Published on 2023/01/18

Enrollment Management: An Evolving Profession and Practice

The future of enrollment management is primed to change drastically. More interdependent units and interdisciplinary programs, lifelong pathway planning and data analytics will push higher education institutions to better meet student needs.

Beyond Traditional

Since its 1970s inception, enrollment management (EM) has significantly evolved as a profession and practice—as evinced in sundry position titles, organizational designs and comprehensive frameworks more intently focused on the overarching construct of student success. Many colleges and universities have transcended structural debates about where EM should reside in terms of student affairs or academic affairs—and in some cases business affairs. Furthermore, there is a general acceptance of EM as an institution-wide undertaking that is characteristically planned, integrated and strategic. Nonetheless, as an industry, higher education continues to grapple with achieving the collective efficacy within and across institutional domains necessary to close historic student access and attainment gaps for first-generation, low-income and racially minoritized students.

Paradoxically, EM has challenged and reified one of higher education’s greatest fallacies: the traditional student. Among the many lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic was that many colleges and universities must fundamentally adapt their operations (policies, practices and structures) to meet the post-pandemic needs and demands of future student populations and workforces—countering traditional notions of whom higher education should and must serve and to what end. This perspective grounds The EvoLLLution® mission and guiding principles. It may, however, be novel to those who have neither followed nor been engaged in adult, continuing and professional education. This is particularly true with respect to embracing nontraditional models of higher education.

SEM Meets EDI

The pandemic thrust institutions onto the brink, where an unwillingness to change was met by the necessity to change. Along those lines, Tia Brown McNair and colleagues [1] were prescient in their call to develop a “culture of leadership for student success,” particularly in terms of colleges and universities accepting their ethical responsibility for the students they enroll and their associated institutional readiness to:

  • Understand and meet students’ diverse needs
  • Acknowledge and appreciate students’ distinct assets
  • Develop and support students’ extensive capabilities

Subsequently, in 2020, pivot became the pervasive watchword. In its most innovative conceptualization and transformative enactment, strategic enrollment management (SEM) can facilitate an institutional pivot—liberating an institution from its time-honored trained capacity to an enduring adaptive capacity. Case in point, perhaps one of the most significant advancements in SEM has been connecting it to institutional equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives [2]. In this regard, enrollment practitioners and institutional researchers are augmenting year-over-year retention, term-by-term persistence, four- and six-year completion, and high-impact practice insights with personalized student data to deepen institutional understandings of the individuals who comprise cohorts and target enrollment groups.

Beyond constructing ubiquitous SEM plans, higher education leaders are becoming more astute at actively leading and engaging dynamic and complex interdepartmental activities that connect administrative and academic facets of colleges and universities. Altogether, planful actions that shape curriculum, enrollment and revenue are critical to the sustainability and vitality of an institution. First, curriculum and curricular support are foundational to realizing teaching and learning possibilities that best ensure students receive relevant, high-quality and gainful education (not simply employment). Second, students’ diverse curricular enrollment, experiential and immersive learning, and co-curricular engagement are mutually enhanced when student, faculty, and staff co-experiences yield high satisfaction and impactful outcomes for all constituents. And finally, revenue models that effectively balance enrollment costs and benefits—thereby optimizing student success and institutional success—engender stronger stewardship, agency and accountability.

Data | Analytics| Insight

Leading indicators (e.g., early registration and gateway course performance) and lagging indicators (e.g., retention and graduation rate) of student success are both salient, since each category offers germane insight about student behaviors and outcomes. The degree to which an institution provides for and aims at understanding select enrollment data from students’ perspectives evinces its commitment to holistic student-focused functioning vis-à-vis interdependent transaction-focused operating. The former places foci on student success, while the latter necessarily attends to institutional success. Consequently, the two sides are dialectical complements rather than diametrical opposites—thereby constituting and reflecting the Yin/Yang interplay of SEM data.

SEM analytics are the cornerstone of an institution making sense of its enrollment-related data and uncovering meaningful trends. Developing, fostering and maintaining an analytical culture in terms of actively monitoring, positively impacting, precisely estimating and effectively evaluating enrollment trends have become essential SEM functions. In Competing on Analytics, Davenport and Harris assert, “It is people who make analytics work and who are the scarce ingredient in analytical competition.” [3] Simply stated, SEM actors remain the essential innovators and driving forces that impel analytics into organizational consciousness and practice via inspiring and leading organizational and cultural change, process and continuous improvement, and internal workforce development.

In terms of student success, contemporary SEM involves leveraging various analytics to activate an intersectional mindset in terms of discerning and responding to the confluence of factors that affect the retention (R), persistence (P) and time-to-completion (C) for specified cohorts and individual students. Extant R-P-C strategies are strongly influenced by advances in:

  • The curation, storage, integration, and visualization of enrollment and student success data
  • An amalgamation of data analytics to gain and maintain enrollment competitive advantages
  • A proliferation of enrollment-affecting technologies and services

Implementation of academic measures such as meta-majors, mixed modality programs and courses, block- and multi-term course registration are bolstering positive outcomes with respect to first—and second-year experience courses and learning clusters/communities. Institutional applications of descriptive, diagnostic, predictive, prescriptive and cognitive analytics continue to inform and intensify R-P-C strategies with respect to:

  • Early interventions, proactive advising, and personalized advising
  • Degree planning, pathways, and progression
  • Instructional design and delivery
  • Learning resources and supplemental instruction
  • Student well-being

Trends to Watch

Much more student and institutional data will be needed to train models and ensure that AI technologies’ machine learning capabilities are realized by SEM practitioners. (Let’s be honest, most higher education institutions cannot claim to have “big” data in terms of student success.) Some of the most interesting developments and trends to watch, in terms of R-P-C strategies, will be connected to how colleges and universities address data quality, governance and analytics—particularly in terms of data ownership, use and privacy of learning analytics.

More broadly, Ann Kirschner’s predictions and possibilities for higher education recently caught my attention. There are three standouts worth watching in terms of SEM:

  1. The end of majors. Some university is going to act on the knowledge that majors are anachronistic. Postgraduate learning is mostly experiential, interdisciplinary and collaborative. College needs to prepare students with a scaffolding for general education that ends the tyranny of departments and elevates teamwork, research and capstone projects.
  • The apotheosis of advisement.Some university will obliterate the distinction between academic and career advising, understanding that their smooth integration has become an essential ingredient in retention and graduation. Where career success goes, enrollment and endowment will follow.
  • Creating higher education clusters. Some university will fling open the door to neighboring institutions to build networks that share faculty, facilities and other resources, with the goal of reducing costs while still being able to offer a comprehensive range of courses and experiences.

A Final Thought

Securing future learners’ enrollment and ensuring their success will require many colleges and universities to undergo substantive structural, process and cultural changes. Moreover, mounting uncertainties about institutional enrollment futures may bring SEM into stronger alignment with organization development approaches, requiring those who lead SEM divisions at the strategic realm to possess expanded experiences and capabilities. SEM units will continue to be reasonably led by functional experts (e.g., marketing, recruitment/admissions, financial aid, advising, etc.). The functional units, however, that comprise SEM divisions in the future may create a demand for SEM leaders with deeper academic experience and sensibilities, particularly should learner-centered strategic planning and learner-centered SEM approaches [4] begin to gain traction and take hold in higher education. Arguably, the evolving future of SEM and associated R-P-C strategies are intrinsically tied to a dismantling of higher education traditions—in their many forms and functions.

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