02/19/2024 by Chris Baker |

Strengthening the Practice of Enrollment Management: The Importance of Having the Director of Admission/Enrollment Be Part of the Big Table Discussions

Many independent school leaders are drowning under the weight of tactical demands and short-term operational expectations, and they’ve found they have little time to engage in strategic thinking and research. It is the exceptional administrator who can be effective at both strategy and execution.

In too many schools, though, Admission and Enrollment Management is not a part of the school’s executive core. In these environments, gaps can develop in the understanding of how pricing and not leveraging financial aid strategically can impact the quality of the student body, or how the lack of constituent buy-in can short-suit the school in the marketplace or how admission and enrollment efforts might affect retention and other school programs. The lack of representation from the Director of Admission/Enrollment Management can ultimately hinder the school’s ability to address issues that arise.

A strong Director of Admission/Enrollment Manager who is granted a seat at the proverbial table can effectively marry strategy and execution in a way that benefits the entire school community. This leader can serve as a single facilitator and coordinator for strategic considerations across departments.  Elevating the Chief Enrollment Officer to a new strategic role takes some foresight and advanced planning. Here are seven tips to smooth the transition.

1) Assess the strength of both the strategic and operational aspects of admission and enrollment at your institution (and include senior staff in the assessment and discussion)

Many independent schools are still unclear about what an effective enrollment management system looks like and what resources are required to sustain it. Schools, thus, have fragmented operations that are understaffed and under-budgeted in key areas: most notably admission, research, and marketing. A first step in identifying deficiencies is assessing the various aspects of the school’s enrollment effort. At The Baker Group, we engage with school leaders to issue Enrollment Management Report Cards, which grade institutions on the 10 categories that compose an effective enrollment management practice. This report card highlights each of the components of enrollment management and provides a framework to assess areas of strength and deficiency and the suggested responses for resource reallocation.

2) Track and collect the most relevant and up-to-date data and information

Be prepared to shift the admission department’s operational agenda to enrollment planning and hold school composition discussions around goals for the institution. A School Composition Planning Worksheet, which schools can use as a baseline document to track enrollment data over the years, can provide important data points that make up a school’s enrollment. The following is a sampling of some of the data points that, once measured, can inform big table discussions in dramatic ways:

  • Clarify school composite goals. How do the current school composite and population segments compare to the school’s composite of 10, 15, or 20 years ago? How can this comparison inform conversations about planning for the future school composite?   Given market and demographic shifts, what is the ideal school composite mix for lower-middle-upper school numbers, cultural and socioeconomic mix, day-boarding balance, gender, etc.?
  • Identify school and market trends.  If a trend is “a general direction in which something is developing or changing,” two years of data does not make a trend. The more years used in the analysis, the clearer the trend. Trends are important for admission departments to analyze because external challenges that evolve over time become important pieces to strategic conversations about threats and opportunities. For example, Covid created a new normal, as did the economic downturn in 2008-09. These were watershed moments for independent schools, and analyzing data around how each changed the course of a school’s admission and enrollment activity is critically important. All too often, though, schools are inconsistent when collecting admission and enrollment statistics, and thus they cannot analyze trends dependably. Schools that are serious about making admission and enrollment an integral part of their strategic planning must commit to data collection and reporting on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis. When a school can discuss accurate and relevant multiyear admission and enrollment data, it can in turn add critical information to strategic planning discussions and contribute to the development of a thoughtful and reliable enrollment plan.
  • Analyze the data and context around financial aid, full-pay families, and discounted tuition. Independent schools can no longer tout their accessibility and socioeconomic diversity in ways that were celebrated even a decade ago. For many years, tuition increases have dramatically outpaced inflation rates, because tuition income has provided the solution to increased budgetary needs. At many schools, the percentage of students who receive financial aid has remained the same or declined, while the number of families that need aid has steadily increased. In order to maximize revenue while continuing to champion accessibility, admission and enrollment departments need to understand both tuition discount percentages and net-tuition revenue figures. Research may reveal some surprising results, including that increasing the tuition discount may also increase net -tuition revenue (though this is not always the case.) The NAIS Enrollment Management Handbook, Chapter 2 provides a backdrop to key topics on access and affordability.
  • Conduct research to inform admission, marketing, and enrollment decision-making. While institutional research is rightly becoming a priority in some independent schools, decisions continue to weigh too heavily on anecdotes rather than data. Consequently, school leaders may find themselves making short-sighted, insular decisions and establishing institutional goals that are not linked to accountability, which results in wasted resources. Chief enrollment officers can lead the charge on establishing the necessary institutional research for goal setting and decision-making. The NAIS Enrollment Management Handbook, Chapter 3 outlines the ways in which research can guide strategic leadership with a range of research options to consider.

3) Strengthen the relationship between the Chief Enrollment Officer and the Head of School

The Director of Enrollment Management/Admission must be positioned to be both a scholar and a guide. S/he must be a strategic thinker, an analyst, and a tactician who can inform the Head and other senior administrators, faculty, and trustees on the internal and external trends impacting the school’s admission and enrollment. Earning the trust of the school’s senior leadership is critical in having a successful enrollment management practice. Providing important market information and admission and enrollment updates to the Head and senior staff will engage colleagues in enrollment-related conversations which will avoid being blindsided by admission activity or a noteworthy market shift. The Head and the Chief Enrollment Officer need to have a clear mode of regular communication. This formidable duo are the only two on campus whose roles require them to straddle the internal and external worlds equally. Thus, they need a shared vision, capacity for enrollment planning, and school composition goal setting, an understanding of the market and the school’s position in it and an appreciation for the resources needed to support this practice.

4) Forge a partnership between the Chief Enrollment Office and the Chief Financial Officer

The relationship between the Chief Enrollment Officer and the Chief Financial Officer is an important one, and both parties must be well-versed in the realities of strategic enrollment planning. The CFO should include the chief enrollment officer for their perspective on admission funnel activity and enrollment trends in budget meetings where tuition rates are set, cost cutting measures are discussed, and enrollment targets are determined and forecast-ed.  A well-informed Chief Enrollment Officer can impact conversations pertaining to enrollment, tuition setting strategy, and financial aid budget with data and trend analysis.

5) Position the Chief Enrollment Officer to participate actively in re-enrollment, retention, and orientation efforts

While we don’t recommend that Chief Enrollment Officers chair the school’s retention committee or take sole charge of directing the orientation and transition programs for new students, we do urge schools to include the admission perspective in both efforts. The Chief Enrollment Officer can bring important contextual wisdom to discussions about retaining current students, and s/he has a unique perspective that can help enhance the quality, diversity, and placement of new students, but it is the responsibility of the academic and student life leaders to lead conversations about attrition and retention.

6) Broaden your expertise and knowledge base about best practices in strategic enrollment planning

Senior administrators in independent school admission often find themselves drowning under the weight of operational activities and short-term demands. Yet, in order to meet the ever-changing needs of the marketplace, schools need to be strategic and proactive.  It’s important for admission offices to perpetually scan the environment for demographics, the educational landscape, and the innovation occurring in other educational settings.

Learning more about global, national, regional, and local opportunities and threats enables a chief enrollment officer to engage in discussions around curriculum, which can raise his or her stock dramatically within the school. To be an outstanding chief enrollment officer who has earned a seat at the “big table,” one needs to master straddling the internal and external worlds by incorporating data research, information and a collaborative mindset into their daily life.  Directors of Admission need to be constant learners, so they can position themselves to inform their colleagues of potential market obstacles, market conditions, and opportunities that align with the school’s mission.

7) Institute a shared Enrollment/Admission Office Action Plan

Creating an Enrollment/Admission Action Plan helps codify the school’s enrollment goals and delineates expectations for various constituencies within the school. Developing this document first requires reliable information to build upon and from which to set goals.

To create such a document, it’s important to first assess the accuracy and reliability of the school’s data collection—most notably, admission funnel and attrition data—as a means of informing decision-making. Second, it’s critical to assess the effectiveness of enrollment functions and activities within the school and within the admission office. Third, when developing goals and outcomes for the Action Plan, incorporate the desired system and structure for a streamlined and efficient admission and enrollment management operation. For example, some schools have created an Enrollment Management team that meets in addition to the senior leadership team. Fourth, be clear about the division of labor to manage current and additional initiatives. All aspects of the Action Plan (including desired outcomes and responsible parties) flow from the following key enrollment goal: To attract and enroll a highly talented diverse, inclusive, and mission-appropriate student body.

Final Thoughts – Empower your admission/enrollment office; empower your school.

If schools want to be entrepreneurial, and successful in competing in an ever-changing, uber-competitive marketplace, school leadership—from the Board of Trustees and the Head of School to Department Chairs and Division Heads—need to think about the school’s future in an integrated, strategic, and innovative way. One way to proactively position the school for research-backed, data-driven success is to empower the admission/enrollment office with greater visibility and inclusion in conversations with the Head, CFO, and Board of Trustees.

How can a school’s Head inspire the Division Directors, faculty, and others on campus to start to think strategically? How can schools develop employees to be more innovative, look around corners, plan ahead, and bravely take on the future?  Heads and schools need to look no further than a strong chief enrollment officer who should be actively involved in multiple conversations where s/he can provide insight. In this way, this role can help manage the challenges that confront the school’s future success and sustainability.

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