Trusteeship Podcast Episode 46: Strategic Enrollment Planning


Aired: June 6, 2024

Strategic enrollment planning goes beyond attracting new students. It involves supporting current students, evaluating program offerings, and understanding the broader environment. In this podcast, Stuart Jones of Southern Utah University and Lew Sanborne of RNL speak with AGB’s Cristin Toutsi Grigos about the importance of board and campus-wide engagement in strategic enrollment planning, regular assessment of the impact of those strategies, and how thinking small can lead to big changes over time.


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Strategic enrollment planning goes beyond attracting new students. It involves supporting current students, evaluating program offerings, and understanding the broader environment. In this podcast, Stuart Jones, who serves as the Vice President for Advancement in Enrollment Management at Southern Utah University, and RNL Senior Vice President Lew Sanborne speak with AGB Senior Vice President and Chief Content and Programs Officer, Cristin Toutsi Grigos, about the importance of board and campus-wide engagement in strategic enrollment planning, regular assessment, and how thinking small can lead to big changes over time.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
Thank you for joining us today. I’m looking forward to our conversation about strategic enrollment planning with Lew Sanborne from RNL and Stu Jones from Southern Utah University. Lew, I’d like to start with a question for you. Is strategic enrollment planning only about enrollment?

Lew Sanborne:
That’s a great opening, broad question, Cristin, thanks. First, we have to expand our definition of enrollment. So enrollment is not just about attracting new students, it’s also about supporting the students we already have and helping them to be successful. But strategic enrollment planning to really be strategic needs to look at our program mix as much as it looks at our student mix. It needs to look at the environment around us.

But one of the things I really like hearing from my campus partners after we’ve done the project, when I ask them what’s been some of the best outcomes from doing strategic enrollment planning, is they talk about a cultural transformation. They talk about a process that brings people together, helps them understand the need to do the work that you decide to do as you develop a strategic enrollment plan. I think it was Peter Drucker who said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. If we’re not working through a strategic enrollment planning process both within the culture and to shape and frame the culture, we’re probably going to miss the boat. So I like to think of strategic enrollment planning significantly as an organizational development initiative as much as it is an enrollment planning initiative.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
Stu, in the last decade, Southern Utah has been on an amazing growth path at a time when enrollment overall in the United States has been in decline. To what do you attribute that ability to grow counter to trends?

Stuart Jones:
Thanks, Cristin. I think one of the reasons that Southern Utah has been able to… We’ll have essentially doubled our enrollments this fall from 8,200 to over 16,000. And I think the two biggest reasons we’ve been able to do that that boards ought to consider is one is a commitment to strategic enrollment planning. And what I’ve realized in talking to a lot of colleagues is that there are a lot of universities that are interested in strategic enrollment planning, but they may not be committed. Commitment means like, we’re all in. That this is what we’re going to do no matter what. And I think institutions have a hard time, but it is the most important thing, in my opinion, to say we’re committed. We’re going to pursue this with everything we’ve got.

The second thing I would say that institutions need to do, and I think it’s been helpful on our end, is to say this is going to be our focus. If it’s not an institution’s, one of their top three focuses in this day and age with the existential threat to enrollments on the livelihood of many campuses, then they’re focusing on too many things. And I think higher ed, we’re amazing at having strategic plans with dozens and dozens of goals and objectives, but I would say focus in saying is this among our top three?

I heard recently, Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, longtime CEO, he said, “I can teach anybody to run our company in 30 seconds or less.” He said, “Southwest Airlines isn’t a low-cost leader, it’s the low-cost leader. So any issue that comes up has to be run through that filter.” He said, “If someone from marketing says, ‘Hey, our customers flying from Vegas to Houston would sure like a chicken Caesar salad rather than peanuts.'” He said, “Ask yourself this question. Does serving a chicken Caesar salad make Southwest Airlines the low-cost leader?” And he said, “If it’s not, if it doesn’t, then we’re certainly not serving chicken Caesar salad.”

Is strategic enrollment planning a major focus of the university and are resources going to those people? Those would be, I’d say, the two most important, followed closely by a third, and that is getting great people engaged in the process.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
Thank you both for those great opening comments and insights. This is the top issue that we continue to hear about from our members in terms of business model innovation and strategic enrollment planning. And I have to ask, were there champions on your board who really helped to prioritize this work so that it could become a reality?

Stuart Jones:
Yes, absolutely. Our board is a 10-member board appointed by the governor, but the vast majority of them are highly successful business leaders and so they understand what we’re facing as a state and as a region and as a country when it comes to revenues and enrollments. They also really resonate with return on investment and net revenues. And while a university is many things beyond a business, the fact of the matter is, it needs to generate revenue to cover expenses. So our board understands that and they have been advocates in my 10 years here at Southern Utah University, they have been strong advocates for us having robust growth. They also understand it’s one of our missions to be accessible and affordable.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
Thank you, Stu. And Lew, you mentioned goals earlier when establishing strategic planning as a priority. Tell us a bit about how goals get built into enrollment planning processes.

Lew Sanborne:
The way RNL approaches strategic enrollment planning is through a four-phase process. Phase one is preparation and data analysis. We need to know what’s happening around us, we need to know what our metrics are, we need to have good five years of history and comparative numbers. If we do that preparation phase well, then we identify, as Stu said, a focused set of strategies. So based on what we’ve learned about us, what we’ve learned about the environment, how are we going to respond with strategies. We’re going to talk about return on investment, so which strategies are going to be quick hitters, which are going to take more time to mature, what’s it going to cost to pull those strategies off, and how many students is it going to influence, and it’s through that student revenue piece that becomes really important.

My recommendation is we don’t build goals, and most of our institutions don’t, until we know what we’re going to do and what we’re going to invest in. So we build our baseline scenarios about what’s likely to happen if we do nothing and then we layer on the impact of our focused, finite number of strategies. So the goals then become recasting of those projections. If we do these things well and the market behaves in this way, then we anticipate this kind of change in enrollment behaviors and therefore these results. So we like to do goal-setting in phase three. Phase four is implementation and assessment. Stu’s situation at Southern Utah was a little bit different where they started with some goals.

Stuart Jones:
I think the technical term, Lew, would be we did it bass-ackwards, I believe is the technical term. I think it’s the instinct of a lot of great leaders to say, “Hey, I read JFK’s Moonshot Speech and dang it, we’re going to put a man on the moon and set out some lofty goal.” But what often happens is that maybe the institution once they do their due diligence can realize that those goals may not be rational or reasonable or the institution may not have the resources to invest to achieve those goals.

But yes, we’ve been through several phases where a president has said we’re going to get to X by a certain day and then we hit that goal and no sooner did he come out and declare another goal. And while at times that can be very motivating for some people, it can also be exasperating for others, especially if that goal doesn’t really reflect reality.

So in this next phase when we did our strategic enrollment planning over the last year and a half, we let the facts and the SWOT analysis and the KPIs and the investments we decided to make in certain strategies dictate what that goal would be. And then we build out that goal in very nuanced detail,. How much we’re going to grow in-state, out-of-state, transfer, online, international, retention, and every conceivable type of student and then we have that build out for seven years.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
Stu, is what you just described what you mean when you say there’s no one magic strategy that will solve all challenges? Tell us more about what you mean when you recommend that institutions think small.

Stuart Jones:
When I got into the business of enrollment planning I had a genuine hope, and that is that maybe me and my people were just a little bit smarter than the last people and we would find out that they had just missed this glaring opportunity and we would just seize the moment and turn things around rather quickly. And what I realized is that the people we followed were actually really smart and capable people. In fact, maybe in some ways smarter than we were.

And about that time, I was reading a book by James Clear called Atomic Habits and he introduced a concept from the British cycling team called the aggregation of marginal gains, which is a fancy way of saying the accumulation of just tiny improvements. That was just like a really aha moment for me because I realized that is how much of life works. We want a big, simple, silver bullet, but it rarely is there.

So what we tried to do is implement what the British cycling team did, and that is break down everything we do in minute detail and try to improve it 1%. And the simple math is if you improve 1% a day over the course of one year, you’ve improved almost 38%. It’s like a snowball rolling down a mountain and it just gets bigger and better in time. And the British cycling team said, “We won’t see results for five years,” but in their fourth year, they started winning world championships and Tours de France and Olympic medals.

We’ve decided to implement that strategy, and I’ll tell you one example of how we did it just this past year. One of our committees in our SEP process started opening up focus groups with all areas of campus to talk about retention. How can we do better at helping students have a great experience and want to stay here? That one committee probably ended up meeting with 250 individual employees and they had 32 pages of single-space ideas of what we could do to just incrementally improve the student experience in this campus. It is not hard to figure out how to improve by 1%. I was in front of a student panel of international students yesterday. I asked them the question, “If you were the president, what changes would you make to benefit your life?” And there I got 20 new ideas. Everybody has a great idea about how to make an incremental change, and then you accumulate those changes and massive results, I think, can be obtained.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
Well, speaking of the accumulation of changes, Lew, this question is for you. How long does it typically take an institution to build a strategic enrollment plan?

Lew Sanborne:
That’s a great question, Cristin. Longer than lots of senior leaders want. It’s not uncommon on the 1st of March for a president to ask a chief enrollment officer if they can have a strategic enrollment plan written by commencement. And if we’re going to build an inclusive participative process, the kind of fact-finding that Stu was just describing and doing a series of focus groups, putting working groups together and asking them to review the data, asking them to look honestly and critically internally and externally to identify which of your peer institutions are outperforming you in which areas, and then developing the kind of detailed business plans that Stu was talking about, we’re going to break down those big strategies into the small action steps, it’s going to take a while.

So we often think in terms of the academic calendar, since we’re talking about colleges and universities. Generally if you’re going to start around the beginning of an academic year in the fall, I’d suggest it’s going to take you nine months through commencement the following spring to get it done. If you’re going to start the beginning of a calendar year because you want to engage the faculty and you’re going to lose some time over the summer if they’re gone, it’s probably going to take you a year. So our estimate is generally nine to 15 months.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
Lew, how can a campus keep the momentum going over that period of time?

Lew Sanborne:
It’s regular meetings, it’s building an inclusive participative structure, it’s regular report-outs, it’s honoring all input. That what Stu was just talking about collecting ideas, with the campuses that I work with we create what’s called a strategy big board and at any point when we have a meeting, someone mentions an idea, we capture that idea. We can’t necessarily do everything. Not every idea is going to make it to the six to 12 strategies we’re going to include in our strategic enrollment plan, but we’re going to honor that input.

And then one of the things that’s really important for the momentum, not just during the project but after, there has to be a real commitment to investment. And I think that was one of the hallmarks of the process at Southern Utah is they created an investment fund and then they evaluated and assessed the impact of each of those strategies. They determined what they were going to keep doing, they determined what they were going to stop doing. Heaven forbid we do that in higher ed. They stopped doing some things because they weren’t working. The investment, the assessment, and then the feedback about what’s working will get members of your campus community excited about what’s happening because they see that leadership made an investment, they followed through, they’re acting, and you’re seeing results. And nothing breeds the desire for additional success like seeing results from your prior efforts.

Stuart Jones:
Yep. Something, Cristin, your board members can really get excited about. Because so many of them are business leaders, the idea that an institution would do as Lew suggested and create an investment fund and let entities on campus compete for that. We have typically used $1 million, and we would invest those funds. Not give it away, but invest it and expect results and hold them accountable for a positive ROI, I think is something that most board members can really resonate with.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
And Stu, would you say that board members can also be part of the inspiration to rally around and support strategic enrollment planning efforts across the university? You mentioned earlier inspiring rank-and-file members of the campus community to engage to feel some investment in these priorities and in the outcomes. Tell us how you would continue to inspire leaders across the campus and within the community and what advice do you have for other institutional leaders?

Stuart Jones:
Well, I think strategic enrollment planning starts at the board level. We were fortunate a decade ago to have a very strong board chair and a president that was interested in enrollment and retention. We started off without pushback. In fact, we had great advocacy from the board. I think what boards probably insist on and what benefits them in understanding the importance of strategic enrollment planning is education. If they know that X% of the revenue of that university comes through tuition and fees, in our case, it’s 50%, but some institutions it’s 95%. The rest of ours comes from the state, from gifts and from grants. But when they know that it plays a critical role in the health and operation and vitality of the university. If they’re educated upon about the demographics of the state, of their region, of the country where they try to attract students and they understand the growing pressures in the demographic cliff that is soon upon us. If they know that their role and mission is to educate students and it’s going to take having students come there and stay there for them to be viable in the future, I think that level of education really helps inspire leadership to stay focused and committed, as we’ve talked about, to strategic enrollment planning.

When it comes to the rank and file of the university, I had the opportunity in an open forum with all of our employees to talk about what we were doing, and I invited them to participate with us. And fortunately from that, we received dozens of interested people. When we’re selecting board or committee chairs for our work, we are looking for superstars. We know who they are. Their reputations precede them. And one of the things that I think I learned the hard way, I think originally, I was willing to go get that 10% that oppose everything all the time and see if I could convert them to loving enrollment management. I just thought we could pull that off with some good education and maybe a little salesmanship, and I’m out of that business. What I’m looking for is some people that are already inspired. I don’t want to have to motivate them. I go find motivated people and then my job is to give them the tools and the resources to be successful so they’re not demotivated.

I’m a little finicky about who we involve, and I know there are people that when we start talking about strategic enrollment planning, their eyes light up, and those are the people I want to get involved. We have food, we have parties, but we’re also talking about really serious things, and that’s the health and vitality of the university, which then impacts our community. There’s broad ripple effect to the success of our university. So it’s serious business, but we try to do it in a fun and engaging way.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
That’s very inspiring. Thank you, Stu. Lew, earlier you mentioned there’s been many leadership transitions and we know that July 1, there will be many new presidents, new chancellors, new board chairs, new board leaders. July 1 is a big start date for many new leaders and they’re all going to be talking about strategic enrollment planning in different ways. How should they do that? Why is it so important for them to talk about this sooner rather than later?

Lew Sanborne:
As Stu mentioned there, I have colleagues who don’t like us talking about the demographic cliff, because the demographic transitions are, we really have to localize them. Major metropolitan areas that are having lots of in-migration aren’t worried about a demographic cliff. More rural institutions that, between decreased birth rates and decreased birth rates and lower high school graduation rates and the competition from employers and the workforce, the gig economy, there are a lot of reasons students are choosing not to go to college. So if we’re not intentional thinking about who we can recruit and attract and expanding our profile of students…

Most of the institutions we’re working with now are talking seriously about how we bring back students with some college and no degree. How do we build relationships with organizations and recruit organizations to send their employees to us for professional development. It’s essential to be doing this work because we can’t just count on the traditional 18 and 19-year-olds right from high school population anymore, so we have to think more broadly. We have to think inclusively. We have to engage our broader community.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
And Stu, for our listeners today, what would you share with them in terms of a final takeaway about why undertaking this work is so important, especially at this moment in time?

Stuart Jones:
Well, I think they, like us, your board members are probably reading almost every day, if not every week, about institutions that are closing or merging or circling the drain and just slowly, slowly dying. I would have them pull out a map of Utah and find Cedar City and I mean, we are in the middle of nowhere between Salt Lake and Las Vegas. If we can have some success here, I can just guarantee your board members that if they will bring a commitment to it, and again, it’s an existential threat to, I have a feeling, some of the colleges whose board members might be listening to this podcast. If they will be committed and focused and rally the right people, I know they can have some success, because they’re probably in a better, more competitive environment for attracting and retaining students than we are. So I would just say have hope that you can turn things around if it’s a challenge, or you can strengthen what you’re doing by just doing a little bit better.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
And Lew, would you like to have the final word?

Lew Sanborne:
So I really wanted to interrupt Stu at the very beginning when he talked about commitment. So if I could end with one of my favorite Yoda-isms: Do or do not, there is no try. You have to commit, and then you have to follow through and make it happen.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos:
It’s a perfect way to end this. Thank you all for your time today.

Lew Sanborne:
Thanks, Cristin.

Stuart Jones:
Thank you.

Lew Sanborne:
Thanks, Stu.

Stu, Cristin, and Lew. Thank you so much for your insights today about strategic enrollment planning. AGB thanks RNL for its support. For more information, visit


Cristin Toutsi Grigos

Cristin Toutsi Grigos is senior vice president and chief content and programs officer at AGB. She is responsible for identifying and optimizing the content and program needs of AGB members, from enduring to cutting-edge issues, as well as for supervising the creation of new content and the development of programs. She also oversees AGB’s public policy and advocacy initiatives, collaborating with external partners to ensure that AGB is positioned as a vital resource on higher education governance.

Stuart Jones, Southern Utah University

Stuart Jones serves as vice president for advancement and enrollment management at Southern Utah University and manages its development and alumni relations efforts. Jones currently directs the campus’s most ambitious fundraising effort to date: “The Future is Rising” campaign, a $100-million initiative seeking to increase funding for scholarships and endowments, enrich the student experience at the university, and enhance campus facilities and amenities.

Lew Sanborne, RNL

Lewis Sanborne, Ph.D., is RNL’s leader in strategic enrollment planning. Sanborne offers three decades of experience in higher education and enrollment management, and he has a wide range of expertise that includes annual and strategic enrollment planning, student success and retention, quality service, and leadership and organizational development.

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