Saviors or Sellouts?

At national gathering of admissions leaders, enrollment managers try to redefine the way they are viewed, stressing their role in retention as much as recruitment.
October 1, 2010

ST. LOUIS -- The idea of "enrollment management" was once derided by many in college admissions, who viewed it as representing what they feared was the growing dominance of business-style thinking in their world. Today, of course, many deans of admissions report to vice presidents for enrollment management, so at gatherings like the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the phrase has lost much of its controversial nature.

When three leaders of enrollment management spoke here Thursday as the meeting opened, they both acknowledged the lingering suspicions many in academe have about their field, and suggested that much of the concern is unfair. Historically, much of the discussion about enrollment management has concerned some controversial admissions and financial aid practices widely associated with the field -- practices that are quite common, such as "leveraging" financial aid dollars based on factors other than need or favoring in admissions decisions students who show they are likely to enroll.

The speakers here didn't focus on those practices at all -- and in fact suggested that enrollment management is much more about retention, graduation and (eventually) alumni connections than, as in the more cynical view of many, about luring unsuspecting rich kids to enroll. But the speakers acknowledged that plenty of people don't like their vision.

William T. Conley, dean of enrollment and academic services at Johns Hopkins University, kicked things off by reading some of the critical quotes about the field -- from such respected thinkers about higher education as the economist Gordon Winston, who commented about enrollment management "screwing the poor kids", and Tom Mortenson, an aid analyst who has written about the "short-sighted, self-interest focus on revenues and prestige reflected in the enrollment management decisions of many selective admissions four-year colleges and universities."

After outlining those quotes, Conley quipped that "we really feel good about being enrollment managers." So how does he define the role? Citing a series of articles, he said that the common parts of a definition involve "enrollment, persistence and outcomes," and that while the first part of enrollment is obviously about a decision to come to a given college, that needs to be seen as enrollment throughout a college career.

“We recruit graduates, not freshmen," he said, stressing that the field should be seen chiefly as helping students earn a college degree, not just select a college. Traditional admissions, he said, has viewed itself as “the gatekeeper. They live in the gatehouse." And that means not focusing on what happens when students enroll. He also said that good admissions practices and good enrollment management are related -- and must be based much more on data and research than some traditional admissions officers have encouraged.

As an example, he cited work at Hopkins to beautify the campus. After a major investment, the university did some survey research that yielded a "startling and scary" finding: "prospective students who visited were less likely to apply than prospective students who didn’t." Drilling into the findings further, Conley said, it turned out that it wasn't that Hopkins had done a poor job on facilities. Rather, students who visited described the campus as "uppity and unfriendly -- it wasn't bricks and mortar, but that people weren't saying 'hi,' " he said.

So the university started giving a bag to all prospective students who visited the campus, and launched a new campaign -- "spot a bag, make a friend." Not only are people being nicer to prospective students, but Conley suggested that people might be nicer generally -- and that's a good thing, he said. "We've changed the culture."

Pamela T. Horne, associate vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admissions at Purdue University, described a series of retention-oriented efforts that she viewed as part of enrollment management and consistent with the missions of public universities. She spends a lot of time, she said, analyzing data on such things as which introductory courses result in many students dropping out or receiving Ds or Fs. "We're working very hard not to change the content," but to ask questions about how more students can learn more effectively.

On another front, she said that she is less worried about the "helicopter parents" that everyone loves to bash than about "parents who are not engaged at all.” As an official of a public university serving many first-generation students, she finds too many parents who tell their children that “it’s OK if the big bad university doesn’t work out, you can come on home” instead of telling their children how important it is to succeed.

She said her enrollment management team spends time talking to parents whose homes aren't that far from the university "about why it's important for a student not to go home every weekend."

And she said she views enrollment managers at public universities as playing a key role in public policy debates -- explaining to politicians why out-of-state students matter to a public university (and documenting their impact and recruiting them), or coming up with ways to reach out to minority populations and to diversify the student body, a particularly challenging task in states that have banned affirmative action.

Robert J. Massa, vice president for communications at Lafayette College (who had a long career in enrollment management at Hopkins and at Dickinson College before moving to Lafayette), said that many critics of enrollment management don't seem to accept the extent to which their institutions depend on it. While small, elite private colleges that "don't admit anybody" may not feel pressure, he said, for everyone else there is huge pressure, only increasing in an era of heightened scrutiny over tuition rates, debate over the value of a college education, and demographic shifts that don't favor many institutions.

Enrollment management is about getting "the right students in the right place at the right mix and bring[ing] them on to get a great experience and graduat[ing] them to be loyal alums," he said. Admissions and financial aid are only part, but it's all essential -- and colleges can't afford to ignore it. "We've got to have a plan. It doesn't just happen," he said. And to those who suggest that enrollment management strategies somehow hurt low-income students, he noted that outside the wealthiest private institutions, almost two-thirds of financial aid for low-income students comes from tuition paid by wealthier students.

"You need that revenue in order to have the scholarships to promote access," he said.

So did the three speakers sway the large audience? There was no poll, and most of the questions were practical, not philosophical. But in a sign that at least some here are not yet convinced that enrollment management is a good thing, one admissions officer asked whether the trends the panel discussed had "depersonalized" the admissions process by relying on data, rather than an individual examination of each candidate. If it's all about a data-driven match, this attendee asked, "why not just hire eHarmony" to handle admissions?

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