Enrollment Management Leads the Charge: Institutional Success in the Modern EraMichael Kabbaz | Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Success, Miami University
Enrollment management still tends to be seen as a separate, isolated function of the university by many academic leaders, both in instruction and administrative roles. However, with their access to and analysis of data, as well as their role in crafting the student experience and institutional identity, enrollment mangers are more important to the institution than ever before. In this interview, Michael Kabbaz reflects on a few of the most significant misconceptions higher education leaders tend to have about enrollment management, and shares his thoughts on how these divisions work to support the success of their institutions.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant misconceptions people both on and off campus tend to have about enrollment management?
Michael Kabbaz (MK): I think enrollment managers (EM’s) are often seen as being disconnected from the academic mission of the institution—that we’re only focused on revenue regardless of student fit. There is also a misconception that EM’s only care about recruiting the next class and not the current student experience. We’re seen as salespeople and not as educators. There’s a perception that we don’t tie ourselves to the institutional mission. To be honest with you, though, the fact is that if you don’t believe in the university mission, you will have a very hard time being successful in these roles over the long term.
There’s a belief that we’re purely test score and rankings driven and that we don’t care about recruiting underrepresented students, be they socioeconomically underrepresented, an ethnic minority or a first-generation student.
Above all, there’s a perception that we are operating in a black box—in isolation. People don’t understand why some people are accepted or why their financial aid package looks a certain way. The perception around EM is that we’re operating something that isn’t transparent to the university.
Evo: What are some of the characteristics of a successful enrollment management shop at a college or university today?
MK: We’re connecters and collaborators—we have the ability to connect decision makers across campus. EM’s often serve as the negotiator between the CFO’s office and the provost and, oftentimes, if you make the provost happy you probably made the CFO unhappy (and vice versa). That speaks to the tug-of-war that EM’s are often trying to manage. It’s really critical that we are collaborators and connectors as it relates to the institutional “big three”—the president, provost and CFO. As leaders on campus, we are also increasingly engaged with the trustees, which makes our ability to negotiate the desires and demands of the trustees, CFO, president and provost really important, alongside out ability to maintain those relationships. I often think that we’re in this business of making people happy but unfortunately, most of the time, it’s not possible.
A successful enrollment management team needs to be data smart; we have to have the ability to discern what in the data matters and how to connect that into actionable steps. Many times these steps require coordination with colleagues, perhaps with student affairs or academic advisors. Those teams often don’t report to or through us, but we really have to be able to help every part of the institution understand the impact of data. It’s critical that we are able to share and explain data in ways that people understand, translate it to make the implications clear for individuals, departments, divisions and/or the wider institution. Many times, we become so data-centric in our work as a necessity that we aren’t able to translate it into action steps for people across campus, but we must be focused on actionable outcomes. Data smarts is certainly a big part of our success.
Something everyone in EM needs to think about is that we often become “The Office of No.” People will have great ideas across campus—around program creation, recruitment methods or retention strategies—and oftentimes our inclination is to say no. We really have to shift our ability to, instead, be “The Trade-Off Arbitrator.” We’re often asked to accomplish goals that are in conflict. In these situations, our job isn’t to say, “no” but to instead manage and lead the conversation about the trade-off. Managing those negotiations on priorities and approaches is absolutely vital in our role. The credibility of our work comes from accomplishing what we say we’re going to accomplish.
Another thing is we have to be diplomatic, but maintain the ability to make decisions and take calculated risks. EM’s are increasingly in strong leadership positions on campus given the responsibilities we have. In many ways, we have to pick our battles but when we do engage, it’s critical to follow through. We must focus on influence rather than on power. Influence means collaboration and working with people across campus, which is much better than simply using power for its own sake to drive forward an agenda.
We also need to have a broad understanding of the interconnections that exist across the student lifecycle, and the impact these have on administrative decisions. I’m certainly biased on this, but I would argue that no one at the institution has a better perspective across the student experience than enrollment managers. We understand what the market forces are on the incoming students, the market we sit in, who we compete with, and we understand all of this from the front end. So many institutions are starting to understand the value of the career services function, and that has become part of our work so we also understand the employment pipeline. So the ability for EM’s to be able to connect and understand every aspect of that student lifecycle is critical to our ability to discuss and influence decisions made at the cabinet level from the perspective of their impact on students.
It’s critical that EM’s work harder to be visible around campus. This goes back to the perception of us operating in a black box. This doesn’t mean that you have to go out to everything that goes on across campus, but you need to be there for certain community events, whenever there’s a need to be accessible and visible. That’s critical because it helps us to demystify concerns for individuals who have questions. That visibility and transparency is critical to our ability to develop a long term enrollment vision and enact it year to year. We’re in the business of balancing both short and long-term goals, and making decisions that facilitate both.
There are three functions of the university that have the scoreboard on every single day for everyone to see: admissions, advancement and athletics. The scoreboard is on everyday and everybody sees the outcomes those offices can produce, almost in real time. There’s a lot to be said about maintaining the ability to balance and promote short- and long-term outcomes.
Evo: How is the role of enrollment management evolving?
MK: Enrollment managers play a really critical role in partnering with our colleagues on the academic side of the institution as well as with student affairs, and oftentimes those teams carry considerable angst in terms of understanding and meeting students’ expectations.
In this work, we always maintain a focus on the experience we promised and aim to identify the areas of the institution that aren’t living up to those promises. We help the institution understand what we’re promising and whether we’re delivering on it. We also help to build the infrastructure around following through on those promises long-term. No one cares more about the front end or the back end than enrollment management. This is not to say that academic affairs and student affairs aren’t partners in these efforts, but if the institution isn’t successful on the front end it becomes a lot harder to shape the back end to meet these outcomes.
When you look at the makeup of enrollment management structures around the country, there is a shift where more pieces of the student lifecycle are coming under the responsibility of enrollment management. There’s a research-based shift in terms of the types of offices and the types of responsibilities EM’s are handling. It’s not uncommon now to see EM’s play a significant role in being the glue around the student success initiative.
Evo: What role does strategic enrollment management play in the long-term success of a college or university?
MK: Enrollment management has evolved out of a necessity rather than intended strategy. For public institutions, the state subsidy contributing to our operating budget has dipped significantly so, out of necessity, the institution needs to employ an aggressive and innovative enrollment management model. This means we are a critical part of the institution’s future. For private institutions, they have had to have an enrollment management structure in place to ensure a healthy stream of incoming students and, as the market has become increasingly competitive, that need has grown even more.
Enrollment management is vital to the long-term success of many institutions because, for colleges and universities across the United States, tuition and fees can make up 70 percent or more of their budget. As such, the ability for institutions to deliver on their mission is directly tied to the work we do in EM.
The role of bridging market reality with the institutional mission sits in the enrollment management function. As I always say, “You can’t live out your mission if you don’t pay the electric bill.” More than ever before, this is a reality that many institutions are living with, in terms of what EM has to be to contribute to the institution’s long term success. Given the state of public higher education, we play a critical role in shaping the direction of the university and one of the things I think we are—good or bad—is the canary in the coal mine as it relates to saying that we can’t be all things to all people. When you look at the landscape across higher education, we have to play a role in helping institutions focus on their core academic strengths. We can’t be all things to all people and many of our intuitions have been trying to do this. Many of us in enrollment management see where markets are headed and see where we are, as an institution, and we play a role in helping map that future with offerings on the academic side.
Evo: To that end, how much influence does enrollment management have on helping institutions define their niches?
MK: We probably have more influence in defining institutional niches than faculty want. It often goes back to balancing faculty governance with the market understanding of EM.
We often look at the market and determine, for example, that that’s a relatively small population of students—say 1000 students nationwide—looking to enroll in a certain degree program but we’re one of 200 schools that offer it. We’re often bearers of bad news, which goes back to our role of being a partner. The academic mission of the institution must always take precedence, and EM’s role is to provide facts help support decision making. It’s not necessarily welcome news all the time, but that’s what it takes to be a good partner.
I want people here to be successful. I want the humanities areas to be successful. So it’s critical for us to look at where the market is going and what things we can do to adapt to that. It needs to be more collaborative, but we’re not going back to the good old days of higher education. EM has to be involved in raising the issues that must be addressed.
Evo: How important are tech tools to helping enrollment management fulfill their very evolved role from that initial role of necessity?
MK: When you look across the landscape of higher education, enrollment management is at the forefront of leveraging data analytics. What information do we have? How does that information impact different stakeholders? What actions can we take stemming from this data? What’s more, this data sits behind the conversation we have around the students we recruit, the resources it takes to support them, their success rate compared to certain groups of students, the programs that will be particularly successful, etc.
Technology and data are playing an increasingly critical role in our work and they need to. If we have 16,900 undergraduate students on this campus, we need to know how to allocate support resources to those students that most need our help. The conversations around what students need, the available resources, and the leveraging of those resources is supported by—and reliant on—data.
There’s a lot of fear across higher education that enrollment management just ties itself to the numbers, rather than the students associated to those numbers. That is not the case. There’s a balance to be had and, by leveraging the technology at our disposal, we’re able to make better decisions.
Author Perspective: Administrator