Over time, that changed. Partly it’s because I got older and was suddenly hanging out with people who had children going through the college-admissions process. Partly it’s because the media started paying more attention to how selective colleges make admissions decisions — attention that only increased after the
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Over time, that changed. Partly it’s because I got older and was suddenly hanging out with people who had children going through the college-admissions process. Partly it’s because the media started paying more attention to how selective colleges make admissions decisions — attention that only increased after the Varsity Blues scandal.
Recently there has been a new focus on admissions workers themselves. This month, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources released data revealing that admissions departments have some of the worst rates of turnover in higher education. That came on the heels of an article in The Chronicle showing that enrollment managers across the country are suffering from stress and burnout.
I can’t say that I was surprised by either revelation. I suspect no one was who works in enrollment management or the conglomeration of activities that fall under enrollment management, like admissions, recruitment, and financial aid.
By way of explanation, let me describe a typical day for me. Before I brush my teeth, take a shower, get dressed, and check in on current events, I am greeted by my old friend, The Number. When you work in this business, all you have to do is mention “The Number.” The reaction you get tells you immediately whether the person you’re talking to shares your burden. It’s what is causing people to call it quits, or to think about calling it quits.
The Number is generally the starting point of your institution’s budget process; it’s usually expressed as an enrollment target (for example, 800 new first-year students, 100 new undergraduate transfers, and 250 new graduate students) or sometimes a revenue figure (like a total net revenue of $75,000,000, or average net revenue for undergraduates of $22,000). For most institutions these numbers serve as the place you plant your feet, before you decide anything else in the monthslong process of developing a budget.
Making “The Number” — the primary focus of our job — requires so many things to go right, even when we know there are so many things that can go wrong.
Each morning for the past 40 years or so, I’ve woken up with The Number on my mind. It visits me several times a day, and as my career has progressed, it has come to take up a larger percentage of my time and focus each day. It occasionally assumes different forms, sometimes introducing its close cousins, which, by the way, are also numbers: gender or diversity balance, housing capacity, yield rates, the mix of undergraduates and graduates, or enrollment skewing toward or away from one college in the university.
I usually allow it to sit there, undisturbed, and have gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing it and ignoring it for long periods of time. But sometimes, when I am with family, or walking on the beach, or at a university function, The Number grabs me and won’t let go. Richard Pryor once talked about the difficulties of breaking his crack cocaine habit, because the pipe would call to him from the other room. The Number does that, too. When you get to the office (or sometimes log on from home) you look at your reports to see what’s happening. Just, you know, to be sure everything hasn’t gone to hell since last night.
I know what you’re thinking: Everyone who works for a living has goals or objectives they’re expected to meet. The basketball coach lives with results published on the front page of the sports section. The fund raiser puts his or her numbers in an annual report that goes to everyone on campus. People everywhere live with the fruits of their success or the consequences of failure in their professional lives.
For those of us in enrollment management, though, it’s different. You see, in the past 10 years, The Number has become ... unreasonable. And when The Number gets together with the cousins, well, that’s a party you want to stay away from. They’re a rowdy bunch.
Making The Number — the primary focus of our job — requires so many things to go right, even when we know there are so many things that can go wrong. The millions (yes, millions) of emails we send can be negated by human error, like sending the wrong email at the wrong time. One public-relations gaffe made by one person can dominate the news at just the wrong time. The football team can have its worst season in 20 years. Or the governor can call out your campus as overpriced, too “woke,” or nonresponsive to the needs of the state. Consider that for many colleges, undergraduate enrollment hinges on people who are often volunteers: the current students who escort families around campus during visit days and campus tours. Even when they’re paid (and they’re not paid much) their influence is drastically out of proportion to their compensation.
Why do we do it this way? The answer — as you already know if you work in higher education — is because we’ve always done it this way. A provost I once worked for told me, “I cannot get you the resources you want until you deliver that enrollment crisis I’ve been asking for.” I think he was kidding. Sort of.
If you want to increase academic quality and/or diversity, you’ll find you’re selecting from pools of students for whom competition is high, and ability and willingness to pay is decreasing, which makes your chief financial officer a little grumpier than usual — even before the inevitable yield-rate drop makes your admit rate go up and your U.S. News ranking go down, which can make both the alumni and the bond-rating agencies less content. We in enrollment management try to find that sweet spot somewhere in the middle of the grid, moving forward a little bit every year, and ensuring no one gets everything they want. Settling for imperfect outcomes is the modus operandi these days.
You can probably figure out why. Arthur Levine predicted it over 25 years ago. Our patroness the federal government cares less about higher education than it used to. On top of that, the distribution of wealth in America has continued to split, with more being accumulated in the hands of a few, leaving the many with less; this, in turn, makes higher education more expensive, especially for those who can least afford it. There were fewer babies born 15, 16, and 17 years ago. The nature of work has changed, and the value of a degree is now in question. The very idea and purpose of education is being challenged by people who think we’re just indoctrinating students. Everything around us has changed, and almost all of them are things we can’t control.
What’s expected from the enrollment manager, however, has not changed. In fact, in the face of unreasonableness, the expectations have gotten more unreasonable; legitimate needs for more resources are balanced against a backdrop of declining enrollment and revenues at many institutions. And more often than not, it’s the people in enrollment management who are expected to solve this complex, almost unsolvable equation because enrollment is usually the main source of revenue. It takes its toll.
This tension can be an extraordinarily difficult thing to explain to boards of trustees and senior leaders who are looking at numbers of their own, like those bond ratings as they get ready to issue debt for a new building on campus.
My job on campus is to make everyone a little bit unhappy.
With the exception of a few highly resourced institutions, some of which get as little as 5 percent of total revenue from student tuition, The Number is not like the score of a football game that might be forgotten by Tuesday; it represents the lifeblood of the institution. It means raises if it comes in; layoffs if it doesn’t.
That’s not a responsibility everyone wants, and colleges and universities have perhaps themselves to blame for the burnout and turnover we’re seeing now. For generations, we’ve hired people into entry-level admissions, financial aid, and student-services roles who have talents and skills that at times seem diametrically opposed to the abilities required; in fact, many people fall into this work precisely because they perceive themselves as being “bad with numbers.” It’s not just a matter of not growing our own — it’s a matter of never planting, fertilizing, or watering the seeds.
Even when we find people who show potential and want to stay, we make it difficult for them to do so, by giving them workloads that keep them from developing professionally, or by believing we can’t match industry salaries and work-life balance.
Those who do succeed are in demand, either from other institutions who desperately need to find someone to turn the ship around, or from consulting firms that scoop up the talent and then sell it at a markup to institutions that would never pay that much for their own full-time person.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I currently work for a large public institution with a solid reputation and a strong sense of its own values. Colleagues at midscale private colleges, or regional public institutions — regardless of their talent — are feeling the squeeze.
My timing has been lucky, too. I managed to stick around despite not being the naturally outgoing, friendly extrovert who typically starts in admissions. I’ll make it to retirement in a few years having avoided (I hope) the Bum Phillips quote about football coaches I’ve adapted for our profession: “There’s only two types of enrollment managers; those that have been fired, and those that are gonna get fired.”
“You’ve been around longer than I have,” one enrollment-management professional said to me, having just come back from a meeting of colleagues. He quickly followed up with: “No one around the table at this meeting thought they would be there in 10 years.”