A Seat at the Table

A Seat at the Table

From Memeranda, Summer 2013

Why are Admission Directors Outside the Boardroom…and Not Trying to Get In?

Released in May 2013, SSATB’s State of the Independent School Admission Industry report has confirmed distressing trends which many in the independent school world acknowledged through anecdote or personal experience. Research conducted to better understand the wider enrollment management movements for our K-12 niche reveals that admission leaders, responsible for up to 90% of institutional operating revenue, have little impact on critical market-based leadership decisions. To wit, the survey uncovered that only 35% of responding admission directors regularly attend board meetings; just 16% play a key role in deciding their school’s financial aid budget; and a mere 13% are active in annual tuition setting. Additional discoveries suggest that some admission leaders are not well trained or well equipped to successfully meet the challenges facing independent schools today.

Compounding this disconnect, 44% of those admission officers surveyed plan to leave the profession in the next five years, even as some regions face significant demographic declines in student-aged populations.  In a recent article in the National Business Officers Association magazine Net Assets, Chad Tew, CFO and Treasurer at Viewpoint School (CA), tackles declining birth rates and competition with public, charter, and parochial schools and suggests: “Our schools must learn how to operate differently to survive and thrive…To attract a broader slice of the total student pie, most of us need to become more affordable. We also must become tighter on the expense side. More businesslike operations can support the same high level of programs.”

Tew has a point. If we must change the way our schools operate to stay alive, how can the industry allow such a large disconnect between its revenue-producing arm and leadership decisions that affect its institution’s marketability? Citing the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education’s Knocking at the College Door 2012, Tew writes that “the number of U.S. high school graduates is projected to decline by two percent between 2009 and 2020, and the news is worse for regions like the Midwest and Northeast.” If you “do the math,” says Tew, “the high school graduating class of 2025 entered kindergarten this past fall of 2012.”

What is needed in independent schools is a strategic view of enrollment management that “moves beyond marketing, recruitment, and financial aid to include sophisticated financial aid strategies, institutional research, and retention efforts.” Bob Bontrager, Assistant Provost for Enrollment Management at Oregon State University, describes this shift towards the concept of enrollment management in higher education, noting that it was not embraced by all institutions at once and that many schools corrected for the student decline in the 1980s by increasing the number of non-traditional students they enrolled. But, as Bontrager emphasizes, “By the early 1990s, however, the sheer weight of the demographic downturn caught up with virtually every segment of higher education.”

If admission directors need to be seen as their institution’s chief revenue/relationship officer going forward, then they should work to research/maximize all revenue channels in concert with their school’s chief finance officer (business director) and chief advancement officer (development director). At the same time, this institutional triad within each independent school should look carefully at expense controls and make recommendations to the head of school on financial sustainability—informed by careful market analysis, strength of brand/market position, and five-year trend lines for admitted and retained students.

As Bontrager describes, “strategic enrollment management is characterized at many [higher education] institutions as resource management.”Admission directors/chief revenue officers must be at the proverbial leadership table to help build sustainable strategies that will allow them to continue to bring in 80-90% of the school’s operating revenue. There must be a “new normal” for all schools when it comes to enrollment management, and even the most selective schools are feeling the present market uncertainty. 

“Andover’s tradition of excellence is founded on the principle that our plans need to evolve and to change,” says Jim Ventre, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Phillips Academy (MA). “Through analytical training and careful examination of admission predictors, it is even more compelling that admission directors lead their institutions through the changes and accelerate the transformations as key admission metrics recommend. As the unpredictability of our market evolves, successful admission directors will continue to enhance and develop a strong research framework which supports the institutional leadership’s operating and strategic planning. Learning how to gather, analyze, and present statistically relevant data for board and senior administrative decision making is an essential approach to research-based enrollment and financial aid management. The shifting landscape of enrollment and financial aid pressures afford admission directors a critical opportunity to advocate for needed changes in admission and financial aid programs through a unique lens which extends from the boardroom to the classroom.”

But how do admission directors who are data-driven still find themselves outside the boardroom? Some in the independent school admission community attest that board awareness is the issue. Northfield Mount Hermon’s (MA) Dean of Enrollment Claude Anderson says, “If you look at how admission departments are perceived, you will notice that our role is to generate income through the enrollment of students without excuses. Awareness of the market from which we must acquire this revenue is not relevant to most boards. They assume that their schools are great and the income can be generated, or it is the fault of the admission office. Therefore, no discussion [about admission and enrollment management] is really needed at the board level in their thinking.”

Despite major issues of affordability, Anderson’s experience indicates that it’s a simple recipe he’s seen over and over again at other schools to the detriment of admission officers and the school’s strategy. “How many schools use a different formula than the following: These are our expenses. This is our tuition amount to be charged this year,” he explains.  “The expenses are divided by the tuition amount and that determines the number of students needed. Sadly, using this formula, you don’t need the admission director’s help.”  

According to SSATB’s State of the Industry report, the experience and background of admission directors may also be a contributing factor. The report found that 60% of responding admission directors have an academic background. More than half (56%) come from other school administration positions—yet few possess the management training to understand market economics and metrics.  Similarly, the State of the Independent School Admission Industry survey found that those in admission have a wide range of responsibilities for which they are not trained. As an example, 71% of respondents have responsibilities in marketing, yet only 43% of respondents indicate prior marketing experience. Fifty-seven percent of respondents indicate that they hold financial administration responsibilities, while only 17% possess a finance background. While this does not mean that select admission leaders haven't developed the skill set needed to succeed, SSATB’s research indicates a lack of professional training in key areas of responsibility for admission leaders, such as finance, marketing, management, and leadership.

Further, these admission leaders are asked to perform many other school duties, diluting their ability to focus solely on strategies for optimizing enrollment. It’s safe to say that higher education admission leaders had the same struggles to reposition their roles over a decade ago, but they have persevered and assumed a place at the leadership tables of their colleges and universities. As a result, the college/university association for admission leaders (NACAC) has increased professional development offerings, and there are demands for advanced training and degrees in the enrollment management space at more competitive universities. As Jerry Lucido, Executive Director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, surmises, “[Independent] schools have not yet come to the realization that an integrated admission, marketing, student aid, and student retention strategy is imperative.”

While the independent school community has learned much from the higher education bellwether, school leadership’s thinking must embrace the role and the skill set of those responsible for institutional enrollment development; in 2014, most admission directors remain mid-level managers for their schools. “Why school leaders and trustees don’t get it is beyond me,” says Leo Marshall, Director of Admission at The Webb Schools (CA). “They only need to look at how colleges place their directors and value them to understand.”

The discussion gets even more complicated as revenue concerns battle financial aid demands. The National Business Officers Association’s 2012 Business Office Survey reports that 66.3% of schools responding indicated a financial aid budget increase for the 2011-2012 school year, coupled with 52% of respondents indicating that financial aid applications from current families, who never received financial aid in the past, have increased in the past year. Yet, according to SSATB’s survey responders, only 16% of the “chief revenue officers” play a key role in deciding the financial aid budget—despite the fact that financial aid is a critical enrollment tool. 

Booth Kyle, Assistant Head of School at Lakeside School (WA), suggests that merging the financial aid office with the admission office could solve some of the board’s perception issues and assist in revenue planning. “Honestly, I cannot imagine doing my job well without having oversight of financial aid,” cites Kyle. “It is such a significant enrollment strategy, and many directors of admission simply don’t have it as part of their strategic arsenal. This kind of subtle ’finance’ shift would go a long way towards getting directors of admission back on the map in the context of senior leadership roles at their schools.”

So, where does this leave the independent school admission professional? Skills are needed in the areas of marketing, finance, forecasting, data management and analysis, and strategic planning. Clearly, a new perception and reality of the vital role of the admission office must take hold sooner rather than later. Perhaps it time to start demanding accountability to the revenue and evolve the perception of the admission professional beyond tour guide and marketer to the title suggested earlier: chief revenue and relationship officer.

It seems clear that school heads and trustees would do well to heed the advice of Peter Upham, Executive Director of The Association of Boarding Schools.  Upham explains: “…Admission professionals must reimagine their work, and in many cases, retool both their skills and their teams to develop new capabilities—perhaps not traditional to the field but increasingly mandatory—in areas as wide-ranging as human resource management, market planning, sales training, and financial and quantitative analysis. Then, admission directors will be able to not only secure their rightful place at the senior management table, but once there, contribute powerfully to the quality of institutional decision-making around questions of strategy, tuition, aid, program, facilities, and all the rest. It’s time.”


Bontrager, Bob. Strategic Enrollment Management: An Introduction to Core Concepts and Strategies. (2002)

Tew, Chad. Reverse Musical Chairs. Net Assets. May/June 2013.

2013 SSATB State of the Independent School Admission Industry, Princeton, New Jersey, SSATB.

Earning Your Seat

We asked four industry leaders from outside the admission office for further insight.

Elizabeth Duffy, Headmaster, The Lawrenceville School

Admission directors play critical roles at independent schools, first and foremost because the students admitted to a school and their families help to shape the culture of a school. Admission is also central to the finances of a school, because both tuition and financial aid are key budget drivers. Finally, the interactions that admission directors have with prospective families provide critical feedback about the reputation of a school. Given these varied and important responsibilities, admission directors have much to contribute to board and senior management discussions about key strategic issues and thus, whenever possible, should be included in those discussions.

Jerry Lucido, Executive Director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice

One is tempted to say that admission professionals need a more influential position at the leadership table.  However true that may be, a position at the table is earned through skill, results, leadership ability, and a vision for how to navigate the conditions that independent schools confront. In other words, the most important lessons may be these: The market appears to be evolving faster than the independent school admission profession and admission professionals need a deeper and wider set of skills to lead their institutions through changing times.  Fortunately, professional education for enrollment leaders in higher education has been developed, and this can also be adapted for independent schools. Beginning with education and expertise may be a very good place to start.

Jeff Shields, President and CEO, National Business Officers Association

The data make a strong case for a partnership between the independent school admission professional and the business officer to help inform discussions with regard to financial aid budget allocation and distribution as well as tuition pricing. The report helps to illustrate the admission professional’s unique understanding of the school’s market by virtue of their face-to-face interaction with families that choose their school—and those that do not. The report underscores the importance of their perspective and the value it would bring to senior staff leadership and board of trustee discussions, particularly in today’s economic climate.

Pat Bassett, Former President, NAIS 

I couldn’t agree more that the admission leaders at schools should be on a key leadership team at the school and reporting regularly to the board. Since admission is the lifeblood of any independent school, decisions that impact admission and the quality of life at the school for students and families should be considered in the light of the opinion of the professional who has the most contact with those in the pool considering the school.


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