The Strategic Enrollment Management Spectrum

September 22, 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 we set out to answer when we created and then further developed the Strategic Enrollment Management Spectrum. Together with industry thought leaders, enrollment professionals, EMA volunteer faculty, and many others, we have articulated the eight levers that contribute to independent school enrollment success.

graphic of the eight levers in the strategic enrollment management spectrum

The Strategic Enrollment Spectrum is a simple graphic, but the concepts nested within it are anything but. Let’s explore these eight levers and consider how they work together to contribute to enrollment success.

There are two parts of the new spectrum.

The new Spectrum captures an important concept in its two layers. The inner three levers make up the most immediate work of the enrollment leader and their most direct partners. These levers are in the most direct control of the enrollment leader and often make up key elements of what is considered the work of "admissions." The outer five levers are critical to the enrollment health of the school yet lie almost entirely outside the direct control of the enrollment leader. 

The Spectrum is a framework.

A small day school in an urban context is different from a large rural boarding school. Yet we wrote the Spectrum for a diversity of schools. Each school should be able to see itself in the spectrum and use it as a tool to inform its work. 

You (probably) can’t do it all.

After a school understands the key ideas above they may begin to ask, "where should we start?" There are eight levers in the Spectrum yet it's unlikely a school can simultaneously work across all eight levers during one school year. Future content and tools will allow a school to identify its areas of strength and areas in most need of improvement. Focusing on a few key levers is a great way to start.

Diversity is central but without the buzzwords.

One of the things Derrick Gay has taught us is that the word "diversity" is a double-edged sword. For many, the word is well understood and integrated into their enrollment practice. For others, it may be a source of confusion or even conflict. It is not EMA’s place to tell a school what its specific stance on particular diversity topics should be. It is, however, appropriate for EMA to assert that a thoughtful, articulate, and authentic position is central to enrollment health. Where does DEI work live within the Spectrum? It is most clearly expressed in Culture & Belonging but also has threads across many of the other levers. While it may be easy to argue about "diversity," it’s hard to argue with the idea that the school should live out its values through its daily practices.

The work of developing the Spectrum isn’t done.

The revised Spectrum is the result of many thoughtful enrollment leaders contributing to the conversation. As we continue to develop content around the Spectrum, we look forward to continued and ongoing contributions from our community.

For many school leaders unfamiliar with enrollment management, the concept of the Spectrum can at first seem confusing. 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 eight 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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