Head of School Podcast: The Enrollment Management Leader [S1.E6]

June 3, 2020 Hans Mundahl

When I was a junior administrator at an independent school my head ‘cordially required’ me and my peers to attend board meetings. At first I was a little annoyed. I felt my time spent in the back row of chairs observing (at times) arcane discussions? arguments? about fungibility and basis points could be spent more productively. Quickly I realized the incredible value of this professional development opportunity. Board meetings were where I observed senior administrators presenting, board members debating, and my head of school leading. Board meetings were where one place the future of our institution would be charted and I’m incredibly thankful to my head for including me.

Those long meetings during which I had to look up multiple vocabulary words just to keep up with the finance committee presentation would serve me well once I became a senior administrator and when I became a head of school.

It’s fair to say that admission leaders who regularly attend board meetings are likely to have greater influence on decision making. And while the head of school is certainly the chief enrollment evangelist, it falls to the enrollment leader to achieve the school’s long and short-term enrollment goals. 

That’s why it was particularly troubling when we completed our most recent State of the Industry Report and found that only 39% of enrollment leaders regularly attend board meetings. That number gets much worse when we break it apart by gender. Although women are enrollment leaders in 68% of schools with enrollment under 500 students only 36% regularly attend board meetings.

Simply attending board meetings won’t guarantee enrollment progress, but it’s a start. Another way to make progress is to better understand the knowledge and skills required in one of your key hires: The Director of Enrollment Management.

Welcome to EMA’s Head of School Podcast: where we cover the most important enrollment management topics tailored for heads of school. In every episode we’ll cover a couple of high level topics along with a question or reflection you can bring back to your team. I’m your host (and recovering head of school) Hans Mundahl. Let’s get started.

Whether they are the Director of Admission, The Director of Enrollment Management, The Assistant Head for Enrollment, or The Chief Enrollment Officer, the enrollment leader has a big job.

Of course she needs to replace graduates and account for attrition. But she probably also needs to expand classes in specific entry grade levels, deploy financial aid as a strategic marketing and retention tool, and meet targeted revenue numbers.

What kinds of characteristics, knowledge, and skills are required for this person to be successful?
The enrollment leader needs to be strategic: developing and implementing a comprehensive strategic enrollment management plan that differentiates the school’s unique brand while also addresses size and make up of the student body.

  • The enrollment leader also needs to be tactical: focused on enhancing recruitment, retention, alternate revenue streams, parent relations, community relations, and consultant relations.
  • Financial acumen is critical: the enrollment leader manages and oversees a financial aid budget, and must meet revenue goals and probably works closely with the business officer and finance committee
  • On top of that the enrollment leader needs to be a communicator: articulating the school’s mission to families, enrollment challenges and opportunities to faculty and trustees, and probably also appearing in a video or two.

As one small private college recently put it in a job posting, “The new vice president for enrollment will be asked to address the following critical leadership issues, among others: develop a competitive enrollment strategy within a culture of evidence, advance the school’s competitive position, and provide strategic and tactical leadership for admission and financial aid.”

So yeah, you basically need a unicorn. And while finding the best fit for your enrollment leader is critical, it won’t guarantee positive outcomes. A truly successful enrollment leader is supported by up / down / and sideways.

  • An enrollment leader is supported up by you, a head of school who sees herself as the chief enrollment evangelist who meets with every visiting family, takes a personal interest in retention, articulates a clear and compelling mission for the school, and provides the necessary resources to the enrollment leader at the board and financial level.
  • Sideways the enrollment leader is surrounded by peers on the leadership team who are developing best-in-class programs to support the mission of the school.
  • And an enrollment leader is supported by a highly competent team of direct reports OR in a smaller school with a one-person admission shop then by key volunteers or outside vendors.

In the higher ed space this might look like a vice president of enrollment management who has as direct reports:

  • An assistant or office manager
  • A marketing director
  • An admission director 
  • A financial aid director and maybe even
  • A database person or event planner

There are many models schools use to strategically manage their enrollment offices. Hiring an Assistant Head of School for Enrollment Management who oversees admission, marketing, research, financial aid, and retention may be possible. If not strategic enrollment management planning and execution must be shared across a number of divisions and individuals. How should you get started?

If your enrollment leader doesn’t attend every single board meeting and you are struggling to meet enrollment goals there’s an easy and important step you can take. And while you’re at it, make sure your junior administrators attend to. They might roll their eyes at first, but they’ll thank you for it down the line.

Admission directors are well positioned to see and affect every part of a school from the classroom to the board room. That’s probably one of the reasons more and more admission directors are going on to become heads of school. That’s the route Western Reserve Academy Suzane Buck took and she recently spoke about the importance of board engagement to school change at a live podcast we recorded at our annual conference.

For strategic enrollment to be successfully implemented and executed in independent schools it must touch all aspects of the student journey including market research and strategy, educational program and school brand, recruitment and selection of new students, tuition and financial aid strategy, school culture and community, retention of current students, and student educational outcomes.

Maybe you’ve recently started your school’s journey toward strategic enrollment practices, or maybe you’ve been on this trail for many years. Either way you’re probably experiencing external pressures building on the sustainability of your operating model. Admission and enrollment leaders must become expert trend watchers, data analysts, and strategic planners and understand their school’s unique enrollment drivers and pull the appropriate and necessary levers accordingly.

Thanks for listening to Season One of EMA’s Head of School Podcast. This series was a big leap for us and we’re really thankful you all came along with us on this journey. What topics do you think we should cover on Season Two of EMA’s Head of School Podcast? Data? Marketing? Partnerships? Let us know!

  • Today’s episode is based on EMA’s special report What Every Head Needs to Know About Enrollment Management. You can find the full report at www.enrollment.org. 
  • This episode was produced by me, Hans Mundahl, with help from Peter Baron.
  • Check out our other show The Enrollment Management Spectrum Podcast for long-form interviews with scholars, practitioners, and experts in the enrollment management industry. 

Before we close here is a question you can explore with your team:  Does your enrollment leader have a seat at the leadership table? How do you as a leadership team educate and empower faculty, staff, and administrators to develop?

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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What every head needs to know about enrollment management.