Why Chief Academic Officers Should Also Be Chief Enrollment Officers

Matthew Poslusny writes that provosts should have responsibility for both recruiting and retaining students.

September 18, 2017
 

Historically, the role of the provost has been to focus on the academic vision of the institution. What programs should the college offer? How are we keeping the curriculum relevant? Are we preserving our academic rigor? Are faculty issues -- tenure, quality, shared governance -- handled in an institutionally appropriate fashion?

Today, that picture looks very different. According to Inside Higher Ed’s 2017 survey of chief academic officers, respondents were divided evenly -- 38 percent agreed compared to 37 percent who disagreed -- when asked if their job is more focused on financial and management issues over academic issues. Despite this split, an overwhelming majority of 82 percent still responded that they were glad they pursued administrative work over staying in the classroom full-time.

This data suggest that there’s flexibility in the way college presidents can structure the CAO position to achieve institutional success as well as professional satisfaction for the individual in the position. At Meredith College, the provost position was reconfigured to include enrollment management, and it has proven to be an effective model that other small colleges and universities should consider adopting. In doing so, the emphases become matters of quality and quantity and of recruiting and retaining students.

At times, academic and enrollment responsibilities can seem at odds. The challenge is consistently hitting enrollment goals while maintaining strict academic standards for incoming students. A provost and VP of enrollment relationship can grow contentious if one struggles at the expense of the other.

This tension can be avoided by making one person responsible for both. Having one person with both perspectives allows one to understand the desire of admitting “only the best and brightest” while also weighing the budgetary constraints that become reality if the class does not make its goals.

Another enrollment area where it is important to see both sides is with retention. One reason students transfer out after their first or second year is due to financial costs. Oftentimes the people in charge of financial aid and those responsible for retention are reporting to different vice presidents. One is charged with maximizing net tuition revenue and the other with retaining as many students as possible.

Having both report to one person and working together allows us to achieve optimum net tuition revenue with the highest possible retention rates. And the suspicion that the institution will keep even low-performing students as long as they are paying also loses its punch when the decision maker is charged with “quality control” as well.

This is not to say it’s always been easy wearing both hats. The financial aid components of enrollment management come with a steep learning curve. With the various intricacies involved in the process and the ever-changing federal regulations, this aspect of enrollment management seemed the most foreign from an academic mind-set.

Although initial challenges existed, the new model, which Meredith adopted nearly four years ago, has paid tremendous dividends. One of the greatest benefits has been increased retention. Retention has improved by nearly 10 percent during that time. There has also been greater collaboration between academic departments and enrollment management offices, such as admissions, financial assistance and the registrar’s office.

While the role of the president continues to evolve, demanding increased travel, fund-raising and serving as the external face of the institution, the role of the provost must also continue to evolve to oversee more than academics. And colleges and universities -- particularly those that are tuition driven -- can benefit greatly when those additional duties include oversight of enrollment.

Bio

Matthew Poslusny is senior vice president and provost at Meredith College.

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