The 'evil ones' of higher ed say they're just misunderstood

'There's this idea that we don't care about education, that we would sell our soul to meet the institution's goals'

Enrollment managers have gotten a bad rap in higher education, but their negative image may be undeserved, Eric Hoover reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education

Enrollment management deals with various aspects that contribute to institutional goals, such as recruitment, marketing, admissions, financial aid, and student success. The role also has a big effect on the college's bottom line, a fact that has led many people to view enrollment managers as driven solely by dollar signs.

"We're the evil ones," says Michael Kabbaz, vice president for enrollment management and student success at Miami University (Miami) in Ohio. "There's this idea that we don't care about education, that we would sell our soul to meet the institution's goals."

But that's not what the field is all about, enrollment managers argue. Don Hossler, senior scholar at the University of Southern California's Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, explains that enrollment management involves the pursuit of scarce resources. Institutions must devise strategies to compete in an industry fraught with challenges. 

Why enrollment should be at the center of academic program review

That's not to say that the field is flawless, though. Some processes inadvertently create a system of winners and losers; certain analytical tools are used to intentionally attract different groups of students, potentially overlooking others.

"The tools themselves are not evil," Hossler says. "It's how they get used, and towards what purpose."

In a 2013 article, Hossler and David Kalsbeek, DePaul University's senior vice president for enrollment management and marketing, argued that enrollment goals are "almost always in conflict with one another… and are often mutually incompatible." When a college seeks to boost its graduation rate, for example, it can obscure efforts to enhance racial and socioeconomic diversity.

"The simultaneous pursuit of all these goals requires a difficult balancing act not only of resources but competing outcomes," Hossler and Kalsbeek wrote. "It requires the management of multiple trade-offs."

The tuition discount is a particularly contentious trade-off.  Many institutions use merit aid to recruit students who can afford to pay most or all of tuition, but the practice has been criticized as unsustainable and unfair to families with financial need. Schools such as Miami have had great success with tuition discounts, bringing in large shares of out-of-state students. Miami also invested $1.6 million in supporting students of the incoming fall class who have the most financial need. 

The student-centered enrollment management enterprise

It's not just enrollment managers who are making these kinds of decisions. They have to answer to university presidents, trustees, and even need to explain decisions to faculty. Enrollment managers often shoulder the blame for choices that other members of an institution make, Michael Bastedo, director of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor's Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, argued in a research paper.

"Enrollment managers become the faceless, pragmatic technocrats of the institution, while everyone else gets to pretend that all enrollment goals can be pursued simultaneously."

Enrollment managers need to reassess enrollment management strategies that put some students and their families at a distinct disadvantage, but it is important to keep in mind that enrollment managers may be restrained by their own institutions' goals (Hoover, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/28). 

The strategic enrollment management planning process

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