The Rules of Attraction

Enrolling Students in (and for) the 21st Century

By Julie Bourbon    //    Volume 21,  Number 5   //    September/October 2013
AGB Trusteeship Magazine:The Rules of Attraction: Enrolling Students in (and for) the 21st Century - September/October 2013

Enrollment management is front-page news, and with good reason. Recruiting—and retaining—the right student body can make or break an institution. One professional, writing about a potentially devastating situation that hit his college, defined the field thusly: “A process that brings together often disparate functions having to do with recruiting, funding, tracking, retaining, and replacing students as they move toward, within, and away from the university.” Most of his peers would agree with his characterization of enrollment management, a term John “Jack” Maguire coined four decades ago and that remains highly relevant—in fact, increasingly so—in today’s environment.

In 1970, Boston College faced a crisis of mismanagement at the top of the enrollment funnel. Significant tuition increases led to deficits and a student revolt that jeopardized the future of the Jesuit institution. “It almost put us out of business,” said Maguire, who became dean of admissions, records, and freshman financial aid not long after the incident. “We were almost crashing and burning.”

Maguire, now the chairman emeritus of Maguire Associates, a market research and educational consulting firm in Concord, Mass., and a member of the boards of trustees of New England College and Lasell College, wrote about the experience five years later in BC’s magazine. In that piece, the former astrophysicist articulated five principles of what he called “enrollment management,” in which he brought the scientific method to bear upon the emerging field of admissions marketing.

Boston College soon recovered and has become one of the nation’s preeminent institutions of higher education. And enrollment management today? It’s hotter than ever. Here’s what boards need to know about it.

Reading the Marketplace

Summer 2013 brought news-media reports of enrollment crises at several private institutions, which saw fall freshman acceptance rates one-quarter to one-third lower than expected, leading to budget cuts and last-minute appeals to students who had never responded to their offers of acceptance. While their situations may differ in the particulars from that of BC in 1970, the larger issues for boards remain: how to ensure that your institution attracts the right number of students, of the quality desired, paying enough to support the university, while fulfilling its mission and attracting sufficient philanthropic support to carry on that mission so as to attract future students, and so on? A KPMG LLP report released in early September found that 37 percent of 103 higher education leaders surveyed, from both public and private institutions, are “very concerned” about maintaining current enrollment levels, up from 23 percent in 2012.

“The trend is that things are tough and will get tougher,” said David W. Strauss, a principal with the Art & Science Group, which specializes in higher education marketing consulting. “Institutions must make themselves places that students will choose over the competition.”

Strauss and his colleague, Richard A. Hesel, agreed that the pressures on enrollment offices are growing, with more competition for fewer students, demographic shifts that are changing the makeup of the available student body and its ability (and willingness) to pay, and the ever-escalating demand for financial aid. “Too often,” said Hesel, “enrollment management is left to the enrollment manager.”

Hesel wasn’t being glib but rather was building up to a larger point: Enrollment management should be part of a broader strategy, one that the administration, faculty, and board must all be in agreement on if they want to achieve their institutional goals. And those goals, Strauss and Hesel said, are pretty much the same, whether yours is an elite private or a sprawling state system: attract students, bring in net revenue, grow philanthropic support.

“It’s easier to create something lofty, an uplifting articulation of high principles and objectives. It’s much harder to rally the community around strategy,” said Hesel, who noted that simply talking about pedagogy and mission won’t get you to where you want to be. “You have to bring market measures into the equation.”

That makes Maguire’s 1976 article both surprisingly prescient and still very much relevant. To his five principles—develop an admissions marketing program to attract students, improve coordination of institutional research and information flow, anticipate student interests and improve the ability to respond to them, implement financial-aid strategies to attract and retain a mix of students, and identify and address reasons for attrition—he recently added a sixth: thoughtfully organize registration/retention, market research, admissions, and financial aid within a working structure.

“A systems approach links these variables together,” said Maguire of his recently added last point. Done correctly, “the whole becomes greater than the parts.”

More institutions than ever are calling in specialists like Maguire—consultants with both very broad and very specific skills in reading the marketplace and assessing trends—to help them set enrollment goals and strategies. Kevin Crockett, president/CEO and principal of Noel-Levitz, does just that. He recently cited five broad trends that have impacted and will continue to influence institutions and their enrollment programs.

Slow Growth

This is an industry that has always grown,” said Crockett—except for now, he noted, when it’s in an historic period of contraction. From a robust compounded annual growth rate of 5.6 percent from 1963 to 1980, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), to a projected sluggish 1.25 percent for 2010 to 2021, higher education is not expanding as it once was and isn’t expected to at least into the next decade. The National Student Clearinghouse has reported a 2.3 percent drop in enrollments for spring 2013, the third consecutive such drop. And the NCES shows that while the number of high-school graduates increased 28 percent between 1996–97 and 2008–09, it will be only 2 percent higher in 2021.

“Boards need to be more realistic and sophisticated” about their enrollment expectations and plans, Crockett said. In particular, institutions that have counted on enrollment growth to support and bolster expansion must now regroup and reconsider their enrollment strategies. And they must pay attention to the numbers and all of their implications. “In a growing market, you can lose a little share and still grow. This isn’t a growing market.”

The Northeast and Midwest are expected to be particularly hard hit by declining high-school numbers, while the South and West are expected to fare pretty well and even grow. “This creates greater inter-regional competition,” said Richard Whiteside, dean of strategic enrollment management at Royall & Company, a Richmond-based firm that specializes in marketing recruitment for higher education. While students have historically stayed closer to home for college, that may not be the case anymore. Institutions will have to be “more persuasive and more compelling to get students to go farther,” Whiteside said. “They will need a new approach to message dissemination that is proactive.” In other words, the days of recruiters just visiting high schools within driving range are over.

With change comes opportunity, say the experts, if institutions know where to look for it. They will have to cut costs as they seek students in new markets and promote new programs to them. Some of those markets may include veterans, transfer students, and returning adults with no degree. That last market alone is potentially huge, considering that some 30 percent of American high-school graduates do not matriculate to college immediately after completing high school, and only about 32 percent of the population aged 25 to 29 have completed a bachelor’s degree, according to 2010 NCES data.

“Institutions can’t just sit back and wait for the students to come to them,” said Michael V. Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). “There’s a lot of work to be done. It needs to be part of a long-term strategy.”

Two longtime board members discuss the challenges of enrollment management today.

Yvonne Jackson served on the board of Spelman College, an historically black women’s college in Atlanta, for 15 years, including seven years as chair. She currently serves on the board of Simmons College, a small women’s college in Boston. For such institutions in the present day, attracting a student body can be particularly challenging. Spelman, Jackson noted, has the advantage of being located “right across the street” from Morehouse College, an historically black men’s institution.

“That’s part of a broader discussion,” said Jackson, who is the president of Beecher/Jackson Inc., a management and human resources consultancy company in Coral Gables, Florida. “How are you going to go after your student population?”

During her years at Spelman, one of the primary enrollment issues that institution faced was the shrinking black middle class, along with the growing number of Pell-eligible students and the ability (or inability) of parents to secure loans to help pay for their children’s education.

For Simmons, where Jackson just finished her first year of board service and which offers co-ed graduate programs, the draw is partly about its location in Boston. That institution has been creative in approaching its enrollment issues, which is an ongoing discussion, said Jackson. The board recently approved a substantial capital investment of technology for an online nursing program.

“I just applaud the effort of looking at alternatives to attract a very different kind of student,” she said of the nursing-program expansion. Other innovations are in the works but have not been made public yet. When making any decision, such as funding a new online program, Jackson said, the board wrestles with those decisions, asking themselves, “Can we afford it? Is it in keeping with our mission?”

Jill Derby is the former chair of the Nevada System of Higher Education, where she served for 18 years. She currently serves on the board of the American University of Iraq, a newly formed private institution in that country. She is also an AGB consultant on governance issues. Her experience working with public boards is that they don’t necessarily have enough information about enrollment management issues to ask the right questions about it.

“We tend to know the retention rates, graduation rates, growth in enrollment, how we’re doing vis-a-vis peer groups—kind of broad measures of institutional and student success, and trustees are becoming more and more aware of those things, so they’re asking better and harder questions,” she said, suggesting that discussion of enrollment management should be included in board orientation for new members. “But I don’t think anybody who hasn’t been involved in higher education would know what it is or why it’s so important. Number one is that question of: does our institution have a program of enrollment management in place and how does it work? What are its components? How are we valuing its success? How is it aligned with the goals in our strategic plan?”

—Julie Bourbon

Shifting Demographics

A second and related trend is the demographic shift that is accompanying this period of contraction—and which is expected to continue even if/when the contraction ends. Again, according to NCES projections up to the 2021 academic year, big changes are afoot: The number of white public high-school graduates will decrease by 9 percent, and African Americans will decrease by 6 percent. The figures for Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders are quite different: an increase of 27 percent and 45 percent, respectively.

With these changing populations will come changing academic realities. In many cases, their SAT and ACT scores will be lower and they will score lower on college readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science. The implications for higher education are fairly clear. “Students will come with more deficiencies and need more remediation. They will be less well-prepared,” said Crockett.

In the midst of these demographic changes comes a July report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that documents a growing racial gap between selective colleges and universities and open-access two- and four-year institutions. The report finds that white students are significantly more likely to cluster around the nation’s most elite colleges and universities, where they benefit from two to five times as much spending on instruction, than are their peers of color, at a rate of 75 percent to 15 percent. The long-term disparities—from lifetime earnings to the likelihood of attending graduate school to the odds of even completing a bachelor’s degree—are significant.

For institutions that are committed to attracting a diverse student population, or that find themselves increasingly the only feasible choice for that population, does this mean lowering the academic bar? Or perhaps partnering with their local K–12 system to cultivate a college-ready pipeline where one might not presently exist?

“Boards must be aware of the changing population and how realistic it is to maintain the character of their institution going forward,” said Joyce Smith, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). That may mean providing students more support—academic, social, financial—as they arrive on campus and following them more closely until graduation to ensure that they do, in fact, graduate.

With this population shift, Smith noted that every institution wants “the best and the brightest.” And, increasingly, those with the ability to pay.

Changing Economic Model

The fact is, not only will students be less-well prepared, but they will also be less able to afford college, with Hispanic and African-American family median incomes 58 percent lower than those of white families, according to The College Board. The KPMG report found that, for 58 percent of surveyed higher education leaders, family finances are the primary challenge in maintaining enrollments, up from 49 percent last year. And many students—both those with the ability to pay and those without—are questioning whether college is worth the money.

Meanwhile, public institutions have seen a drop in state support per full-time enrollment of 23 percent since 2007, while net tuition as a percentage of revenue has risen from 23.3 percent in 1987 to 47 percent in 2012, according to a recent report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO). This is driving many publics, according to Royall & Company’s Whiteside, “to behave like privates,” turning increasingly to out-of-state or international students so as to generate full revenue, and subsequently becoming less accessible to their own in-state populations.

Whiteside lamented the growing disparity between the cost of college and families’ ability to pay for it. “We appear to be losing the accessibility that was so hard won in the 1980s and ’90s,” he said. “The concept of access and choice is in reverse. I think we’re losing ground on both.”

Strauss and Hesel look at the numbers and see three outcomes. Elite private institutions, they anticipate, will be fine no matter what happens, as there will always be a demand and a portion of the market willing to pay. Those at the bottom of the continuum “will be forced to become what the market wants,” they said, which may include merging with other institutions or closing up shop altogether.

That leaves the vast “middle of the heap,” whose boards and senior leadership have some choices to make. To survive, they must “do what will create strong demand and [control their] own destiny,” they said. The options are grim, but not stark, Strauss said. “Institutions must decide which fork they want to take.”

For many, that means discounting tuition; Noel-Levitz reports private sector discount rates of 38.1 percent in 2011, an increase of five percentage points in four years. As part of a larger strategy, this can make the institution affordable for needier students while also attracting high-performing students who probably could pay full price, anyway. Where the trouble starts is when institutions rely too heavily on tuition discounting to recruit a class and drive net revenue rather than differentiating themselves from the competition—which is probably also discounting—and making students want to come to them.

“You try to attract using merit-aid dollars the students you cannot attract on the merits of your institution,” said Strauss. And that is a slippery slope.

“When boards focus on the discount rate, it’s entirely the wrong question,” said Hesel. “‘What net revenue will we derive?’ is the right question. Net revenue may be greater at a higher discount rate, by aiding more, or by raising the price and discounting more deeply. It’s not necessarily the case that advancing the discount rate will advance net revenue or diversity or academic quality. That is a simplification that is counterproductive.”

Overreliance on tuition discounting is as potentially dangerous as overreliance on international students or out-of-state students to pay full freight and prop up the institution’s finances, said Douglas Christiansen, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University. “If you have reliance on a sector, and that sector changes,” he said, you could be in a world of trouble. “You have to look at every tactic. What are the ramifications, short- and long-term? Enrollment doesn’t turn on a dime.”

An Enrollment Management Dashboard

There are a number of key performance indicators (KPIs) for a strategic enrollment planning program. Fundamentally, they should be institution-specific, data-derived measurements. KPIs should provide points of differentiation when compared to KPIs of similar, competing, and/or aspirant institutions. Given their complexity, they may take several years to deliver a return on investment.

1. Enrollment

  • Headcount
  • Full-time equivalent (FET)
  • Off-site enrollment
  • Online enrollment
  • Transfer students
  • Undergraduate and graduate enrollments separated by full-time and part-time status at census date
  • Number of in-state students
  • Number of out-of-state or international students

2. Student Quality

  • Average ACT score
  • 25th and 75th percentile SAT/ACT scores
  • Average high school GPA

3. Student Progress

  • Cohort first- to second-year retention rates by subpopulation
  • Cohort progression and persistence rates
  • Two-, three-, four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates

4. Program Quality

  • Student-faculty engagement results
  • Student outcomes
  • Capstone course results
  • Placement or licensure exams
  • Student-to-faculty ratio
  • Class size profile
  • Undergraduate research
  • Graduate research

5. Market Position

  • Program awareness
  • Academic demand research
  • Web site hits
  • Microsite metrics
  • Institutional brand/image studies
  • Alumni survey data
  • Employer survey data

6. Diversity or Subpopulation Enrollments and Successes

  • Enrollment numbers by academic year
  • Percentage of students from diverse backgrounds compared to the majority population
  • Underrepresented groups demonstrating success

7. Fiscal Health

  • Net and gross tuitions
  • Revenues earned from auxiliary sources (housing, dining, and bookstore)
  • Education and general costs
  • Education and general costs by student subgroups where specialized programs are provided to populations such as undecided or at-risk students with funding provided by the institution
  • Net tuition revenue and scholarship costs by student subgroups (ability level and resident/nonresident)
  • Net tuition revenue and financial aid cost by needy student subgroup

Source: Strategic Enrollment Planning: A Dynamic Collaboration (Noel-Levitz, Inc., 2012). Author: Joyce Kinkead.

Reprinted with permission.

Retention and Completion Rates

It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is less expensive to keep the students you have than to go looking for new ones. And yet many institutions do the latter, anyway. “Retention is probably the linchpin of enrollment management, but often it’s put aside because it’s too expensive and politically difficult,” said Maguire. “The easier apparent fix is going after new students.”

For starters, looking at the reasons students transfer or don’t complete their degree requires examining all aspects of college life, including the quality of the academic program. “If retention is low, you’re not pricing or marketing correctly, or you’re not using financial aid correctly,” or there’s a problem with the aforementioned academics, said Maguire. “Everything else is whistling past the graveyard.”

ACT’s 2013 data indicate that the nation’s overall first- to second-year retention rate stands at 66.8 percent, while the national persistence-to-degree rate (three years for an associate’s degree and five years for a bachelor’s) comes in at a fairly dismal 45 percent. “It’s not like the ’60s and ’70s,” said Brian Ralph, vice president for enrollment management at Queens University of Charlotte. “Then, you went where you went and you finished where you started.”

Today’s students, Ralph said, are more “commodity oriented” and inclined to transfer if they’re not satisfied with the experience at their chosen institution. But that doesn’t mean the goal is just to hang on to students, but rather to meet them where they are and push them to greater heights. “The onus is on us to help that student be as successful as possible, not just to walk across that stage but to walk across that stage a different person.”

Joyce Kinkead is associate vice president for research and a professor of English at Utah State University, where she served previously as vice provost for undergraduate studies and research. Kinkead, who is also an associate consultant for Noel-Levitz, has been at Utah State for over 30 years and remembers a time when students were awarded the institution’s most prestigious scholarship and then … nothing. Their graduation rates weren’t tracked and they weren’t followed to see how and whether they were adjusting to college life.

With her input, the scholarship was turned into a research fellowship in which students engaged one-on-one with faculty from the get-go. Citing the National Survey of Student Engagement, she noted the six “high-impact practices” that have a positive effect on student learning and retention: learning communities, service-learning, research with a faculty member, study abroad, internships, and culminating senior experiences. “Participation in these activities can be life-changing,” says the survey.

“We’ve not only educated students, but we’ve given them the cultural, political, and social capital they need to be successful, and we’ve done that at a public, land-grant institution,” said Kinkead, noting that, as a first-generation college student herself, “I didn’t have that kind of support.”

Public pressure and economic imperatives, plus the reality of a flat market, make retention and completion ever more important, said Crockett, and boards must understand that. “Boards need to focus on the agenda and understand their performance against other like institutions,” he said. Judging success on course and degree completion rather than enrollment figures is one obvious place to start.

Technology and New Modes of Learning

Online education may be the great unknown in this mix due to its constantly shifting nature and explosive growth. Crockett cites an increase in online enrollment as a portion of total enrollment from 10 percent in fall 2002 to 32 percent in fall 2011. And yet, for all the talk (and talk) of MOOCs, for instance, which seem to dominate most conversations of online education, is technology meeting the needs of students and not just the needs of the college or university to be doing something?

George Dehne, president of GDA Integrated Services, worries that higher education is so enamored of technology that it’s getting ahead of itself, starting with using technology as a recruiting tool. “There’s a lot of chatter about technology in admissions, and I just think we’ve got to be careful, because that audience isn’t as sophisticated as colleges think they are,” he said. “It’s laziness. With technology, it’s all done. They just click on something, you click on something back, and it often generates more inquiries and more applications. But sometimes you spend a lot of time and money chasing ghosts. That’s a big problem.”

His company, which provides marketing services for higher education, regularly surveys students. And the surveys say that students still like getting paper materials from institutions. And low-income students, especially, are likely to prefer old-school recruiting.

“Not having access [to technology] is a true problem. Most people have access at school, but many don’t have access at home,” said Dehne. “Students of color, primarily African Americans and Hispanics, are often the ones who really like high-school visits because they don’t get the information like kids at more affluent schools.”

Once they’ve been recruited and enrolled, students encounter a world of technology. Smart institutions are deploying it strategically to keep students engaged and on point toward graduation.

Plymouth State University, which is part of the University System of New Hampshire, has been experimenting, successfully, with incorporating online learning into its academic offerings in order to facilitate degree completion and help students manage their costs so they can stay in school. The institution offers 30 eight-week courses at the end of the semester, most of them online, with some hybrids, for students who may have had to drop classes during the regular term due to work or life conflicts—again, the goal is to keep students on-track—or for students who just want to squeeze in another course. They have also moved many of their summer offerings online, not just because it’s profitable for them to do so, but because it keeps students connected to the university while they are home for three months—time when they might otherwise be taking courses at their local community college (although Plymouth’s articulation agreements are very accommodating).

Jim Hundrieser, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, said the institution has seen improvements in its four-year graduation rate, which they attribute directly to the incorporation of online learning opportunities. They also credit a Web-based advising program they use that allows not only the student to see what courses he or she needs, but also administrators to see whether they are meeting student demand for courses and helping students through the pipeline.

“It streamlines the whole course-selection process significantly, allowing advisors to spend time talking with students and focusing on the things we want advisors to focus on,” like grad school plans, internship opportunities, etc., said Hundrieser. “MOOCs have been getting an awful lot of attention, but I think there are many more-subtle ways that technology will serve students in online learning and engagement levels.” Retention, he believes, is one of them.

Hundrieser reiterated Maguire’s “whistling past the graveyard” assessment that retention is key, and not just for first-year students. “That should be expanded to minimally looking at what are your first- and second-year traditional student retention rates, transfer-student retention rates, adult-program retention rates, graduate-school retention rates,” he said. “Some argue there are no national benchmarks, but if you’re losing 40 percent of your students, you might want to look at that. We don’t have to have national benchmarks for everything. You drill down and say, ‘Geez, we’re losing 40 percent of our transfers. Where are they going? What are they doing?’”

“Colleges have got to come up with new delivery methods,” said Whiteside. “They must use technology to broaden the distribution of content and learning and to bring down the cost of teaching and learning.” In other words, he said, online education can’t just be a “revenue goat.”

Putting It All Together

For boards, untangling the many strands of strategic enrollment planning can be a complicated task. Maguire’s five principles, from 1976, all hold up well now. The sixth principle that he articulates today—having a working structure of registration/retention, market research, admissions, and financial aid—should be of paramount concern to boards, which don’t always know the right questions to be asking about the institution’s enrollment management program or the right metrics by which to gauge it.

Christiansen of Vanderbilt suggested that broad, strategic thinking is best. “You don’t have an enrollment program if you’re only talking about admissions statistics,” he said, noting that there is no “silver bullet” for institutions or boards that are trying to fix enrollment issues. “Are we thinking long-term? What are we doing that could have implications 10 years from now? How do we recruit, select, aid, admit, finance, register, and orient students—and ultimately prepare them for graduation?”

Ralph of Queens University said that often boards don’t have a complete picture of what’s happening at their college or university and may be viewing the institution’s overall financial health through the lens of the freshman class size alone. “I think that trustees absolutely have to be working hand in glove with the president and administration to understand the complete financial picture—residency rates, return rates, all the metrics,” said Ralph. “It’s an academic enterprise at the end of the day, but trustees must have a holistic picture.”

To get to that holistic picture, boards must ask the right questions, said Robert A. Sevier, senior vice president for strategy at Stamats, Inc. “Boards can enlarge the conversation beyond recruiting, marketing, and financial aid. They can insist that leadership look at the four p’s: What is our product, is it in demand? What is our price, is it sustainable? What is our place, is it approachable? What is our promotion, how do we get the word out?” he said. “So many institutions are so politically reluctant to address the right questions that they’ve turned every problem into a marketing problem.”

In short, said Sevier, that means fixing the core enterprise—the academic product your institution is offering.

Sevier described higher education as being at a crossroads: on one side, wild success; on the other, failure; in the middle, marginalization. Too many institutions are taking that middle road, he said. And most institutions are already in the middle of the pack, neither flagship nor well-endowed private institution, and not a community college or compass college on one of the coasts.

“The colleges in the middle are most vulnerable. They tend to be private, smaller, heavily tuition-dependent, and focused on serving only one kind of student—traditionally full-time, residential students,” he said. “Where most of those institutions make a mistake when it comes to enrollment is they look at it as a marketing and recruiting problem, when it’s really a ‘what majors are we offering?’ problem? When a college feels it has to offer the same array of programs as its competitors, then students are going to differentiate on some other variable, like price or time to degree or something else.” He calls this “academic portfolio management” and said that not enough boards are addressing this issue.

“There aren’t enough resources in the marketplace for every college to be successful, but almost any college out there with the right leadership can be successful,” said Sevier. “This is an extraordinary time to be a well-led college.”

Additional Resources

“Projections of Education Statistics to 2021.” U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. January 2013.

“The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2012.” ACT.

“Trends in College Pricing, 2012.” The College Board.

“Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege.” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Georgetown Public Policy Institute. July 2013.

“State Higher Education Finance FY12.” State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), March 2013.

“National Survey of Student Engagement.”

“2012 Discounting Report.” Noel-Levitz, Inc. “National Collegiate Retention and Persistence to Degree Rates.” ACT, Inc.

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