Today’s enrollment challenges have impacted all sectors and strata of colleges and universities. Campus leaders are questioning whether their organizational models, as well as the roles and responsibilities of key enrollment players, are aligned for optimal enrollment success.
The questions aren’t new. As early as the mid-1970s, the Boston College Alumni Magazine, in an article entitled “To the Organized Go the Students,” noted that “enrollment management is a process that brings together often disparate functions having to do with recruiting, funding, tracking, retaining, and employing students as they move toward, within, and away from the institution.”
There is no “one organization fits all” model. Rather, administrators must find a system that fits with their institution’s mission, culture, and tradition to create. The enrollment organization should foster cooperation, collaboration, and constant communication—minimizing silos and maximizing synergies.
Representing the Enrollment Voice
Across the higher education landscape, the chief enrollment officer can be found reporting to a variety of senior/executive officers: from presidents to provosts to vice presidents of finance, student life, and advancement. The key is whether the enrollment “voice” will be represented and heard at the cabinet level and by trustees to ensure the availability of the resources and programs necessary to compete successfully in a crowded marketplace.
Because tuition (net of financial aid) represents the largest source of revenue in most college and university budgets, there is a strong argument for the chief enrollment officer to be a vice president sitting at the table with other senior officers. This model is the simplest.
Yet, campus culture, tradition, or circumstances could render this a bad idea. Faculty and even trustees at many schools already express concerns about administrative bloat. Adding yet another VP may be untimely, unwelcome, and unwise.
Chief enrollment officers at the associate or assistant vice presidential level can, and do, successfully report to a senior officer who is not the president. By far, the most commonly found reporting line would be to chief academic or chief financial officers. The key is the extent to which the supervisor has the time and interest to understand the challenges and forces at play in meeting enrollment targets, and then possesses a willingness to mentor and advocate.
The supervisor must also be ready to bring the chief enrollment officer to the table when it’s absolutely critical for that voice to be heard. For example, a critical time for the involvement of enrollment would be as the financial aid budget is set and enrollment and net tuition revenue goals are determined.
Just as there’s no one perfect enrollment management reporting structure, there’s not a fixed set of administrative units that must formally be part of this area.
Some institutions have organized enrollments under the vice president for university relations or institutional advancement where marketing/communications, alumni relations, publications, and development also are housed. This can be a very effective model as long as there is also a concerted effort by enrollment management to forge a strong partnership with academic affairs. Because so much of recruitment and retention success relies on the faculty playing an appropriate, meaningful role, it’s important that organizational structures don’t block communication and collaboration between enrollment leaders and their colleagues.
Admissions and financial aid, with the registrar office a close third, are commonly part of enrollment management. Other areas may include: marketing and communications, career development, institutional research, orientation, alumni relations, and athletics (at a DIII school).
Marketing and communications offices have major enrollment-related responsibilities, including the institution’s website. Alumni relations and career development offices often run alumni admissions volunteer programs and are responsible for marketing career/grad school outcomes.
Many institutions struggle with the reporting structure for marketing and communications and its relationship with enrollment management. Since marketing and recruitment are so integrally linked, the admissions office is often the marketing department’s biggest “client.”
Yet, it is common for marketing to be part of a university relations or institutional advancement division where fundraising is the No. 1 objective. This is where tension can bubble up. Is marketing an important institutional resource that serves a number of significant clients (e.g., the president’s office, advancement, admissions, athletics, graduate programs, etc.)? And if that’s the case, how are the priorities for the marketing team established and by whom?
Emily Sinsabaugh, vice president for university relations at St. Bonaventure University (N.Y.), says officials there realized that aligningmarketing/communications with advancement was becoming less common for private, tuition-driven institutions.
“At the same time, as we prepared to implement a CRM in admissions, and as the web and social media were becoming significantly more important parts of the communication flow for admissions, it was apparent that admissions was going to be calling for greater levels of support from communications,” she says.
The team decided to remove advancement and alumni relations from university relations and align marketing and communications with enrollment. The dean of enrollment position became the associate vice president for enrollment, a cabinet-level post. Nearly four years later, Sinsabaugh calls the change “an effective arrangement for us, although not without some challenges.”
The admissions and financial aid teams converse more about branding and messaging, and marketing and communications administrators better understand their role in enrollment success. “This experience has crystallized for me the theoretical assertion that organization dictates function,” she adds.
Who Owns Retention?
Another institutional “hot potato” is where retention responsibilities are housed and owned. Clearly, student life and academic affairs have to be major players on the retention team, ideally having forged a strong, collaborative relationship. But retention is one of the three enrollment streams along with new freshmen and new transfers. So enrollment management, by definition, should include managing all enrollments—not just new students.
If admissions enrolls large numbers of at-risk students with little opportunity to succeed, the institution could hemorrhage students after the first semester or first year. So for retention, there are really three major players sharing information, problem solving, and developing data-based intervention strategies. All three should share ownership for retention, although one area needs to champion the effort and be held responsible for the results. Which area that should be, again, is a function of each institution’s culture, history, and past retention challenges.
More important than the formal reporting lines, strong enrollment management works through partnerships created on campus. If a campus defined enrollment management as admissions, financial aid, orientation, and registration, for example, a strategic chief enrollment officer would also have critical partners: marketing, academic advising, career development, student accounts, and possibly athletics in a DIII environment sit at the enrollment management leadership table as associate members or partners.
Enrollment management is about working relationships more than formal reporting lines. This is where leadership comes in. A real test is leading those who are not part of the formal department’s organization because they believe, have bought in, and want to follow.
Dolan Evanovich, vice president of strategic enrollment planning at The Ohio State University, says giving enrollment services a seat at the decision-making table has worked. “When Ohio State’s President’s Council, senior management, vice provosts, or deans meet, enrollment services is involved in the conversation. Our strategic goals are represented when university leaders are determining the allocation of resources, ... and other priorities. The result is broad alignment of enrollment services within the university structure.”
It’s also key that strategic decisions be research-based and data driven, she says. “Everyone has an opinion, but research well done brings us as close as we’re going to get to fact.”
Evanovich advocates for a team approach to enrollment management. Her office has partnered with student life, academic affairs, the office of diversity, academic colleges, and regional campuses. “We all talk about tearing down silos, and I have seen some very real results from making connections across departmental lines,” she says. “The team approach ... harnesses a diversity of thought, ideas, strengths, and resources.”
The key point is how well enrollment management is represented at the institutional decision-making table. Enrollment management fails when critical units work at cross purposes, withhold information, and manage to the unit’s or division’s agenda, instead of to what is in the institution’s best interest. Enrollment management succeeds when synergies abound because the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.