Forum: The New “R” in Enrollment Management

By Robert A. Scott    //    Volume 30,  Number 2   //    March/April 2022

As widely reported, the number of high school graduates in the United States is projected to rise until 2025 and then decline for a decade. According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), the graduating class of 2037 is expected to be about the same size as the class that graduated in 2014.1 Between 2014 and 2020, however, the number of graduating students grew by almost 6 percent, resulting in strong admissions enrollment in many colleges and universities.

However, accompanying this decline in high school graduates is a change in college-going behavior, especially among young White males, and more vigorous competition for international students from both domestic institutions and those in other countries. As a consequence, enrollment management as currently conceived must change. And these changes have consequences for the Board of Trustees Enrollment Management Committee charged with oversight.

First, the two traditional “Rs” of recruitment and retention must be joined by a third “R,” reengagement. Nationally, there are 36 million people with some college credits but no degree.2 They represent a vast pool of prospective enrollees to make up for the high school deficit. Ironically, alumni and development offices try to track these former students and court them for fundraising, even while most admissions offices ignore them. These offices should be coordinating on an approach to former students just as the admissions office should seek to recruit those whose credits are from other institutions.

The institutions that pursue these students know that new policies and procedures are often needed. Transcript evaluations and credit for life experience need a new look. One innovation is to formulate a policy of academic credit bankruptcy so that those who reengage can move forward in their academic studies without spending time redoing past failures and incompletes. They are “new people” as well as renewed students.

Fortunately, there are consultants who specialize in analyzing National Student Clearinghouse data to develop contacts for these admissions prospects.

Second, retention must improve. These 36 million people represent a failure of retention. The four-year graduation rate for students attending public colleges and universities is 33.3 percent. The six-year rate is 57.6 percent. At private colleges and universities, the four-year graduation rate is 52.8 percent, and 65.4 percent earn a degree in six years. The rate for proprietary colleges is much lower.3

Colleges need to pay more attention to student success: parents and students need to have better information about the fit between the candidate and the campus, and we should have different educational pathways and forms of credentials for those not ready for college. The enrollment management committee should be reviewing the policies and protocols influencing degree completion, whether they are related to admissions, academic advising and student counseling, credit hours required for graduation, or others. Nationally, we need alternative pathways to credentials for those for whom college is not the best next step.

Third, the enrollment management committee and administrative leadership should give renewed attention to recruitment, including transfer students, by category, financial aid offerings, online offerings, and yield rates. An alert president will ask to see the admissions funnel and how the results for the current year compare to the past several years. An expanded admissions funnel can help even more.

The “funnel” is used as a tool by college admissions officers to present enrollment management data. The funnel is an apt metaphor because the larger pool of prospects who have inquired about the college is shown at the wide top of the funnel and the smaller number of students who enroll is shown at the narrow bottom. Most funnels are segmented to show inquiries, applications, admits, and enrolled. Funnels can be developed for new first-year students, transfer students, and those with college credits but no degree.

Useful funnel reports will include comparative data over time. However, a more useful funnel would show data for additional elements as shown below.4

Public colleges and smaller private colleges tend to recruit students in a defined region. Therefore, an even more useful funnel report would show data for the following elements over a five-year period, starting with the high school population:

  1. The number of high school graduates in the recruitment areas;
  2. The number of students who inquire and ask for information;
  3. The number of students who apply for admission;
  4. The number of applicants who are admitted;
  5. The financial aid awarded by applicant type, both need-based and merit-based;
  6. The number of matriculants, e., the number who register for classes;
  7. The tuition discount rate; and
  8. The net tuition revenue from the incoming class of students.

With these data elements in a matrix showing a five-year history, and updated regularly, a campus president and enrollment management committee can monitor the progress of the most important source of revenue, tuition, and one of the more significant areas of expenditure: tuition discounts. The data should be easily available by the admissions team and institutional research staff.

A similar funnel can be constructed using National Student Clearinghouse data to determine whether prospects exist in the database, whether the prospects have prior credit but no degree, whether the prospect earned a credential lower than a bachelor’s degree, and whether the prospect is enrolled in another institution. Then, an institution can overlay its data to determine whether a prospect may be disqualified from returning because, for example, the prospect owes a large balance or was academically dismissed.

The resulting charts become maps of the decision trees useful to admissions for first-year students, transfer students, online candidates, and those with former college credits. Each point in the decision tree— inquiry, application, offer, deposit, and matriculation—is a point of leverage for the college to engage in communications with prospective students to encourage their decision to join the campus. The funnel also can help monitor the success of efforts to limit the number of students who withdraw during the spring and summer (i.e., it can help “reduce the melt” of those who send a deposit).

The funnel provides the data necessary to calculate the “yield” on offers of admission, even by academic qualifications and by scholarship amount. The yield is the measure of success in offers and matriculants, with high yield the optimum goal.

Yield can be a surrogate for measuring the attractiveness and selectivity of the institution. The data also provide a means of measuring the percentage of applicants who are admitted. In most cases, it is more desirable to have a lower rather than a higher percentage of applicants admitted.

Another set of data useful for managing the admissions process is that concerned with student retention. These data can help the admissions staff analyze individual student prospects for success by comparing him or her to other students who have come from the same high school. Enrollment management is about retention as well as recruitment and reengagement and these data can be helpful in arriving at admissions decisions.

The new “R” of reengagement joins the traditional “Rs” to create a reinvigorated enrollment management function and path to enrollment success.

Robert A. Scott, PhD, is the only person to hold the top three posts in American higher education: president of a private university, Adelphi (2000– 2015); a public institution, Ramapo College of New Jersey (1985–2000); and a statewide higher education coordinating board, New Jersey (1994) and the Indiana Commission on Higher Education (Assistant Commissioner, 1979–1985). He is the author and editor of, or contributor to, 18 books and monographs, and author of hundreds of articles on higher education and social issues in professional and popular media. His latest book is How University Boards Work (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), which is an Eric Hoffer Prize Awardee, 2019.


  1. Bransberger, Peace and Colleen “Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates,” December 2020. WICHE (Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education).
  2. “Some College, No Degree: A 2019 Snapshot for the Nation and 50 States.” National Student Clearinghouse Research October 20, 2019.
  3. O’Shaughnesy, “Federal Government Publishes More Complete Graduation Rate Data.” Cappex. Available online at
  4. Scott, Robert A. “An Expanded Admissions ‘Funnel’ for Presidential Review.” HigherEdJobs, June 30, 2021
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