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A Modest Proposal

Is there an alternative to maintaining or expanding student enrollment in today's competitive environment?
University Business, Oct 2005

The present consumer audience of parents and students intent on enrolling in a college of their choice has become increasingly savvy about the strategic efforts on the part of admissions committees to select applicants, in no small measure, with the yield factor in mind. There is a growing awareness or perception of colleges making a game of the admissions process in a cynical fashion to make certain that they will meet their enrollment goal. Thus, the number of contacts a student makes with the admissions office, campus visits, and interviews with admissions officers or alumni are seen as key factors in the decision process.

Just as important, there's the sense that applying for financial aid will penalize an applicant, and that consumer price points are additional critical pieces of data put into the mix in determining who is more likely to enroll.

To the extent that there is any truth to this perception--and speaking frankly, many school counselors and educators also believe that there is--colleges might be working against their own desired end in the long run.

We see students playing into this strategic game in an equally cynical fashion by putting added effort into communicating multiple times with admissions offices by e-mail and snail mail, or by visiting certain campuses not once but twice to make an impact on the decision makers. They consider it above board in giving multiple colleges the impression that each is their first choice. Sad to report, many families hesitate to apply for financial aid when the need is legitimate for fear of being arbitrarily rejected in a competitive admissions pool.

As is often the case, those hurt most by these trends are those already disadvantaged in the college admissions process: students from poor backgrounds, with parents who did not attend college, attending schools with less counseling support, and/or lacking the resources and wherewithal to contact and visit colleges.

Of course, we understand the reality of enrollment and financial demands that confront every IHE today. Enrollment managers and admissions directors are assigned enrollment goals, which lead to experimenting with a variety of marketing methods and strategic decision models intended to help meet their required numbers. Each day seems to bring yet another scheme for affecting increased application inquiries, completed applications, and eventual enrollment. These efforts are obviously not foolproof and, in some instances of which we are aware, have actually produced negative results.

With the luxury of the outsiders looking in, we question the wisdom of some of these efforts and have played out in our minds a different scenario in the "what if" mode of thinking about the enrollment issues.

We wonder why some colleges that are forced into the position of spending increasing amounts of money to enroll every student through a combination of marketing consultants' fees, sophisticated predictive computer programs, intensified travel schedules by the admissions staff, and--perhaps most costly of all--discounting tuitions for a significant percentage of their enrolled students, have not considered an alternative.

It is clear to many of the institutions caught between this rock and a hard place that the results in terms of the overall quality of their student body and the impact on the institutional budget are taking their toll. Students have become more sophisticated shoppers for the best financial deal made available to them through the discounting phenomenon, a situation that does not always serve both the student and the college finally decided upon. The college places itself at risk in negatively affecting its reputation for enrolling and educating solid to outstanding academic students. It's evident that every family has a bottom line in mind--in terms of college reputations and ranking in the public domain and their willingness to pay the hefty tuitions that are required by all IHEs, irrespective of their perceived quality and reputation.

Now for the "what if" idea. What if your institution considered downsizing the enrollment of each entering class to a critical balancing point where the qualifications of the enrolled students met the expectations of the faculty and administration, and at the same time the cost to accomplish this goal was lowered considerably?

We think it is possible to enhance the college's academic reputation to a point at which well-qualified students will want to enroll, and they and their families will be more willing to make the financial sacrifice. The level of discounting is likely to shrink, and financial aid can be used to attract truly qualified and deserving students based on need as well as merit.

It is a given in this scenario that the senior administrators will have to work with their trustees to build a larger endowment to take up the slack in tuition dollars lost in the downsizing. What board of trustees would not want to see its institution build a stronger reputation in the marketplace and welcome an entering class each year of well-qualified young men and women?

Each day seems to bring another scheme for
affecting increased application inquiries, completed
applications, and eventual enrollment.

The board and senior administrators must secure the financial means that lead to the fulfillment of the institution's mission. A detailed analysis of the present costs required to fill the class at present numbers versus the savings in the long run of the ability to attract more committed students might reveal a less costly strategy than appears to be the case at first glance. Not only would the financial aid and recruiting budgets change for the better, but also the lesser need for building new facilities or refurbishing tired, out-of-date ones could represent a substantial savings, as well.

Several independent secondary schools of note have taken this bold step under the leadership of the head of school and the board of trustees. Over time, the results have more than met the expectations on all counts. It's a challenging move to look at enrollment and the overall welfare of an educational institution through an entirely different prism, but it is one well worth considering given the potential benefits.

Howard and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants and the authors of Greene's Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit

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