Restructuring for Enrollment Management

Restructuring for Enrollment Management

As enrollment management becomes a more prevalent strategy on independent school campuses, it also raises staffing and logistical questions. Tom Sheppard recently transitioned from a role based primarily in admission work to lead the enrollment management of The Lawrenceville School (NJ), and has experienced and dealt with these questions firsthand.

As Lawrenceville’s new dean of enrollment management, Sheppard has seen the structure of the office shift in order to give this large boarding and day school an opportunity to tackle some of the larger strategic goals they were not formerly addressing. “Basically what it has allowed us to do,” he said, “is to handle things that were not necessarily all being handled at the level that one might hope they’d be, in terms of the logistics of the admission operation and also the strategic aspects of enrollment management. For example, one of the issues we’re tackling for the first time is whether our enrollment aligns properly with the depth of our applicant pool. In our case, we have a very big surplus going into ninth grade. Do we want to increase the size of our enrollment in ninth grade? On one hand it sounds like a no-brainer if you can do it. But when you start looking into it and talking about residential life with the students, the house parents, you begin to realize that this is really a complicated strategic decision. We now have the ability to really focus on all the factors that would go into that kind of strategic decision.”

While implementing this type of structure may be relatively easy on the employee side, Sheppard also admitted that the resources available at a larger school like Lawrenceville make an enrollment management model much easier to pitch at the board level. However, he also pointed out that there are ways to support this model within a smaller school: “I think there are ways to accomplish the same goals, ones schools may not have considered in the past,” he states. “For example, it’s very common for schools to employ part-time consultants for things like financial modeling or development campaigns, but I don’t see many independent schools hiring consultants to help with enrollment strategy. You see it at the higher ed level. However, if a school has fewer resources, they don’t necessarily have to hire a high-priced full time employee to accomplish this work.”

Defining enrollment management for both school leadership and the community at large is a hurdle for schools to leap when attempting this type of restructuring. While enrollment management as a term is becoming ubiquitous in the independent school world, it is also often misunderstood and rarely defined. Many schools use the term “enrollment management” simply as an alternative term for admission, when it is actually a much larger strategic focus that includes admission. “There was absolutely a period, still ongoing, of educating others about exactly what enrollment management is,” Sheppard says. “Once they understood it and saw how everybody benefits from it (because at the end of the day, it really is an idea that supports the health of the entire school), it began to make sense. We’re only in year one, so it’s still unfolding, but we’ve already had several examples of groups coming together to consider big, strategic matters that had never really even been thought of before.”

His response to people who don’t understand the difference between his longtime work in admission and his current work in enrollment management is that the more tactical items, such as communications timing, visit scheduling, interviewer oversight, and other personnel management aspects of the admission office, have been reallocated. “Many functions that had previously taken up a significant amount of my time on a daily basis have been shifted to someone else,” he states. Sheppard also emphasizes the need to define enrollment management in terms of its larger responsibilities, such as marketing and institutional research: “From a marketing standpoint, it would be pretty hard to separate that from enrollment management,” he explained. “In conjunction with our communications department, we just completed a big, multi-year publication project that absolutely ties into enrollment management—it touches on the very early stages of a family’s interactions with the school. Some schools are hiring directors of institutional research. Whoever is holding the enrollment management title should be totally integrated with that person at the very least. The enrollment management person has to be skilled at integrating strategy with all these functions.”

Lawrenceville has a very defined set of key metrics that are monitored to inform strategy year to year. Determining which tactics have been successful (and which have not) is essential to ensuring a strong incoming class, which will, in turn, be essential in terms of retention and post-graduation advocacy for the school. “We do a big data dive at the end of every year and look at everything imaginable to assess where the weak points are. Then we compare those results against the communications that we’re sending out and determine if it’s actually having the intended effect. It never ends, and it’s always changing. It’s certainly critical feedback.”

A change to title of dean of enrollment management also brings a change in the way an individual will report to the board of trustees. Coming from an admission position, Sheppard was well versed in the data and conclusions his board was seeking, and involved them in the process of handing over the baton: “We started at the fall board meeting. Will [William Richardson, dean of admission] came with me and gave the report that I’ve given for the past four years,” he explains. “At the end of it I said, ‘And now moving forward, Will’s going to write and present the admission-related aspects of our reports, and I’ll handle the larger strategic aspects of it.’ This gave Will the opportunity to feel ownership of his part of the process. Moving forward, I will report on things such as our enrollment versus our applicant pool, an analysis of our residential structure, and the four or five large institutional goals for enrollment, such as ensuring we are paying attention to our domestic boarding applications and lodging costs, looking at demographics and strategically reaching out to families from a variety of backgrounds who would be an appropriate fit for the school, strategically considering ways families can contribute to all aspects of school life, being especially sensitive to all of our work with our alumni and sibling applicants.”

For those in smaller schools who may not be in a position to restructure, but want to examine enrollment management as a piece of the strategic puzzle, Sheppard emphasized that prioritizing and seeking guidance are key: “Having worked at small schools, I know firsthand that you just can’t possibly do it all. The absolute number one priority is the achievement of an optimal enrollment; you need to figure out what to do to achieve that, sometimes at the expense of other things that only seem important. Avoid getting sidetracked by those lower priorities. I hope, especially considering the enrollment challenges many schools face, that starting with the board and the head, schools see and appreciate the value of investing in this area, and at least are willing to research it and listen to individuals who are deeply involved in it, so they can really understand what it’s all about. I hope those who are already in admission find the time to prioritize this and seek out help from others to look at what they’re doing, because many times that’s the hardest part, thinking, ‘I don’t have time to step back and look at the larger picture and develop those priorities.’ “

How does Sheppard inform himself and support his efforts? “I draw from webinars and publications from The Enrollment Management Association. I draw from the NAIS Trendbook. I draw a lot from comparing data to things like NAIS Data and Analysis for School Leaders,“ he says. “Additionally, I try to find two or three colleagues, even though we may be competitors, whom I can have completely transparent conversations with, and many times you can sense whether or not you’re experiencing what others are. Each in its own way, each of those things, gives me a little bit of what I need.”

In keeping with this sentiment, Sheppard concluded, “’We are all in this together, which means that admission and enrollment management professionals need to support each other. Anyone who wants to continue this dialogue is welcome to call (609-895-2031) or email me (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). We never know what me might learn from each other.”

Tom Sheppard is the dean of enrollment management at The Lawrenceville School (NJ)


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