Is Enrollment Management Entering a “New Age”?

Posted by: on Mar 17, 2015 | No Comments

Much has been written lately about enrollment managers being on the “hot seat.”* There’s no question that many, if not all, enrollment professionals are being held accountable to increasingly rigorous—and broader-based—measures. The operative question is whether the seat is “hotter” or the climate has changed.

One possible reason for “hot seat syndrome” is that perceptions of enrollment management are evolving from that of a “unifying agent,” assembling data for a first-ever institutional view and a “social agent,” championing improved service and personalized communications, to a “magic bullet.” For those on the hot seat, it’s become a game of Russian roulette.

What if this is a sign that enrollment management is entering a new age? An age where the “magic” must be understood across the institutional leadership and the enrollment manager must be more facilitator than magician. Over the past thirty years, the low-hanging fruit has been picked; the competitive strategies are more widely used and therefore far less groundbreaking. As we know all too well, there are other significant impacts: perceptions of value for cost have shifted dramatically as the ticket price has skyrocketed, application volumes have grown exponentially, and student debt is a daunting influencer.

AN EVOLVING LEADERSHIP ROLE

While enrollment management is not the black box it once was it’s not yet perceived as the institutional fulcrum it must become. In this new, admittedly idyllic, age, the levers of enrollment management—and the powerful predictive capacity that has evolved over the years—are the new tools of institutional leadership, encouraging broader participation in goal setting while achieving shared accountability for risk as well as success.

Examples of this approach exist in other disciplines. A good orchestral conductor considers herself “first among equals,” and it generally understood that her role of setting tempo and unifying interpretation will not inhibit the soloists’ masterful contributions. In fact, it’s not stretching the point to say that a cohesive, well-conducted ensemble allows soloists to achieve even greater heights. In the new age, the enrollment management professional should function as a conductor, and the first challenge is how to change the tune.

Existing technology has the potential to focus discussion with real time simulations, binding the often-competing pressures of revenue and academic quality to a constructive conversation whose goals are the understanding of risk and endorsement of strategy. It’s been far too easy to leave responsibility for risk to the person in the hot seat. Avoiding accountability appeals to the lesser side of human nature; a tendency greatly exacerbated when methodologies and alternatives are not fully understood. In the absence of clarity and commitment, it’s relatively easy to hold someone else accountable for a strategy—and all its shortfalls.

In this new age of enrollment management, the notion that “those enrollment folks go off and do their thing” must be replaced with a new awareness of—and appreciation for—the role every institutional leader must play. The variables in the equation and their impact on probable outcomes should be articulated as part of a transparent process. Ideally, one that provides options and winnows choices down to the one most acceptable to all—without compromising too much to some more average or neutral place.

DREAM OR REALITY?

This all sounds so idealistic. Is it doable? Yes, it is, but first let’s look at the current process. Most seasoned enrollment managers can recall the looks of wonder when data from admissions and financial aid operations were first joined to reveal the most rudimentary indicators. Over the years, predictive analytics have matured these evidence-based strategies across the enrollment spectrum, but the delivery mechanism is relatively the same: an enrollment manager and, hopefully, his/her team within the division, work with a team of analysts to assess various scenarios, the most optimistic of which are presented to senior leadership. Some brave souls have provided a range of outcomes based on changes in academic quality, discount rate, et al. These findings form the basis for a conversation where the competing needs of other constituencies are articulated and a commitment of sorts is reached—or the demands of the admission cycle shelve the discussion altogether.

There are a number of problems in this approach: requirements from other constituents can remain abstract; the conversation typically takes place early in the cycle, and the data can be so difficult to manipulate the topic may never be revisited. In the new age, enrollment strategy will be articulated in technologies that not only make it easier to assemble real-time data, but serve less as a focal point than an adjustable, visual aid. This is the core of the new approach as demonstrated in the following example.

An evidence-based strategy is developed with input from key members of the enrollment team. Built on a solid foundation of prior year data for admissions, aid, revenue, program capacities, discount and enrollment/retention, the strategy has at its core readily adjusted, predictive analytics. This holistic enrollment “model” is the visual “orchestration” of the many institutional themes that contend with each other. After discussion with all key constituents where their core concerns are addressed or at least understood, the model is presented to the cabinet in a working session. Because the model can respond in real time—and the simulations are visual—the “what-if” conversation is far less abstract. Because the constituents have been educated during their individual sessions, they not only understand the model, but they have a better knowledge of its trade-offs and limitations. The discussions may be lengthy, but the results are worth it: a broad-based commitment to the strategy, the outcome, and, most importantly, the risks. Because the model is interactive and easily populated, it’s used as a monitoring device throughout the cycle, revealing anomalies while there’s still time to address them.

No doubt, many readers are thinking they don’t have the resources, time, or budget to invest in such an excercise. And if that’s not enough, how could they possibly bring about shared accountability. These questions are at the core of an escape from the hot seat, so, at the risk of taking a metaphor past its usefulness, let’s return to the orchestral analogy to answer them.

GETTING EVERYONE TO PLAY TOGETHER

In musical terms, what happened in the scene above is so commonplace as to be routine. The “conductor” met with the “soloists” to understand their interpretation and incorporate it into a vison for their shared performance. Even in front of an audience, the “in the moment” contributions of the soloist can reshape the outcome. All participants realize that, so they constantly collaborate, refining and adjusting, right through the curtain call.

Why can’t that be the case in higher education? No doubt, the ego, turf, and temperament found in high-stakes environments immediately come to mind. Yet, we respectfully suggest, the world of music has at least as many divas as the most self-aggrandizing faculty, aggressive CFO’s, and dogmatic Provosts put together. It’s the shared commitment to a successful outcome—the instinctive “we sink or swim together” mentality—that achieves an extaordinary performance. And of course, there’s nothing like performing in front of thousands, and in the case of Metropolitan Opera Satellite Broadcasts, millions, to encourage cooperation.

You also might also think the musicians have it easier—they can hear what works and what doesn’t. Between “shaky data” and conflicting demands, enrollment managers don’t seem to have it so good. While some of this is undoubtedly true, there’s never been a time in the history of enrollment management when it’s been easier to “see.” Transparency, a solid base of information, and consensus-based strategy are attainable if one utilizes these incremental steps to turn down the temperature and establish positive momentum:

Step 1. Ensure your data are consistent, well cleansed, and comprehensive enough to support your holistic, evidence-based strategy. It may take several cycles to prove out an approach that covers all facets of institutional demand. If your model is built on “shaky data,” that time will be wasted and your model repudiated. Invest the energy now to achieve consistent data with unambiguous definitions.
Step 2. Find a tool that enables new concepts of visualization. They range from widgets that spice up an excel spreadsheet to cloud-based, predictive analytics. Research your options. Visualization of your scenarios could be your most rewarding investment.
Step 3. Make plenty of time to vet the analytics with your team. Get used to adjusting outcomes to reflect divergent points of view. Exercise your model. Know what it will—and won’t—do.

Step 4. Bring key team members along for a discussion with constituents outside your division. This is not a social call, but an important learning moment for all. The more understanding achieved before the senior leadership presentation, the better. And use this opportunity for your colleagues to “kick the tires” on the model. Better there than in the cabinet meeting.
Step 5. Spend time with your president before the group session. Make sure he/she knows has realistic expectations of the model and is willing to champion the commitment to consensus and shared responsibility.
Step 6. Schedule regular “check-ins” with the model—and your colleagues. Be receptive to sharing challenges that evolve mid-cycle—not as failures, but as opportunities to hone the strategy.

Step 7. Be sure to schedule a full-blown review at the close of your enrollment cycle. Present all learnings fairly and accurately. Developing a powerful model takes time, but is worth it — critical learnings can advance and protect subsequent cycles. Follow the same pattern: start with your team, then share with other constituents.

Many of these tasks can run concurrently. Every discussion is an opportunity to bring former adversaries into a common understanding as well as revitalized, institutional commitment. Get off the hot seat and show them—don’t just tell them—that a new age of enrollment management is already here.

*”The Hottest Seat on Campus” Chronicle.com

Related Link:

“Predictive Modeling: A Tool, Not the Answer” University Business

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