Enrollment Managers Struggle With Image

Perception that they focus only on hitting numbers and increasing test scores nettles them. But they also admit many colleges operate that way -- and find it hard to fight pressures from on high.
March 27, 2008

“Enrollment management” has become a dirty word among many critics of higher education, raising the specter of data-driven consultants helping colleges recruit students with ever increasing test scores who also happen to be able to pay the freight for tuition. And for better or worse, enrollment management has been interpreted to focus only on who gets in the front door, without worrying much at all about how they fare once they’re in college.

At a session Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, in Orlando, Fla., several veterans of the enrollment management world challenged the popular perception that theirs is a profession that focuses excessively about increased selectivity, “cost per acquisition,” and the bottom line. Done right, as many experts do it, they said, enrollment management is about ensuring that a college or university is identifying the right students to fulfill its distinctive institutional mission, and that those students not only enroll but thrive and eventually succeed.

“One of great misperceptions is that it’s all about numbers, in the most grossly misconceived way, that it’s just about increasing enrollment” at the “front end of the student success continuum,” said Bob Bontrager, who heads the registrars’ group’s consulting arm after more than 20 years on several campuses. “I am a realist – that was in fact part of my task, but I think a very small part. A lot more had to do with institutional mission, and a real strategic enrollment management approach looks at the entire student cycle,” from entry through graduation.

Yet even as Bontrager and others argued that many or most enrollment managers take a broad and ethical view of their goals, he and other speakers also acknowledged that the popular perception of how their institutions recruit and enroll students isn’t far off from reality.

"We are asked to weigh huge numbers of competing priorities," Bontrager said, with efforts to increase access and diversity and need-based financial aid and educational attainment for academically underprepared students clashing with pressures to boost the academic profile of incoming students and merit-based financial aid and "net revenue," by targeting students who can pay full tuition. "In a classic case of talking out of both sides of our mouth," he said, "we decry" the U.S. News & World Report rankings while "at the same time convening committees to decide how to increase our standing."

Too many colleges, added Stanley Henderson, vice chancellor for enrollment management and student life at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, fall in line with the “college arms’ race,” “choosing to use their resources to boost their selectivity ratings” in U.S. News, “emphasizing exclusivity rather than access.” Given the existing realities of college-going, in which high-achieving, low-income young people are less likely to enroll and succeed in college than are their low-achieving, wealthy peers -- and the fact that the college-age population over the next 15 years will increasingly be from the groups that struggle most -- Henderson said he feared the day "when the '60 Minutes' expose compare[s] the American higher education system to the Los Angeles hospitals that dump the indigent on the street rather than giving them the care they need."

If many enrollment management professionals have the right values and goals, as Bontrager and Henderson assert, yet their institutions still focus on the wrong things, what explains the disconnect?

Much of it results because enrollment management officials are too far down the ladder on many campuses to propel decision making. Bontrager's presentation included a graphic that listed the various parties "who actually set" institutional priorities on admissions, financial aid and other enrollment matters, which started with the federal and state governments (who hold the purse strings for public institutions and dictate policies on such things as in-state and out-of-state tuition), followed by governing boards, presidents, other senior administrators, and finally enrollment managers. (The fact that Bontrager illustrated his chart with a shark at the top and food fish at the bottom, he said, was "purely coincidental.")

In the wake of a similar panel on ethics in enrollment management at the 2007 AACRAO meeting, Suzanne Espinoza, associate vice president for enrollment and student services at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, had surveyed professional in the field about how they viewed their work. Espinoza reported Wednesday that she heard many "voices of frustration" from officials who felt they were "being pressured to focus their institutional resources and human resources on going after studs who were not needy and who did not represent the biggest proportion of students in their markets."

Presidents and trustees were in many cases seen as the primary drivers of the institutional push for status and selectivity, but they weren't the only culprits. "Having passed many years ago in old fart stage, so I can say these things," Henderson said, "our faculties contribute greatly to" that pressure, "by demanding the ever increasing profile of the freshman class."

Are admissions officials and enrollment managers really in such a position of weakness on their campuses that they cannot fight for what they believe to be right? a reporter asked Bontrager. "In many cases, yes," he said with apparent regret.

Toya Barnes-Teamer, vice president for student services at Dillard University, who was in the audience, said she hoped many presidents and board members could be made to understand how dangerous it will be for society if colleges do not refocus their efforts on preparing the traditionally underrepresented (and often academically underprepared) students who will increasingly pour into higher education in the coming years. And it may fall to enrollment managers to "have enough courage" to tell them the current approach is flawed, she said.


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