hersom explained that his team focuses on admission only: “With Susanne as the keeper of bigger picture statistics and as the school community leadership liaison, I can focus my team on creating a great experience during the admission and audition process. When I meet with Susanne, we cover the basics—inquiries, applications, etc.—but we also cover critical topics that should be addressed in our enrollment management committee meetings. She’ll communicate what’s ahead in marketing, or any individual student or student body issues I should be aware of. I’m not weighed down, and my team can focus on the family and student who are right in front of us.”

Randy Stevens, head of St. Steven’s School (MD), knew his school was ready for a change when too many programs, ideas, and ideologies were colliding and coalescing in multiple areas. While St. Steven’s’ strategic plan was well underway, the effects of program improvement needed to be measured against admission and enrollment efforts and net tuition revenue. Stevens hired The Baker Group to help manage the integration of programs and enrollment.

“I think one of the things that Chris [Chris Baker, founder and president of The Baker Group] really helped us with was expressing how paramount enrollment is and how everyone’s job on campus is enrollment management,” he explained. “Cameron Steese is our current director of admission, and it’s her job in our senior staff meetings to constantly remind us of the ways admission and enrollment management come together. She may not have the title [of enrollment manager] per se, but she is always first on the agenda, discusses target goals for students and inquiries, and describes cross-departmental objectives like her work with our academic dean on minimizing attrition.”

The Importance of Data

Ian Symmonds begins his enrollment management work with clients by asking for their data, which can include tracking reports; benchmark activity; key watershed dates; and various data points for recruitment, retention, and financial aid. “We can tell right away, before we even set foot on campus, how effective the organization is in terms of a systems approach to enrollment management by the type of data it provides our team,” Symmonds says. “This gives us clues when we start setting up time on campus as to what topics and themes to explore. We generally find that deficiencies in operations closely parallel the deficiencies in data management. It’s actually very telling.”

Symmonds’ model is built around seven spokes of enrollment management: recruitment, retention, research, admission, financial aid and net revenue, information management, and marketing communications. He ponders a variety of questions about each school: How has it self-organized around these concepts? Is its approach integrated or holistic? How far reaching is that approach across campus?

Dana Nelson-Isaacs, an enrollment management consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area, feels that retention is a critical part of strategy, but research is a close second. “Without good information, it’s impossible to make informed decisions. Informed decision making is a cornerstone of strong enrollment management. I think that the biggest trap most enrollment managers get stuck in is the day-to-day, and the flow of the year and how it’s a runaway train. A successful enrollment management strategy allows the person in charge to take a step back and focus on the system. People will say they have no time to do research or they are understaffed, but the key to a successful enrollment strategy is to get your head in a different space, pull yourself away and focus on the data and research that will provide clues into your current situation and future.”

Nelson-Isaacs works with clients to set manageable goals with research and “calendar out” different projects. For example, she worked with an under-enrolled school that had little information on its competitors and demographic trends in its area. “I simply sat with the enrollment manager and developed a plan. In September the team would focus on researching current demographics in the area. In October they would research their top three competitors. November would be devoted to research on future demographic trends, and so on.”

Filling the Position

Symmonds says that unfortunately, some heads looking to hire strategic enrollment leaders often don’t consider the complete skill set needed. “What I notice is that philosophically, people understand that strategic enrollment management is a system of integrated parts, but they may not have the right human resources in place to execute what they need for success,” he asserts. “I think most people with high level administrative functions understand that the position requires someone with systems thinking, yet when they attempt to hire a strategic enrollment leader, they fall back on the persona of the old school admission director, still looking at the need for entry processors.”

Chris Baker agrees: “The people who have come up through the admission ranks to head of school positions are those who can straddle the tactical, operational, and strategic—and have a high EQ. A similar persona is needed to be an effective enrollment manager. When heads of school are looking to hire the most qualified enrollment manager, they need to keep an open mind in finding someone who will be able to garner the respect of their colleagues, is strategic in nature, and understands the components and mindset of enrollment management. Sometimes the ideal enrollment manager has admission experience and sometimes he or she may not. Recently I worked with three schools where an internal non-admission professional was tapped to be the chief enrollment officer. In all three cases the non-admission person was the most qualified for the job.”

Buy-in From the Head Down

Baker feels that many independent schools are dipping their toe in the water of enrollment management but are not necessarily doing it effectively, “because there isn’t a clear understanding from the top, or because there are shortfalls in the admission and enrollment processes and systems at the school. Enrollment management starts with the head of school, and must include a strong working relationship with a well informed and competent chief enrollment officer. Schools might use the term ‘enrollment management,’ and may even have a director of enrollment management, but that doesn’t always translate into a school adopting a customer service orientation and an all-hands-on-deck understanding of how to work with students and families throughout the admission and enrollment cycles. Successful schools are ones where the head articulates that enhancing enrollment must be an institutional mindset that cuts through the silos that were once admission, academics, advancement, marketing, and finance, and allows for the school’s processes and systems to be impacted. Once the tone is set, it is up to the enrollment manager to command that position within the community to facilitate the process.”

Eric Barber from Crossroads School for the Arts & Sciences believes that having an “elevator pitch” is critical to an enrollment manager’s success. “Being able to articulate succinctly the institutional value and strength of admission and enrollment management, and in a context relevant to the person you are speaking with, will go a long way. The earlier people wrap their heads around your role and its value, the more likely they will become an advocate for you and your enrollment management strategy.”

Amy Clemons, director of enrollment management at The Shipley School (PA), says separating the admission function from the enrollment function—and then being part of different groups and committees on campus— has allowed for an easier understanding of her role across campus. “I’m in a different position when people can see that enrollment management and admission are actually two different areas that tie together. The entire faculty and staff have a better understanding of the admission role as a point of entry, versus the engagement of faculty and staff that’s needed inside our community to open the doors to mission-appropriate families and students. Our interactions with faculty and staff are so much different now that they can see even more clearly how vital they are to our school’s success.”

Walnut Hill’s Carpenter has also seen shifts in how the faculty interacts with her as the enrollment leader, because the concept and importance of enrollment management has been communicated from the top down. “Under our head’s leadership and guidance, our faculty members have been supportive in our transition to a strategic enrollment management plan, because they’ve seen a fundamental shift in their classrooms.”

Walnut Hill’s program enrolls five different artistic majors at each grade level. Carpenter and Hersom explained that they had inherited a program where up to 50% of students in one major could graduate in the same year. “We’ve had to balance grade enrollment with overall enrollment and tuition revenue. This was no small task,” explained Carpenter. “The faculty now see full classes of qualified majors year after year, and our bottom line is looking better as a result. Those are results they can understand.”

From Admission Leader to Enrollment Leader

For the foreseeable future, independent schools have an uphill battle when it comes to building successful enrollment strategy. While this may seem daunting, many admission leaders see this as a challenge worth taking. The recent 2016 State of the Independent School Admission Industry report published by The Enrollment Management Association reported that 57% of responding admission directors see themselves continuing in admission over the next five years and 21% indicate an interest in becoming a head of school or taking on another leadership position. These are large percentages of respondents who are willing to secure the success of our schools. The question is, how will they do it?

For those aspiring admission leaders or others in schools seeking to become enrollment directors, Nelson-Isaacs offers some advice. “You need to think of yourself as a conductor rather than a member of the orchestra,” she explains. “A conductor has to know the music and his/her players well. The conductor needs to know when to pick up pace, when to soften, whom to pick for first violin, and which players need extra strokes. That’s the mindset that’s needed.”

Barber suggests networking and committing to learning more about the concept: “You have to be a student of the profession, so read everything that you can get your hands on regarding enrollment management. Look for the names of people popping up in articles or leading working groups—and pay attention to those people. If I’m at a conference and see a name I recognize, I attend the workshop, ask questions, and introduce myself.”

Drew Miller, director of admission at The Cranbrook School (MI), will be the first to admit that enrollment management in his school grew out of necessity. “We’re in a unique market in Detroit, usually making the news for the wrong reasons,” he explained. “However, I knew that if we didn’t innovate our data and institutional research practices, we would have more challenges than we already had, so I dove in and brought more people into the admission and data review process and shared the findings with our leadership team. While a formal plan would certainly have helped along the way, I suggest that anyone interested in taking the next step towards enrollment management just try one project at a time and prove themselves along the way. Your school will thank you for it.”

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