How Presidents and Enrollment Leaders Can Get on the Same Page

July 17, 2015

Whenever enrollment leaders frown, there’s a good chance the campus president is to blame. Ask around: Happy enrollment chiefs tend to say they enjoy good relations with the big boss. Unhappy ones often describe their president as living on another planet.

But getting on the same page is easier said than done, as several college officials here said on Friday at the ACT’s annual Enrollment Planners Conference. During a session on improving relationships with campus leaders, Candace S. Vancko said enrollment officials often must educate their presidents and boards because "some think they know a lot more than they do."

Ms. Vancko has seen the relationship from both sides. A veteran of the enrollment field, she is now president of the State University of New York at Delhi. It’s important, she advised the audience, to assess how much your president knows, and then find a way to fill in the gaps. Gracefully, of course. "You always want to make your president look good," she said.

That means making complicated material easy to understand. Think executive summaries and key takeaways. Stop by your president’s office for brief chats, Ms. Vancko suggested, and maybe pass along a specific idea, or an article that describes a trend relevant to the campus.

Don’t be shy. "Presidents should not hear good news or bad news about enrollment," she said, "before he or she hears it from you."

Translation is part of the job, too. Don’t assume your trustees know what "tuition discounting" means, said Barbara J. Keener. "All this jargon we speak on a daily basis — they don’t necessarily speak it."

Information Exhaustion

Besides boards, who else needs to be engaged? Pretty much everyone on the campus, said Ms. Keener, a faculty member at Capella University with a background in enrollment. That new online nursing program being designed? Get involved in the conversation. Don’t know many faculty members or deans? Fix that.

Sure, you’ve got a mountain of enrollment data. But it’s no good unless a college knows how to decipher it and draw insights from it. Sometimes, that requires collaboration. "Take your institutional-research person to lunch," Ms. Keener said. "If you don’t have one, go to a faculty member who loves statistics who can explain all the numbers you’ve collected."

Oh, and don’t forget to cultivate relationships with the student-life division, the business office, and the marketing team. "We want to make everyone understand that they have a role in enrollment management," said Bonnie G. Martin, vice president for operations at SUNY’s Cobleskill and Delhi campuses.

Ms. Martin, who’s overseeing enrollment at Delhi, said that occasional friction with other campus leaders is not only inevitable but healthy: "It’s OK for there to be a healthy tension with the provost." After all, every campus is a hodgepodge of wants and needs. Professors might want smaller classes, but the five-year plan might call for more butts in seats. Enrollment management’s the art of balancing all those interests.

Although some presidents surely aren’t as engaged as they should be in enrollment discussions, some are so engaged that they end up micromanaging. One frustrated enrollment leader in the audience said his president had a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the profession: "I’m interested in ways of involving him less."

Ms. Vancko’s advice? Keep giving the president all kinds of information. "So that he ends up being exhausted by it, essentially," she said. "You have to kind of anticipate where his anxiety and his interest is."

Above all, Ms. Vancko suggested, know your president’s short- and long-term enrollment goals. If those goals aren’t clear, it’s hard to have a meaningful discussion of strategies for meeting them.

All the advice in the world, though, is no cure for immense expectations. Ms. Vancko showed a slide listing several qualities, such as strong communication and management skills, that presidents want in enrollment leaders. The last one on the list: "Ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound."

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is