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3 Things I Learned at the RNL National Conference

On newbie conferencing, shared challenges and known unknowns.

July 21, 2022

Last week, I attended and spoke at the 36th Annual RNL National Conference. To be clear, when I say attended, I mean I traveled to a physical place, the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at the National Harbor in Maryland. And when I say spoke, we were together in a physical room with in-person attendees.

What did I learn from the experience?

1. Newbie Conferencing

The RNL National Conference has now convened 36 times. This was the first time for me to attend. Not only was I a first-time RNL attendee, but this was also my first conference that focused primarily on marketing, enrollment management and online program enablement.

At this point in my career, I have nearly 25 years of academic and professional conference experience. Conference participation is a comfortable experience. I always know many people at the gatherings in which I participate. The sessions are familiar. The culture is legible.

At the RNL event, I was a conference rookie. Most of the people, and much of the information being shared, were new to me. This experience of navigating a new academic culture was disorienting. I’m just not fluent in the lingo.

The RNL conference was a good reminder that we all begin our academic conference careers as newbies. We all participate in our first disciplinary or professional conference as outsiders.

Experienced academic conference goers should give more thought to what the experience looks like for colleagues new to the field. To be fair, the RNL people could not have been more welcoming. And I did get to see several close colleagues and friends at the event.

Still, it was enlightening and probably beneficial to step outside my disciplinary and community comfort zones.

2. Shared Challenges

What I observed from the RNL conference, in sessions and hallway conversations, is how much more complex the business of higher education has become. A shared challenge across every type of institution seems to be figuring out the best way to drive awareness, interest, applications and enrollments for degree programs.

Most of our conversations at the RNL event centered around graduate and online programs. My goal at the conference was to learn more about these trends, as I recently joined the RNL Graduate and Online Enrollment Advisory Board.

The universal story for online and graduate programs—across a wide array of institution types—seems to go something like this:

  • Economic conditions of low unemployment, high inflation and looming recession are suboptimal to drive demand for higher education, particularly graduate/master’s degrees for working professionals.
  • Getting students to apply to graduate and online programs is becoming more difficult and expensive. There is a growing supply of online programs, as many universities have made the move to fully online degrees coming out of the pandemic.
  • With lagging demand from students (they don’t need degrees to get jobs or get promoted) and a higher supply of degree programs, something has to give. The result is that schools and programs are spending more money than ever on digital marketing.
  • Schools seem to be seeking help crafting and implementing marketing and enrollment strategies. Many people at the RNL conference did not seem to be existing RNL partners but potential partners. And many seem to be looking to grow their relationships. Part of the story is that it is challenging to attract and retain experienced marketing and enrollment talent to our campuses. Everyone is looking for help.

3. Known Unknowns

We are at a place in higher education where more seems to be unknown than known. That uncertainty was a big part of what folks seemed to be talking about at the event.

What don’t we know? We don’t know what our campuses will look like in the fall regarding masking, gathering and face-to-face events. We don’t know what the new hybrid academic work will look like. We don’t know what will happen with the economy and how recession, inflation or unemployment will impact student demand. We don’t know how to talk about where we are at this point in the pandemic.

Moreover, many of us in higher education don’t know how to think about working with for-profit companies.

Should we do everything on our own? Work with a partner? Are revenue shares the way to go? Or should we enter into fee-for-service arrangements? What part of the higher ed bundle should we keep, and what should we source?

One thing I did learn at the RNL conference is that gathering in one place—physically gathering—is still the best way to figure things out together.

We may all share a great number of unknowns, but at least we can take comfort that we are not alone.

What in-person conferences are you planning to attend?

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Joshua Kim

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