Enrollment Management

Merit aid and the impact on tuition price

Eric Hoover wrote an article on January 17th, “Want to Define Merit?  Good luck.”  He accounted for a discussion among higher education enrollment officials at a conference focused on merit aid, specifically how colleges assess and reward merit aid to shape the socioeconomic and racial diversity of students at selective colleges.  I enjoyed the article but it got me thinking.  Shape socioeconomic and racial diversity?  I wish!

The term “merit aid” has grown in relevance exponentially over the last ten years for private, independent colleges.  But, merit aid is an enrollment tool used for very different reasons depending on the college.   Hoover’s article is focused on the discussion of officials from more selective colleges.  He discussed need-blind admissions, the influence of social class on students’ test scores, and the important debate surrounding the way in which colleges leverage aid to solidify diversity in enrollment.

Now, allow me the opportunity to share the world that many enrollment managers and college administrators live in related to this merit aid.  Our institutions are not considered highly selective.  We would love to shape our classes with more diversity and better test scores which typically translate into higher retention rates and ultimately stronger ratings in US News & World Report.  We thoroughly enjoy those conversations and get excited whenever the opportunity arises to participate in that discussion.  Unfortunately, our real-world, day-to-day challenges often push the discussion of shaping a class to the periphery.  Focus on that and we don’t have the enrollment to shape!  Fair to say, our issues with merit aid are different.

When colleges began offering merit, they opened Pandora’s Box.  On one hand, it was genius because it made private college attractive to many students who may have seen it as out of reach due to cost; college only for the wealthy.  On the other hand, it started a financial war which continues today.  Schools are pitted against each other fighting for the same student often not based on value of the education, but instead based on the value of a scholarship.  And, make no mistake; as the pressure to offer more merit has increased, schools have had to recoup their financial investment (net tuition revenue) in the form of tuition increases.

Because colleges offer merit with slightly different criteria, comparisons can be challenging.  There are different qualifications for different scholarship amounts.  Some scholarships are competitive whereas others are given based solely on arbitrary criteria.  Moreover, the arbitrary criteria are different at each school as is the amount attributed to the criteria.  Easy example is Doane College and Hastings College.  Very similar schools but different academic qualifications for different scholarship amounts.

As tuition-driven colleges increase merit to attract more students, it puts other similar colleges in a position to increase merit as well to be competitive in very price/cost-sensitive markets.  One college can significantly increase merit aid forcing other similar schools to do the same to stay competitive or lose enrollment.  In the private college environment, I believe this tactic erodes the value of the product we sell.  And not only that, but as I mentioned before, tuition will increase in order to recoup some of the net revenue lost by increasing aid.  I don’t expect students/parents to appreciate this or feel any remorse for colleges.  Nevertheless, merit aid war games are significantly effecting decisions made with respect to tuition and other costs at colleges today.

I’m not suggesting that merit aid is bad.  I don’t think I can make that argument.  But, it complicates an already challenging college decision.  If instead of merit, a college chose to provide financial aid based solely on need, it’s not likely that the college would meet enrollment targets, nor would it likely meet net tuition revenue targets for operational budgets.  But, some would argue that’s the “right thing to do.”  I don’t see an easy answer here but I do anticipate a change coming in higher education.  The path of more aid and increased tuition is a very rocky road at best.

I’m not minimizing the importance of the merit conversation related to Mr. Hoover’s article.  However, I think it’s important to understand that there is another merit issue unrelated to and (to me) equally important for many colleges today.  We can’t begin to shape our enrollment if we don’t have enrollment to shape.

What do you believe the role of merit aid should be in college enrollment?   

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Middle Management

Effective Management in Enrollment – 9 Things I’ve Learned – Part 2

Why are these 9 things important?  Here are quick reasons why these lessons are important to me.

Why obey the Golden Rule?

First, because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s easy.  Our mom’s teach us at a very young age to treat others as you expect to be treated. The impact of this rule is incredible.  However, it seems easy to lose sight of this rule when we are in the minutia of our daily job. Fortunately, it is also an easy rule to follow.

Why build your team?

Success is predicated on your ability to influence people whether you work in higher education recruitment, enrollment management or admissions, college marketing, information services, social services etc…  People are either on your team, meaning they respect you and have confidence in you, or they are not on your team.  People will respond more positively when they are on your team.  It is your job – no one else’s – to get as many people as you can on your team.  Regardless of the role they serve in your organization, every person has the potential to positively or negatively influence your ability to get your job done.  Most people will agree that subordinates will do as you say because you have direct responsibility over them.  However, people who do not report to you still influence your job.  Know who they are and make sure they know you.

Why think institution first?

Have you ever seen the movie “For love or money”?  If not, rent it.  The acting and the plot didn’t win any awards, but I like one of the characters in the movie.  The concierge, played by actor Michael J. Fox, goes out of his way to take care of the customer (perceived to be a nobody who is actually a successful business man) which is a great reflection on the hotel at which he works.  The hotel is well-known, but he makes it that much better.  As a result, his career takes off.  Bottom line, take care of the institution and the right opportunities will come your way.

Why history is important?

I don’t condone doing it the same just because that is the way it was done in the past.  However, I also don’t believe in discounting the value of historical information when making strategic decisions.  History can provide valuable information so a person doesn’t make the same mistake twice.  Nevertheless, similar to my comments regarding numbers, it is important to look beyond the surface of the history to examine the influences on history.  Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is not a strategy.

Why define success?

Success means something different for everyone.  Success isn’t always synonymous with winning, nor is winning always a potential outcome.  However, everyone wants to feel successful.  Because different people have different roles within a team, their success may need to be defined for them.  Managers play a vital role in this activity.

Why value every job?

I’ve heard about CEO’s of companies who give credit to their executive assistants for all their successes.  They say, “I couldn’t have done it without them.”  It’s probably true.  Do we really respect what support staff positions bring to the table?  How about all positions within the company?  Think about the different positions in your organization and recognize the challenges that each person in your office deals with daily.  Sure, their challenges are different than yours, and they might not directly affect the bottom line.  I contend that I do my job better because I’ve done most of the jobs in my department.  I understand the pitfalls of their positions, and I can empathize with them when things aren’t going well.  We need to live in their world to understand what challenges they have.  We must respect their positions.  These positions greatly influence our ability to get the job done right.

Why beware of precedents

Be careful with the precedents that you set, they may come back to haunt you.  For example, you have a good year and choose to reward your staff with a party because you have some extra budget dollars.  The next year is also a good year, yet you don’t have the budget dollars to throw the party.  Some staffers will expect the party because that is what happened the first year.  You want to limit the idea of entitlement in your office.  Bottom line, you want to have the flexibility to make decisions that are not predicated solely on previous year activity.

Why write a note

Email is overtaking the snailmail world.  Contrary to the popular belief, this has actually positively affected snailmail, specifically the value of a personal note.  Email is easy and efficient whereas taking the time to hand-write a personal note takes valuable time.  A short, personal note of encouragement or thanks makes a lasting impression.  I began writing notes to my staff and others in the community about seven years ago.  I don’t completely know the impact it has had on my career, and yet I can’t imagine that it has hurt.  Similar to “please” and “thank you”, a personal note shows genuine sincerity.

Why measure twice and cut once

A craftsman lives by this rule.  It applies to our world as well, simply in a different context.  Just the other day, I wrote a letter for a church project and neglected to have it proofed.  I was under a time crunch and had to get it in the mail.  It was the first mass communication from me to the entire congregation in my church.  There was a spelling error.  It’s a little thing but you’ll find that there are many people that judge you based on those little things.  Right or wrong, it doesn’t matter.  I had time to get it proofed, but I was too impatient.

I’m sure readers in middle management have advice to share.  Take a moment and post a comment to this blog with a piece of advice you have learned through your experience.  Don’t be shy.  Let’s hear them.

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Yield better!

It’s 2014 and I’m all about resolutions for a new year.  This year, one of my professional resolutions will be to yield better.  It’s basketball season so if you don’t mind, I’ll use a basketball experience to make today’s point.

I was an average college basketball player who, like many, made too many mistakes and bad plays for my memory.  From a young age, I wanted to play college ball so I worked hard toward that goal trying to get better at every opportunity.  I had some talent and I was coachable!  I listened well, did my best to learn from my mistakes (provided I understood the mistake I made), and tried the alternative solution the next time I was in a similar situation.  That said, I distinctly remember multiple times during games when I would come off the playing floor only to hear my coach look at me and with intense frustration say, “Play better!”

I can’t help but relate that to an experience in enrollment management and understand to an extent why my coach said what he did.  I look at our current admission funnel reports seeing a somewhat stagnant inquiry pool, applicant numbers and yield percentages resembling a graph line similar to my favorite roller coaster (up and down over the last five years) all the while thinking to myself, “Yield better!”  Ah, but if it were only that easy.

I have not had one conversation with a colleague in higher education enrollment management who is interested in reducing enrollment.  We all want to grow or at the very least maintain size while becoming more selective.  Either way, we are often challenged with the notion of yielding better from our inquiry and applicant pools particularly this time of year.  Unfortunately for colleges, prospective students have grown very recruitment savvy.  They are much less likely to fill out inquiry forms from the mail or even online forms that have been pushed to them.  They are more interested in dictating the colleges that they want to consider and when they want to connect.  This change is impacting our ability to project yields as accurately as we may have even just five years ago.

Quickly back to basketball.  As I walked past my coach toward a place on the bench (his comment ringing in my ears) my head spins with potential solutions of how I can play better.  Today, I anticipate that same spinning in admission counselor’s heads as I push them to yield better.  I’m sure they are looking for solutions themselves.  But, as the enrollment manager at my institution, it is my responsibility to have the answer.  Similar to the coach, I should provide solutions which will yield better.

Over the course of the last 5 years, our inquiry pool has decreased.  At the same time, our applicant pool has increased and ultimately our yield on admitted applicants has fluctuated from a high of 29% to a low of 22% resulting in first-year classes between 337 and 287 students.  With a similar applicant pool to last year and an enrollment goal of 350 first-year students, it is clear that “yield better” is the obvious overall solution to achieve our goal.

So, what steps are we taking right at Doane College now to ultimately yield better?  First and foremost, we are spending more effort to focus our message on the value of a Doane College education by comparison to alternatives.  Second, we are working on the modes to deliver that message effectively utilizing traditional mail, telephone, web site, and social media.  Third, we are utilizing a new analytical tool that allows us to customize our message based on the specific interests of the student.  Finally, we are recalibrating our financial aid distribution, merit, need-based, and strategic funding, to improve our yield.  On the surface, these actions may seem obvious to others in enrollment management.  Nevertheless, the devil is in the details.  Like most enrollment management strategies, immediate results are elusive.  Our efforts require patience.  But, hope isn’t a strategy.  Enrollment management requires daily planning, monitoring tactics, and modifying our approach for better results.  Every day our admission office must make time to focus on tactics that will yield better.

Here’s to strong college enrollments across the US in 2014.  Cheers!

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The quest for the silver bullet.

Silver Bullet

Silver bullet?  What silver bullet?  I’ve been in higher education since 1998 working both in admissions and advancement.  I’ve participated in and directed discussions that lamented over what to do differently to achieve substantially greater results.  In almost every discussion it seems that we are most often looking for the one thing, that elusive silver bullet, which will turn water into wine.  As my Director of Admission says, “there is no silver bullet.”

He’s right but that doesn’t stop us from hoping that there is so these discussions continue.  Nevertheless, as realists we make sure we don’t spend too much time in imaginary land because it is highly unlikely that one strategic initiative from the admission office will achieve substantially different enrollment results.  Maybe it’s more productive to put time and energy into many strategic initiatives that help to move the needle together.  Staying true to my athletic background, I’ll use this analogy.  A star player can make a tremendous impact on a team; even win some games seemingly by themselves.  But, typically championships require a not only a few substantially talented individuals, but also a great “supporting cast”, a game plan that evolves adding new plays and different schemes, a crowd that supports the team, great coaching, and great ownership.  Great teams adapt and are always looking to get better throughout the season.  Teams that want to go from good to great, don’t make just one move in the off-season or even during the season.  Even those that are considered great must continue to evolve or complacency catches up.

This summer while in the same conversations of the past, we decided that we were going to try many new approaches with the plan that while not all will be home-runs, each of them together has real potential to help move the needle.  In fact, a colleague of mine challenged me.  He said, “Do one thing new every week.”  That proves to be very difficult but in the spirit of competition, I gave it a go.  It pushed (and continues to push) me every day to think forward.

We can easily put too much time and energy into one strategy and then we wait to determine if it actually works.  That’s frustrating!  I want to look for new ideas, new strategies, and continue to implement new programs anticipating that some will hit while others may miss.  I’m not arguing for the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach.  We still have to have a critical eye.  But, I want continual forward thinking.  Every plan is a working plan which should be continually adjusted.  This approach is particularly difficult for me.  I’m one that likes to create a plan and then work the plan with limited deviation.  In the world of traditional college enrollment, we deal with the traditional year-long cycle – often it takes a year (or more) to see results from our strategies.  We assess the results and make changes and then go again.  I don’t feel I can afford to be that traditional anymore.  I need to be more flexible; more innovative.

A buddy of mine read my first two blogs and provided some well-deserved constructive criticism.  He said, “You can suck me in and, yet, really not offer specifics.”  In that vein, I’ll give some specifics a try.  Here are a number of our new initiatives:

  • We launched a new senior advantage program for area high school students to take college courses for $100 at Doane College in their senior year.
  • We eliminated high school transcripts as a requirement for admission.
  • We approved 2014/15 tuition in October rather than waiting till February.
  • We plan to roll-out a three-year graduation guarantee before the end of second semester.
  • We are rolling out a new branding campaign.
  • We are venturing into social media advertising including Google AdWords and Facebook advertising.
  • We are creating videos to have a presence on YouTube.
  • We will substantially increase branding signage on campus over the course of the next 12 months.
  • We created targeted visit events based on some of our strong programs rather than continuing to offer generic group visit events.
  • We restructured our financial aid policy.
  • We are implementing a targeted communications plan that integrates mail, e-mail, text, and social media.  (Some of you may be saying, “Well, duh!”  I get it, everyone has a communications plan.  I also contend that everyone’s communication plan can be better.  I’m simply acknowledging here that our communications plan was not as integrated as it should have been and we took steps to mitigate this.  Still, we have more to do.)
  • We have initiated a Transfer Task Force to assess our current approach to transfer students – there may be a Transfer Graduation Guarantee Coming!
  • As an institution, we are instituting a College to Career Center and hiring an Internship Coordinator – we know internships lead to employment.
  • We are holding admission counselors accountable for the recruitment of what we call “unleveraged” students – those students who are not coming to Doane for athletics, music, or theatre.

These are a few.  None of these independently will propel us to our goals.  This isn’t enough!

We are smack in the middle of recruiting and I’m continuing to push on what we need to change to be more effective.  The market place has high expectations.  Meeting those expectations simply puts us in the game.  We need to exceed those expectations.  Quick example:  If you’ve ever been to Doane’s campus in Crete, NE, and taken the tour, you might make the statement, “If you can just get a student to visit, you should have no problem with enrollment.”  This would seem to imply a silver bullet possibility.  However, our visit yield is very similar to national averages.  It’s true.  Our campus is amazing.  But, let’s not forget that the vast majority of students don’t come to college to sit under the tree and look over the beautiful pond as the sun slowly sets.  Getting students to campus certainly is a huge step but there is more to it.

Colleges must evolve with the needs of students and families.  Communication methods have changed substantially in the last 10-15 years.  Change happens so fast that we must adapt and fight the urge to do it the way we always have.  Stay tuned…I’d like to share the process that led to a new branding campaign.

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Okay, so you have the right people on the bus! Are they in the correct aisle, let alone correct seat?

Do you remember the feeling you get when you receive a bill or credit card statement and you get that incredible sinking feeling because the amount is way beyond what you anticipated?  I had this similar feeling when I modeled out first-year and transfer enrollment increases needed on an annual basis to grow from 1,100 students to 2,000 students in ten years.  Safe to say I had a significant knot in my throat and some uneasiness in my stomach.  I played with the numbers to determine how retention, transfer enrollment, and first-year enrollment all needed to increase and to what extent I needed to see those numbers increase immediately or if I could push them out a few years as new initiatives take root all the while feeling “okay” about the volume increase in a single year by comparison.  I have it plotted out year by year.  This is good if for no other reason to understand the reality of what we are trying to do.  However, I’ve got to be careful to not represent the model as representative of what WILL happen.  It’s just a model not my personal crystal ball!

With a working model designed, reality strikes initiating personal pains of urgency far beyond what I have experienced in the past.  And, consider this important fact; urgency isn’t necessarily shared by all at Doane College – at least not at this point.  I’m not being critical.  Rather, I’m acknowledging the reality.  Our interest in growth is proactive.  It’s a vision established by our President, Dr. Jacque Carter, who makes a great case for growth based on long-term stability and national presence.  It’s exciting!  But, our backs are not against the wall.  We are not in crisis mode.  We are not in financial dire straits.  That is good and we want to be even stronger ten years from today.

So, one of my continual challenges is to bring people to a significant level of urgency without the benefit (and/or drawback) of a “nothing-to-lose” mentality.  I contend that while all strategic visions will have their naysayers, these naysayers have a stronger presence when they truly feel there is a better alternative.  In our case that alternative may be the simple resistance to change.  At least when in panic mode, even the naysayers can struggle for a better alternative than a solution to a crisis.  As a result, they may not be helping but they also aren’t hurting.  In our current environment, doubt in our ability to grow can easily impede our urgency.

In order to create some urgency, I’m pushing operational change particularly in admission and marketing.  We are identifying what must change in order for us to grow.  How are we going to attract and yield students that we don’t currently get – both traditional and adult learners?  How will we grow our geographic market?  It begins to set in with our teams…this is on us.  No one will do this for us.  The cavalry is not coming over the hill.  But, this is not to say that admission can do it all independently.  It will be a team effort for sure.  Nevertheless, the teams responsible with leading our enrollment growth effort are admissions, marketing, and athletics.

For some quick perspective, when I first arrived at Doane, marketing did not report to me as VP for Admissions.  Marketing departments are structured different at each college and university.  Dr. Carter recognized my desire to bring the efforts of marketing and admissions more closely aligned.  I felt we needed to leverage a strong working relationship – a partnership – with our marketing department.   As a result, one structural move we made was to bring marketing, communications, and admissions under the same VP.  My position of Vice President for Enrollment Services and Marketing was created.  In addition (and also very critical to Doane’s enrollment), the athletic department also transitioned to report to the VP for Enr. Services & Marketing because student-athlete recruitment is currently a significant component to our enrollment plan.

Once departmental realignment was complete, it was time to begin focusing the departmental operations on common goals.  This also allows for enrollment accountability to be shared across a greater number of key decision makers at the institution.  After spending some time making sure people are in the right aisles, it’s time to get the bus out of PARK.

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Enrollment – What’s easier, growing 100% or doubling in size?

Confidence is an amazing personal trait.  With some people, confidence comes and goes.  However, consider the basketball player that doesn’t give a shot any hesitation even having missed the previous 10 shots.  The confidence that player has in his/her shooting ability never waivers – regardless of the competition.  They believe the next shot will go in.  They have unwavering confidence most likely based on achievements to that point.

I’m proud of my accomplishments professionally and feel that I’ve had enough success professionally that I should be pretty confident in my skill set and professional knowledge.  However, what we are attempting to accomplish at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska and what I have great responsibility for leading is something I have not accomplished nor do I know many who have.  We plan to double our traditional undergraduate enrollment within the next 10 years – yes, that’s 100% growth!  Admission directors and enrollment managers understand the gravity of this when put in the context of growing a first-year class from 300 annually to almost 600.  What you did yesterday won’t get the results you want tomorrow.  What’s even more obvious is that if it were that easy to grow a class 100%, it’s fair to say many schools would be doing so.

Safe to say there are many new initiatives at the college (not just in admissions) which will need to work in order for us to achieve our enrollment goals.  Nevertheless, my focus is on the actions we take specifically in the areas of enrollment management and marketing to achieve our goals.  I want to capture and share my experiences.  In that vein, I plan to blog at least two times each month.  I will share successes and failures possibly even frustrations.

While it’s true that I have confidence, I also have the anxiety of potential failure as a character trait.  This blog is not meant to be a road map or even a “look-at-me” experience.  I am not selling consulting and frankly I’m not looking for that either at the moment – I may need counseling or even consoling in the future.  I do know that the higher education landscape for enrollment managers is different from it was 10-15 years ago.  I’m anxious to share my experiences and hear about other’s experiences as well.  This is my journey.

My next blog will give a bit of a current situation update as a foundation from where we start.

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