Navigating the Maelstrom: 8 Tips for Enrollment Managers

Kent Barnds for web 1 copyBy W. Kent Barnds Executive Vice President for External Relations – Advancement -Communication – Enrollment – Planning Augustana College

In Sebastian Junger’s novel, The Perfect Storm, later made into a movie by the same name, three phenomenal storms collide in the North Atlantic into a massive disturbance. The perfect storm was unlike anything that meteorologists and others had seen; there was no way to predict what would ultimately occur, even with the finest technology and equipment. However, as the storms started to converge, the magnitude became clearer and clearer. Everyone watching knew that the storm would have catastrophic power and disastrous effects.

Something similar to the perfect storm is on the horizon within this world of higher education, and no one will feel the effects more directly than those who serve in enrollment management. While the gathering storm is unlikely to play out in the pages of a novel or on the big screen, it will have a significant impact on the higher education landscape for years to come.

Six major threats seem as though they may hit simultaneously. So, what are these threats?

Ratings agency downgrade of the whole sector—In early December of 2017, Moody’s downgraded the outlook for higher education from stable to negative. In large part Moody’s downgrade is directly related to a perception that expenses within the higher education sector will grow much faster than revenue. Moody’s also cites the uncertainty in federal and state financial aid policy, which is discussed later on. The significance of a ratings downgrade, while not relevant to all colleges and universities, is a sober assessment of the challenges ahead for higher education.

Demographic shifts—Much has been written about the significant demographic shifts in the United States. They are here and will have long-term impact. Not only does the number of 18-year-olds decline, but when they begin to stabilize the students in the pipeline are very different than those traditionally served by higher education. These demographic shifts will require colleges to make dramatic changes to be more accessible, inclusive and supportive.

Federal and state financial aid policy uncertainty—Not a single public policy watcher can predict what will happen in Washington D.C. or in state houses across the country. The Republican tax bill certainly signaled a new day for higher education with several measures that directly target higher ed. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel of The Washington Post does an excellent job highlighting several things to watch in the coming year, including the Senate’s higher education bill, borrower defense and gainful employment, Pell Grant funding, state investment in higher education, and Public Service loan forgiveness. The federal and state financial aid uncertainty will continue to disrupt things for higher education for some time to come. Sadly, students and families suffer from the uncertainty.

The loss of confidence of the public—A recent article, “University Presidents: We’ve been blindsided,” in Politico interviewed several college presidents about the public’s loss of confidence in higher education. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the state of higher ed. There is no question that higher ed’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years. High cost, perceived liberal bias, lazy rivers, alleged elitism, climbing walls and, even big-time athletics have all contributed. In the article from Politico, author Benjamin Wermund includes the following passage: Rice University president David Leebron put it this way:

“If you go back 15 years, I think universities were held — not where the military is, but pretty much just below that. Now, we’ve fallen a lot. I think it’s a very challenging time where we can’t just go out in the world and say, ‘We’re an esteemed institution’ and people will credit what we’re saying.”

This change in public perception about the value and role of college and universities is not something that can be turned around overnight.

Competing priorities—Ratings agencies, who want 3%+ revenue growth, and public policy makers, who want greater access to higher education at a lower cost, are in direct conflict; many in higher ed are paralyzed by the competing priorities. The conflict comes into focus as colleges with a large number of Pell students tend to be those institutions that are unable to grow revenue at the rate that ratings agencies and boards want, but are nonetheless important players in creating new opportunities for traditionally underserved populations across our country. At the same time, the wealthiest institutions, which can easily achieve the desired revenue targets, seem to lag behind many institutions in serving Pell Grant recipients and first-generation students. Again, Politico has one of the best reviews of this phenomenon in its feature about the University of Michigan’s prestige and its current difficulty attracting students who fulfill their traditional mission. I recall that when I interviewed for the job I currently hold at Augustana, the president who hired me told me he wanted to “raise the ACT average by 3 points, increase student of color representation from 9% to 15% and increase enrollment from 2,200 to 2,500.” I told him that if he wanted to do that simultaneously, I was not his guy. I told him that these were competing priorities and that we needed to make choices. Today, though, the choice of revenue growth versus access at a lower cost is not as easy and there seem to be more interested parties that ever before.

Pressure on ability and willingness to pay for higher education—Public policy makers, political candidates, and many others using the rhetoric about “free college” or alternative methods of paying for college have impacted willingness to pay in an unprecedented way. In addition, higher ed continues to see a trend in which the most affluent families are sending their children to public colleges because of cost. Willingness to pay what colleges ask is precarious. Further complicating this is the fact that for many college-bound students there simply are not sufficient resources to pay what colleges ask. The social contract of more affluent families paying what was expected to help underwrite the cost for those who truly can’t simply doesn’t exist in what Robert Reich might refer to as “The Age of the Terrific Deal.” When everyone wants a bargain, it’s mighty difficult to get people to pay what’s needed to cover what it costs to maintain excellence.

Each of these conditions in higher ed’s perfect storm impact everyone associated with higher education, but perhaps no one will feel the effects as much as those in enrollment management, given their responsibility to get and keep butts in seats and dollars in coffers. Inside Higher Ed’s annual survey of admissions professionals, which include enrollment management types, highlights the many contemporary pressures faced by enrollment leaders.

We can’t make a bunch of new 18-year-olds over night. We can’t just wait for the mid-term elections hoping that a change of political parties in charge of the House or Senate might change everything. We can’t just ignore all of these conditions, either. But, seriously, what’s an enrollment professional supposed to do, given the environment within higher education today?

In my view, successful enrollment professionals will do the following:

Mind your institution’s mission—In difficult times it’s too easy to stray from your institution’s mission by adding academic or extra-curricular programs that don’t really fit. As an enrollment professional, you must resist the temptation of those programs that don’t fit or won’t fill. Recently, I spoke with a colleague whose institution was exploring the addition of some graduate programs, which for this institution makes sense. But the programs under discussion don’t make sense to me—they won’t fill and they won’t attract new students. New programs need to be directly related to institutional mission. As an enrollment professional, guard that mission; it will pay off over the long haul. Are you minding the mission in your daily efforts to combat the challenges?

Look internationally—The press and the trends suggest that international students are no longer coming to the United States. There is still room to grow, but we might have to think about it in a different way. Perhaps we won’t be able to rely exclusively on full-paying international students. Maybe we need to offer some financial aid to attract the right mix of available students. Maybe we will need to offer the same level of financial aid we’d have offered to those students who are disappearing because of demographic shifts. At my institution, we’ve looked to international students to replace a portion of students we believe we won’t enroll any longer because of demographic trends. Are you open to new models of international student recruitment?

Focus on retention—Persistence and graduation rates are more important than ever before. However, we are going to need to take a much more sophisticated look at retention and go well beyond the traditional indicators, like test scores and high school performance. We will need to look at what the data reveals critically and with an open mind. When my institution took a dip in retention, we discovered that we were losing all of the wrong students, according to traditional trends. We were losing qualified, high-achieving students. We sliced and diced the data and in the end discovered that the most likely reason was related to levels of unmet financial need. Be prepared to make hard decisions when you focus on retention. Where can you make the greatest difference? It’s often in places that are not popular to speak of out loud. Are you focusing on the right things in your focus on retention?

Expand your sphere of influence—To be effective as an enrollment professional, one has to be involved beyond admissions and financial aid policy and practice. An expansion of influence results in more opportunities to educate members of your community about the challenge faced by your institution. There is no perfect model for enrollment management, but a model that includes only admissions and financial aid is probably not perfect. How far does your sphere of influence extend?

Try lots of little stuff (and fail fast)—Enrollment professionals will need to be serial entrepreneurs to be successful. It’s time to throw everything at these challenges. Too frequently, enrollment professionals, and higher ed folks in general, allow perfect to be the enemy of good. There is no time for a silver bullet. We need to test, try, and evaluate every potential idea. We also need to be open to killing what doesn’t work. Are you trying little stuff to test what works and what doesn’t, or are you seeking the big solution?

Invest in staff, training and professional development—There is no greater risk to an institution’s recruitment program than constant turnover and leadership transition. Now that the recruitment cycle is 18–24 months, turnover kills. Recruitment and enrollment work is still a relationship business. Institutions need to do more to retain enrollment professionals. More needs to be invested in professional development and compensation. And, by all means, if you have an effective and imaginative enrollment leader, do everything possible to get him or her to stay. Are you investing enough, or are you relying on the old (and failing) model, paying admissions officers nothing until they burn out, and blaming the enrollment professional for institutional shortcomings?

Make it manageable—The challenges are daunting, but it’s critical to resist becoming overwhelmed. My current boss, President Steve Bahls, has challenged us in difficult times to make things manageable. I recall, following the Great Recession, his challenge to the community to come up with “five buckets” that would replace 100 students who might be lost because of the economic downturn. The five buckets divided the problem and made it manageable. We added men’s and women’s lacrosse, majors in graphic design and multi-media journalism, increased our focus on transfer recruitment, and completed the renovation of a student center, which enabled us to build community in a new and different way. In the end, the five buckets produced students and we were able to maintain enrollment. Are you making the challenges you face manageable?

Keep asking the big (and difficult) questions—Enrollment professionals are not always great at pushing the big questions in an effort to both educate and clarify expectations. For me, it’s been the question of revenue and student count. I’ve been asking what’s most important for years: Student count? Student mix? Net revenue per student? Discount rate? Overall net revenue? My experience reveals that all of these matter, some more on some days, but what is most important? And will institutional leadership provide the flexibility to an enrollment professional to get there? The answer to the question for me right now is total net revenue. It’s helpful to know that and I do have to remind people from time to time. Are you asking the big question for your institution?

The years ahead will be challenging. But they also have the potential to be very exciting for those enrollment professionals who are seeing the big picture: making a difference in the lives of young people and sustaining the college or university where they work.

Note: Kent Barnds article “Navigating the Maelstrom: 8 Tips for Enrollment Managers” is a part of a series called: Things That Keep Higher Education Leaders Awake at Night. Edu Alliance thanks to Kent as well as our Partners, Advisors and Friends for their valuable contributions and insights.

cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.

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