Enrollment Management: Whose Job Is It?

In a guest post today, Diane Lambart Fleming writes that while financial-aid offices have a role in enrollment management, that is not their most important responsibility. Ms. Fleming recently retired from her job as an associate director in the office of scholarships and financial aid at Central Michigan University. She is one of several professionals who will write occasional guest posts for Head Count this year.

Many colleges and universities in the Northern and Midwestern regions of the U.S. are experiencing what demographers have been predicting for years: The cohort of graduating high-school seniors is shrinking and will continue to decrease. The net result is that the same number of institutions compete for a dwindling number of students. What to do? Enter enrollment management.

A good working description of enrollment management includes the following elements:

  • The review and use of data to inform strategic enrollment decisions
  • Market positioning
  • Alignment of key departments relating to student enrollment to achieve a desired student profile
  • A comprehensive process designed to help an institution achieve and maintain optimum enrollment
  • The strategic organization of recruitment and retention efforts that are connected to institutional mission, strategic plan, environment, and resources

Reacting to demographic predictions of fewer students, many institutions over the years have availed themselves of the services of enrollment-management consultants to assist in maintaining and increasing enrollment, while also enhancing the academic caliber of the student body and finally improving the overall completion rate.

Frequently, the end result of several such studies and analyses is a hodgepodge collection of scholarships, one-time-only awards, and a moving target of admission standards. All too frequently, when an institution doesn’t make its enrollment goal, there is pressure on the admissions office to dip a little further into the applicant pool and admit students with less than optimal academic credentials.

In addition to the above-mentioned hodgepodge, the conventional wisdom is to create a new senior officer position with the title of vice president for enrollment management.   Should this be the first step?

The institution must first determine what it wants to be before it hires an enrollment manager. Questions that need to be asked and answered involve the mission of the university and identifying the type of student it wants to attract, retain, and ultimately graduate. This should be a shared response developed by the board of trustees, president, provost, faculty, and other interested parties. Stated another way, the enrollment manager is responsible for implementing an established goal, not for creating the goal.

Major players assisting the new vice president are the offices of institutional research, admissions, and financial aid. Institutional research has the data to determine who will come and who will persist and can document previous strategies that were used to manage enrollment, persistence, and completion. The admissions office will market the university to the most desirable students.

The role of the financial-aid office, however, is more complex. It is easy enough to provide cost simulations for whatever new scholarship programs are proposed. However, the primary role of a financial-aid administrator is to assist needy students by providing federal, state, and campus need-based financial aid. This is especially true for four-year public institutions, where access and affordability are very real factors to students and families. Secondarily, the task of the financial-aid office is to support the institutional enrollment-management directive. It is the job of the financial-aid director to advocate for additional institutional need-based aid at the same time that the institution is looking to provide more merit-based aid. There is an inherent tension between those two functions.

Typically, at a four-year public institution most students will not qualify for merit scholarships and need-based grants. When parents call and complain that all we’ve given their students is loans and a possible work-study job, aid administrators are in a bind. We try to say tactfully that our merit aid is reserved for students with certain test scores and GPAs, and our need-based aid is restricted to Pell-eligible students. More and more frequently, financial aid folks are advising students not to attend their institution because the only aid available is loans and the opportunity to hunt for a work-study job.

It is extremely difficult, and ethically questionable, to advise a student and family that it is OK to pay for a four-year public college education entirely through loans. Aid administrators frequently recommend that students first attend a community college where the cost of general-education courses is a third of that at a four-year public university. From an enrollment-management perspective, developing fair and equitable packaging strategies is an exercise in determining who will come with the least amount of institutional support. From a financial-aid perspective, developing a fair and equitable packaging strategy focuses on providing needy students with enough financial aid to attend college. Helping students and families find the most affordable access to higher education is not always synonymous and compatible with enrollment management. It is, however, the right thing to do.

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