Stop Judging Admissions Counselors on Enrollment

There are better ways to evaluate them, writes John Roberts.

January 17, 2023

The longer I work in enrollment in higher education, the more the idea of enrollment goals becomes a punch line to me—even a cliché. Leadership in universities and colleges across the country (e.g., presidents, provosts, deans, vice presidents of enrollment management, trustees, etc.) aims to tie enrollment goals to the development of institutional budgets. This is a logical function, as enrollment is revenue for any institution. I do not disagree with this practice. What I do disagree with is enrollment goals on an individual level—e.g., admissions counselors having goals for territories.

Let me explain. There are more than 50 years of research available regarding college choice and selection. In each model developed over the decades, variables such as family support, finances and institutional characteristics are included. In the 10 years that I have worked in higher education enrollment, I can affirm that the college choice process ultimately ends with students making enrollment decisions based on factors such as cost, programs, selectivity, prestige, family support, amenities and location. Much less of the time will I hear a family or student say, “I chose to enroll because of you.” Does this mean that, as a recruiter, I am doing my job poorly most of the time? No. What it means is that, despite my best efforts, families and students are making rational decisions regarding which institution to enroll in. Most of the time I receive responses such as, “This university is at the top of my list, mostly thanks to you helping me to become more interested, but I just cannot afford to attend.” This is affirmation that I am good at serving families and students through the admissions process. This is also an affirmation that college choice theories are correct.

So, what does this have to do with enrollment goals? Admissions counselors and recruiters have very little influence on how many students from a particular territory get admitted, deposit and enroll. Admissions counselors and recruiters are essential for ensuring that families and prospective students have the right information about their institution. They can also be helpful in piquing the interest of families and students through various activities (e.g., high school visits, college fairs, off-campus events, online events, etc.). These professionals can also be helpful in ensuring that partners, such as high school counselors, have the right information to supplement their work to help students to choose the right university or college. But all of this is equivalent to leading a horse to water. Continuing the saying, to get the horse to drink rests on factors such as ironclad campus visit strategies, programs, location, amenities, campus traditions, outcomes (e.g., retention rates, graduation rates, employment rates after graduation), services (e.g., tutoring, career services, counseling, etc.) and financial aid packages.

What I am saying is enrollment is not necessarily in full control of any admissions counselor and recruiter. Ultimately, the decision to enroll comes down to the product. Am I saying that universities and colleges should not invest in these kinds of positions (admissions counselors, recruiters, etc.)? Definitely not. In a society where artificial intelligence is being used for customer service purposes (e.g., automated phone calling, chat bots, etc.), it is almost novel for people—especially parents—to have a point person at a university or college whom they can rely on for information, guidance and advocacy. These positions are essential to serve people throughout the admissions process. In fact, I think admissions counselors and recruiters should tip the scales to be more about customer service specialists and less road warrior or door-to-door salespeople. Historically, and for larger and nonselective universities, this has been off balance and tipped toward the latter. But top-notch customer service can make or break a family or prospective student being interested in any university or college.

So, hypothetically, if territory/enrollment goals became no longer the responsibility of admissions counselors and recruiters, then what should their metric of productivity be? Who should be solely responsible for the enrollment goals? Here are a few thoughts that can be entertained:

1. Measure activities that are in control of admissions counselors and recruiters. These activities might be things like:

  • High school visits
  • Off-campus events
  • Online events
  • College fairs
  • Individual meetings (online, on campus or off campus)

Other activities might be things like:

  • Text messaging
  • Phone calls
  • Personal notes
  • Emails
  • Information collection

These are things that admissions counselors and recruiters can do to engage with prospective students to build relationships with prospective students to serve them to their best ability, which will at least make the prospective student feel good about the institution—making the institution look more favorable for enrollment. All these data points are easily captured through client relationship management software, allowing for midlevel managers to assess productivity.

2. Focus admissions counselors and recruiters on applications. Enrollment is much more complex. Any college choice model clearly lays that fact out. Therefore, shifting the focus from actual enrollment to applications can be logical, because most admissions counselors or recruiters can encourage any student to at least apply. This is much closer in the control of admissions counselors and recruiters, because applying is so much less of a risk. Once a student applies, then all the other communication, outreach and marketing efforts can be deployed to increase the likelihood of a student enrolling. But by simply applying, any admissions counselor or recruiter has started the admissions process with a student, which is an important step. This is easily measured.

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3. Move the responsibility of enrollment goals to admissions and enrollment leaders. This is a recommendation that technically is already in existence. My take on this is that admissions and enrollment leaders should be more responsible for hitting certain goals. Such leaders can make decisions that could shape enrollment and, therefore, make goals or not. Admissions counselors and recruiters are the workforce that support the upper-level strategies set by university or college leaders that get them closer to their enrollment goals.

I have experienced, personally, this disconnect between leaders and professionals on the ground. Having admissions counselors and recruiters try to be responsible for something they cannot control is frustrating. It also leads to burnout and higher turnover rates. I realize that there are other factors that lead to burnout and turnover rates in enrollment offices. However, the stress of being responsible for a metric that is out of one’s control is a contributor to this. I think these suggestions do not ask for much and refocus admissions and enrollment professionals in a way to think about their work in a more intentional way, which can likely yield better results and healthier professionals.

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John Roberts is an engineering recruiter at the University of Kentucky.

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