Educator Tips

Seven insider tips about strategic enrollment management

By Brian Soika Published on

Strategic enrollment management in education has become an increasingly complex job. As a result, more schools need professionals with the right skills to navigate changing trends.

But is it the right career for you? To find out, we sought insight from the enrollment management thought leaders at USC Rossier.

Strategic Enrollment Management – The Experts Weigh In

Jerry Lucido, PhD, is  professor of practice and Executive Director of USC Rossier’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice (CERPP).

Together with Don Hossler, PhD, Senior Scholar at CERPP and Distinguished Professor Provost Emeritus of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Indiana University, they’ve dedicated much of their professional lives to research and practice in the field. (Hossler has also published several books on the topic.)

In 2019, the scholars launched the only master’s program dedicated to enrollment management based on a survey of leaders who confirmed that a graduate degree is ideal for job preparation.

Here’s what professors Lucido and Hossler have to say about strategic enrollment management and its career potential.

What Is Strategic Enrollment Management?

Lucido defines strategic enrollment management in a twofold way.

First, and from the student perspective, it is the attraction, enrollment, support, and educational success of students in higher education, or independent K–12 schools. From the institutional perspective, the enrollment manager balances the academic quality, revenue needs and diversity imperatives of the campus.

The concept first became an organized effort by admission offices in the 1970s. Since then, it has become essential to understanding enrollment trends and helping schools connect with and support students who fall within the scope of their mission.

Strategic enrollment management covers the intersection of three key areas:

1) Institutional academic prestige
Academic prestige refers to a school’s standards for achievement. A common example might be the range of acceptable test scores among incoming students.

2) Revenue
For educational institutions, revenue includes tuition as well as related areas such as financial aid.

3) Diversity and access
Good policy focuses on improving access to higher education for qualified students who are under-represented at a university and/or can’t afford the cost of college.

What Does an Enrollment Manager Do?

Strategic enrollment management requires knowledge in a variety of key areas.

You must have a nuanced understanding of issues related to recruitment, admission, financial aid, marketing and retention, and the skill to integrate them into a cohesive policy. Orientation and student affairs may also play a role.

The job duties are increasingly reserved for senior professionals across admission and enrollment at small to mid-size schools, while larger universities may have their own dedicated management division.

Who Should Pursue a Career in Enrollment Management?

If you’ve worked in higher education for a few years and want to become a leader in an evolving field, exploring enrollment management could be a smart move. New professionals should consider it as well. Admission counselors, academic advisors and orientation leaders would likely transition well into the work.

Enrollment professionals also come from financial aid and institutional research. Additionally, Lucido notes that if you loved your college experience and are passionate about education and uniting students, you may be a good candidate.

Strategic Enrollment Management Degree vs. Certificate

As you might expect, the master’s degree in enrollment management is comprehensive.

The program curriculum explores every angle of the subject matter, draws on theory and research, and links your assignments to practice. The intent is to prepare you to lead at your school.

Enrollment management certificates can be earned through short-term programs (typically a year or less). Some are designed for professionals who already have a master’s degree. Other schools provide some coursework as part of a separate master’s program in education, while private organizations may offer a few courses resulting in a certificate.

Pro tip: When choosing between the master’s program and a certificate, you should weigh potential career benefits, cost, and your previous professional experience.

Curious about a career in enrollment management? Check out these seven insider tips from the experts in the field.

1) It’s the Fastest-Growing Field in Education Administration

Not only are long-held standards and practices of enrollment management being revised, the way admission offices make decisions is evolving as well.

In the past, enrollment managers relied on experience and intuition to create strategy. Now, in addition to those qualities, they have to be proficient with using new technologies, understanding data, and nimbly coordinating with other departments. Professionals need high-level knowledge and skill to be successful in the role. And due to the quickly-changing landscape, schools need trained personnel who can rise to the task.

2) Consider Formal Study of Strategic Enrollment Management

Until recently, experience was the only way to earn a position in strategic enrollment management. However, leaders increasingly need a graduate degree to excel at the job.

Historically, the registrar’s office may have exclusively handled research. But now professionals need strong research skills to not only predict enrollment numbers, but to understand research in context with other issues at play, such as financial aid, marketing goals and more.

As the formula for enrollment evolves, enrollment officers carry more responsibility.

For instance, if a university has an equity initiative, they can impact the school’s reputation for enrolling students who need access to education. They might even play a role in setting expectations for enrolled students in a particular major.

3) Enrollment Is Changing—and Schools May not Be Ready

According to Hossler, enrollment is undergoing two major changes that should necessitate a greater demand from schools. However, currently there is no set of standard practices to deal with these challenges.

Fewer students are attending college after high school

In addition to a declining number of college-bound students in the U.S., fewer students are eligible for college than in the past. The dip in enrollment is causing schools to re-think admission strategies. For example, Kansas recently changed its standards for applicants to increase the number of students admitted to state schools.

The current enrollment management directors are aging out

The median age range for leaders in strategic enrollment management is 50-60. Without the assistance of new and mid-level professionals who can train for a long career, schools will be left unprepared for the loss of leadership.

4) Financial aid Is Becoming More Complex

Financial aid has always been an important part of the enrollment formula. From grants to merit aid, managers help figure out which students can receive complete, some or no assistance for tuition.

But as enrollment declines and student demand goes up, financial aid becomes more complicated. In the past, you had to understand higher education finance, a technical field. But modern trends require additional skills. For example, if your school is trying to increase access to more students who struggle with the cost of education, it will affect the distribution of financial aid.

Another new challenge is the early disclosure of aid packages.

Previously, some schools may not have advertised the amount of aid students can receive before they accept an offer of admission. But in response to less demand for college, you may need to change your school’s strategy to be more competitive.

5) Success Starts With the School’s Mission

Successful strategic enrollment management begins with a school’s underlying mission. A strong, clear mission should inform recruitment practices, admission criteria, financial aid awards and more. In addition to helping you clarify your goals, you’re able to distinguish yourself from other schools, and strengthen the value of your programs.

6) Failure Is Measured in Student Outcomes as Well as Policies

A failed enrollment management policy isn’t just about incomplete goals. You have to consider the impact on students as well. Lucido cites the long-standing practice of early decision as an example. The enrollment tactic might help the school, but it doesn’t serve students without access to college counseling. When weighing the success or failure of your strategies, it’s important to always assess the benefit to students.

7) There Are key Mistakes to Avoid

While there is no magic enrollment formula that works for every school, all institutions should aim to avoid some common errors. Ignoring data can sink a strategy. Research and analytics should provide the foundation for everything you do—including the introduction of new programs. Creating programs without enough market research to justify their demand can be a challenge.

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