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Thursday, December, 04, 2008

New Directions: Strategic Enrollment Management

Note that this essay is one of twenty (20) New Directions in Planning essays, which are an online part of and a companion to the SCUP book, A Guide to Planning for Change (Norris and Poulton, 2008). The essays will eventually be available in their own Web home, but we are sharing them here, now, because we want you to have access to them sooner and because this blog environment will let you post comments, if you wish. Please do!

Strategic Management Enrollment is written by Jim Black of SEM WORKS, LLC.

A Guide to Planning for
Change can be ordered in SCUP's online bookstore or via the order form you can download here (PDF). Why don't you purchase a copy (for yourself or a colleague) and spend the down time over the holidays refreshing your perspective on higher education planning?

Copyright SCUP, 2008, all rights reserved.

Chapter 5: Strategic Management Enrollment

by Jim Black of SEM WORKS, LLC

Across higher education, leaders and policy makers are focusing on access, affordability, and student success. Strategic enrollment management (SEM) has emerged as a highly effective institutional strategy and toolkit for attracting and retaining students and improving an institution’s competitive advantage. SEM relies heavily on a well-established set of planning and analytical practices, the development of which has been accelerated by the emergence of action analytics. Aligning SEM with other processes of planning and continuous improvement is a challenge for campus planners.

The field of enrollment management has evolved over the last three decades to become more science than art and more strategic than tactical. College and university leaders have increasingly developed an appetite for integrating enrollment management into institutional strategic planning, analyzing enrollment data, and investing in a resource hungry enrollment enterprise. However, many still struggle with the quality of implementation, the conversion of raw data into actionable intelligence, and the creation and tracking of effectiveness measures designed to determine which strategies produce the highest return on investment (ROI). The reliance on enrollment revenue and in some cases, the accountability measures imposed by boards, higher education agencies, legislators, and other external constituents have compelled institutions to search for a business-oriented approach to managing enrollments. Enrollment management without sophisticated “action analytics” is a “hit or miss” proposition that few colleges and universities can afford.

I. What Forces Are Driving Strategic Enrollment Management?

The forces driving the use of analytics and performance measurement in strategic enrollment management include: (1) increased competition, (2) changing student expectations and enrollment behavior, (3) issues of access and affordability, (4) capacity management, and (5) the realization that enrollment success is highly dependent upon the academic enterprise.
In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (Giles, 1910), there are many parallels to the business of enrollment management. Perhaps most pertinent to enrollment managers is the essence of war described in four dimensions: (1) know yourself (your institution’s mission, vision, strategic directions, and clientele), (2) know your enemy (your top competitors and aspirants), (3) know the ground (your campus culture, limitations, barriers and opportunities for change, priorities, traditions, symbols and artifacts, structures, as well as politics), (4) know the weather (the external environmental factors that may impact your institution’s enrollment outcomes). By understanding these dimensions and acting upon related intelligence, colleges and universities can position themselves effectively among existing and emerging competitors.

With the proliferation of new technologies, real-time solutions and access to all human knowledge via the Internet and other electronic media have created a “culture of immediacy.” For your campuses, this revolution means student expectations of instantaneous communications, constant access to instructors and service providers, infinite access to information that must be evaluated for validity and synthesized, and a redefining of the meaning of “face time” have radically changed how we serve students (Windham, 2005). New technologies, the emergence of non-traditional educational providers, an increasingly diverse student population, and the competing life priorities of many students also have altered enrollment behaviors. The student who is continuously enrolled at a single institution to the completion of a degree in two or four years represents a small minority of today’s student population. The norm is students who enroll part-time, “stop out” at least once during their pursuit of a degree, possess credits from multiple institutions, and may be enrolled concurrently with more than one educational provider. Learning preferences of adults and to a much lesser degree, traditional-aged students, have shifted from classroom instruction to online or hybrid course delivery. Primarily driven by convenience, the desire for non-traditional modes of instructional delivery—including the demand for compressed or accelerated courses—has changed the higher education landscape that has existed for centuries.

While the United States’ egalitarian model of higher education is essential to the vitality of our economy and the general well-being of the country, it is not a perfect system. Too many individuals lack the financial means or academic preparation to pursue postsecondary education. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2007, March 20):

• The U.S. college attainment rate has fallen to 12th among major industrialized countries;

• Forty percent of college students have to take at least one remedial education course and most are unprepared for college level math and science;

• In the previous decade, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities rose 51 percent after adjusting for inflation; and

• While about 34 percent of white adults have obtained bachelor’s degrees by age 25-29, the same is true for just 18 percent of African American adults and only 10 percent of Hispanic adults in the same age bracket.

These painful truths present significant challenges to institutions and educators. Unless we improve performance related to access and affordability, the U.S. system of higher education—once the envy of the world—will continue to erode and fewer people will benefit from the college experience.

At a time when our nation desperately needs an educated workforce, many institutions are struggling with insufficient capacity to serve those seeking a better life through education. Though some capacity constraints are real (e.g., a limited number of clinicals for nursing students), most are artifacts of unsound practices such as course scheduling driven by faculty preferences rather than student demand or underutilization of space during non-traditional class times. Regardless of the practice, the common denominators are a lack of data for decision-making and the institutional will to act.

Managing capacity effectively requires a change in culture as well as the expertise and information enrollment managers can contribute to capacity decisions. This is just one example of the need for academic leaders and enrollment managers to collaborate in order to maximize enrollment opportunities. Too often, enrollment outcomes are believed to be the sole purview of enrollment personnel. The truth, however, is that no marketing effort will overcome a stale academic product or a program mix that fails to meet the needs of students, industry, and the community (Black, 2008). Likewise, students choose to enroll and persist at institutions primarily because of the quality of academic programs and interactions with faculty, not because of slick recruitment publications, a compelling Web site, or retention programs. An insular approach to enrollment management will yield minimal results. Substantive involvement of the academic enterprise and the strategic use of academic-related data are central to achieving desired enrollment objectives.

II. What Are the Emerging New Directions in Analytics and Performance Measurement?

For many in the academy, the only performance measure that matters is the aggregate enrollment numbers. This “bottom line” method of analyzing the effectiveness of strategic enrollment management is based on a faulty mental map—if enrollment targets are met, recruitment and retention efforts are working and conversely, if goals are not achieved, something must be broken. Obviously, this approach is far too limiting and may, in fact, yield false conclusions—unknowingly placing the institution on the brink of an enrollment crisis. A more prudent method of evaluating enrollment vitality is to regularly examine the current reality, environmental factors that may impact enrollment outcomes, strategic opportunities, key performance indicators, and effectiveness measures.

The current reality. A self-assessment or a review by an objective, external consultant of institutional strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats (SWOT analysis) combined with a review of enrollment practices will expose performance gaps. Fundamental to a review of the current reality is an analysis of existing marketing and communications, outreach strategies, recruitment events and activities, the campus visit experience, financial aid practices, retention strategies, student services, enrollment processes, workflow, response time, organizational structure, staffing levels and patterns, technology optimization, space utilization, capacity management, planning and evaluation practices, vision, goals, and the development of human capacity. When identified gaps are addressed systematically, the result is improved performance and optimal enrollment outcomes.

Environmental factors. Before the advent of the Internet and the Information Age, it was painstaking to find reliable intelligence regarding environmental factors. Today, however, the challenge is to sift through volumes of information to identify and extract nuggets of strategic insight into market conditions that may impact enrollment outcomes positively or negatively. Narrowing the scope of an environmental scan by determining the right research questions on the front end will make the process manageable. According to Kotler and Murphy (1981), there are three critical questions to explore:

• What are the major trends in the environment that may impact institutional enrollments?
• What are the implications of these trends for the institution?
• What are the most significant opportunities and threats?

Gathered information should include key findings and institutional implications related to demographic trends, labor market trends, economic trends, social and lifestyle trends, technology trends, education trends, and competition trends. Each of these trend categories should be arranged under subheadings such as global, national, regional, state, and local (Black, 2008).

Strategic opportunities. Environmental factors along with current reality findings and recommendations provide a framework and direction for enrollment planning as well as a foundation for identifying strategic opportunities. Strategic opportunities are not an exhaustive list of enrollment possibilities but rather five to ten opportunities that will move significant “institutional needles.” Identified strategic opportunities will drive strategy development, so the number of opportunities selected must be manageable.

Key performance indicators. Institutions typically have identified an aggregate enrollment goal (e.g., total student headcount, credit hours, or FTEs). Many have not defined KPIs such as student quality, student diversity, course completions, retention rates, graduation rates, and student satisfaction. A holistic perspective of the major enrollment indicators provides a more accurate gauge of institutional progress.

Effectiveness measures. Every enrollment strategy should have a corresponding objective and an effectiveness measure that assesses the degree to which the stated objective has been met. Without strategy-specific effectiveness measures, enrollment organizations are likely to expend scarce human and financial resources implementing anemic strategies. To be positioned for using actionable intelligence to continuously improve strategies, enrollment organizations must have the capacity to systematically collect, analyze, and use data. Optimizing data in student information systems along with other internal and external data repositories is the first step. The use of enterprise portals, dashboards, or balanced score cards is recommended over standard reports.

III. How Will These New Directions Affect Integrated, Strategic, Aligned Planning?

A holistic view of enrollment management analytics and performance measures yields (1) a focus on the objectives that matter most to the institution; (2) the capacity to seize emerging opportunities and mitigate potential threats; (3) a strategic approach to enrollment management; and (4) a high performing enrollment organization—continuously purging ineffective strategies, modifying less effective strategies, and reallocating resources to implement potentially more effective strategies. Enrollment management analytics and performance measures can easily be incorporated into strategic planning and enrollment planning and strategies for enrollment management. These strategies can be aligned horizontally and vertically across the institution.

A future view of the evolution of strategic enrollment management and its impact on integrated, strategic, aligned planning can be found in the white paper, “Metrics and Analytics in SEM” by Donald M. Norris (enter SEM WORKS url where this will be posted). This article highlights the following:

• SEM is based on analytics; for SEM to be successful, institutions must optimize their data, information, and analytics environments;

• This requires careful evaluation and enhancement of the current analytics environment and a migration path toward “action analytics” which will affect everyday decision making, alerts, and interventions to improve SEM;

• Institutions must create a “culture of performance,” that changes metrics-based decision behaviors, providing “analytics for the masses.”

SEM will be “ground zero” for the deployment and leveraging of these techniques in higher education.

IV. Resources

The following are resources highlighted in this article.

Black, J. (2008). Identifying market opportunities. Austin, TX: National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. Available electronically at

Black, J. (2008). The art and science of enrollment planning. Greensboro, NC: SEM WORKS. Available electronically at

Giles, L. (1910). The art of war. English translation published by the U.S. Military. Washington, DC: Gutenberg Project.

Kotler, P. & Murphy, P. E. (1981). Strategic planning for higher education. The Journal for Higher Education, 52 (5), 470–489.

U.S. Department of Education (2007, March 20). Transforming higher education: Access and affordability for all students .Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Available electronically at

Windham, C. (2005). The student’s perspective. In D. G. Oblinger and J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation. Washington, DC: EDUCAUSE. Available electronically at

The following resources are keys to analytics, performance measurement, and improvement in strategic enrollment management.

Aguilar, F. (1967). Scanning the business environment. New York: Macmillan.

Author Unknown, (2007, May 25). Gauging your institution’s enrollment management condition. Washington, DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Available electronically at

Cope, R. G. (1981). Environmental assessments for strategic planning. In N. L. Poulton (Ed.), Evaluation of management and planning systems. New Directions for Institutional Research, 31, 5–15. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hossler, D., Schmidt, J. & Vesper, N. (1998). Going to college: How social, economic, and educational factors influence the decisions students make. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kaplan, R. & Norton, D. (2005). The balanced score card. Northamptonshire, NN: Chartered Management Institute.

Massa, R. J. (2001). Developing a SEM plan. In J. Black (Ed.), The strategic enrollment management revolution. Washington, DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

McIntyre, C. (1997). Performance-based enrollment management. Orlando, FL: Paper presented at the Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research. Available electronically at

Morrison, J. L. (1992). Environmental scanning. In M. A. Whitely, J. D. Porter, and R. H. Fenske (Eds.), A primer for new institutional researchers. Tallahassee, FL: The Association of Institutional Research.

Norris, D.M. (2008) Metrics and Analytics in SEM. White paper, SEM WORKS Website.

Paulsen, M. B. (1990). College choice: Understanding student enrollment behavior. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education and George Washington University.

Sandmeyer, L. E., Dooris, M. J., & Barlock, R. W. (2004). Integrated planning for enrollment, facilities, budget, and staffing: Penn State University. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2004 (123), 89-96.

The following case studies represent best practices in strategic enrollment management application in higher education.


Jim Black, Ph.D.
President and CEO
(336) 324-8787


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