The Strategic Enrollment Management Spectrum

February 14, 2022 Hans Mundahl

photo of people standing in a line


Fall of 1976 arrived in Boston in classic New England fashion. The days were warm and the nights were cold, sending many Boston College freshmen searching for warm sweaters in the secondhand shops along Commonwealth Avenue. However, the perfect New England fall conditions didn’t match the mood on the Boston College Campus. That much we can learn from the fall issue of The Bridge, Boston College’s magazine:

“The next decade, most experts tell us, will be one of retrenchment for private higher education. Already there are application and enrollment drops that presage belt-tightening for the prestigious, and huge deficits, sagging faculty and student morale, and possible closings or mergers for many less fortunate colleges and universities.” 

So writes John Maguire, Ph.D., Dean of Admission at Boston College in his seminal essay To the Organized Go the Students. These words were written more than fifty years ago and yet his urgency rings as true today as it did then. Although Maguire was primarily writing about independent higher education, we can certainly draw a parallel from his essay to our work in independent secondary education.

What then did Maguire recommend private colleges and universities do about this upcoming retrenchment? The remainder of the essay sets out Boston College’s vision for how a well-organized effort can effectively reduce silos to more effectively attract, fund, and retain students over time. In doing so Maguire also coined a new term: Enrollment Management. What was included in this new term? “Simply stated,” Maguire writes, “Enrollment Management is 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.”

Any study of enrollment management must begin with Maguire but must also include the work of Chris Baker. Through her work at Milton Academy and later Babson College and Boston College, Baker translated the enrollment management model from higher education to K–12 independent schools culminating in her 2012 The Enrollment Management Handbook for the National Association of Independent Schools.

Whether you read Maguire or Baker, one thing stands out: admission is different from enrollment management. 

That’s the fundamental principle on which The Enrollment Management Association is founded. It’s right there in the name. We’re not The Admission Management Association after all. But what is the difference? How has the field grown and evolved since Maguire wrote about it in 1976?

These were the questions Heather Hoerle, Executive Director & CEO, and her team at The Enrollment Management Association set out to address when we created the Enrollment Spectrum. The spectrum is a simple graphic that describes the seven levers for enrollment success.

graphic of sections of the enrollment spectrum

But the concepts nested within this simple graphic are anything but simple. Let’s explore these seven levers and consider how they work together to contribute to enrollment success.

  • Recruitment & Selection of New Students: The school attracts families, stewards them through the application process, and has systems to determine mission appropriateness and fit.
  • Student Educational Outcomes: Graduates demonstrate the skills, values, and college or secondary school achievement promised by the school’s mission.
  • Tuition & Financial Strategy: The school manages tuition and financial aid with a long-term view toward balancing mission and fiscal sustainability.
  • Educational Program & School Brand: Academic and cocurricular programs deliver on the school’s mission promise and are well understood by the external community.
  • Retention of Current Students: Students who enroll at the school tend to stay at the school.
  • Market Research & Strategy: The school understands its current applicant pool, as well as national, regional, and generational trends and has effective tools for communicating and selling.
  • Composition of the School Community: The school lives out its values in real and tangible ways and all members of the community can be their authentic selves. Parents, alumni, and the community are actively and positively engaged.

For many school leaders unfamiliar with enrollment management, the concept of the seven levers can be confusing at first. Many of the levers fall into the job description of school leaders who have little or nothing to do with the Director of Enrollment. Does the Spectrum imply that the Academic Director whose program is captured first in “Educational Program & School Brand” and again in “Student Educational Outcomes,” should report up to the Director of Enrollment Management in some way?

Not quite.

Rather than think of the seven levers in terms of an organizational structure, think of them as a point of view that integrates the efforts of many parts of the school into a unified approach. The result of this unified approach is both a healthier enrollment picture for the school and a better experience for families. Or as Maguire put it: 

“The merging of such disparate disciplines into the hybrid called Enrollment Management is, more than anything else, an effort to confront private higher education's uncertain future synergistically, i.e., in a way that will allow our integrated efforts to be greater than the sum of their individual parts.”

Certainly, activities that fall into the first lever “Recruitment & Selection of New Students” make up many of the core tasks of an enrollment department. It’s also clear that “Retention of Current Students” has a direct connection to recruitment. When students stay at a school until graduation, the enrollment office needs to recruit fewer students to fill chairs that become empty due to attrition. But that’s not the only benefit of this unified approach. Consider two schools that both have full enrollment every year. At the first, school students tend to stay until graduation and new students join certain classes at strategic times. At the second school students tend to leave after one or two years and new students are constantly back-filled to meet enrollment goals. Which school would you rather teach at? Where would you rather send your child?

Once a school considers how these seemingly disparate parts fit together into a unified whole, opportunities begin to present themselves that can contribute significantly to a healthy enrollment and ultimately a successful school. Whether a school is facing persistent enrollment challenges or sees new opportunities, the pathway forward is clear. Long-term, systemic change in the enrollment position of the school and the health of the institution begins with a shift toward an enrollment management mindset. Although Maguire started his essay with a rather grim look at the enrollment landscape, he ended on a more positive note: “As was said at the outset, this has been done at Boston College with the firm belief that our future, though precarious, is ultimately controllable.”

The fall of 1976 in Boston brought clear days and crisp nights. That fall also brought concerns regarding the enrollment future of colleges and universities. Today, independent schools face similar challenges. One thing is as true today as it was then. Schools that adopt an enrollment management framework by embracing the seven strategic levers will be in a stronger position than those that don’t. But if improved enrollment and increased financial sustainability aren’t enough reasons to take this approach, consider this: School communities with a strong alignment of mission, program, and messaging, where the right kids are admitted and stay until they graduate with the skills, behaviors, and values promised by the mission, aren’t just schools with healthy enrollment. They are better schools.

About the Author

Hans Mundahl

Hans Mundahl is the Director of Professional Development at EMA. He has been an educator since 1995 when he first stepped into the classroom as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the former East Germany. Since then Hans has done just about every job possible at an independent school from teacher to administrator. Most recently Hans was the head of school at a K-8 day school in central New Hampshire. Hans’s spare time is usually spent with his family but he is also passionate about the outdoors and protecting the environment.

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