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Writing by Mark Campbell and Rachel Schreiber

Mind the Gap

April 29, 2024

I expect it might come as a surprise to leaders in Enrollment Management to learn that not all faculty know what is meant by the “demographic cliff.” For those working in enrollment management, admissions, and other areas of higher ed administration, we have been anticipating the impending decline in the number of 18-year olds in the US for well over a decade. During these past years, copious articles and books have been published on the topic, webinars offered on how to plan for it, and high level discussions have occurred on how to blunt its force. How can it be, then, that at a recent faculty meeting, I heard a colleague say that he heard of an impending minor demographic change, and others seemed surprised to learn that any kind of shift is coming?

The answer is the deep gulf that exists on too many campuses between faculty and the admissions and enrollment staff. Everyone is, of course, very busy doing their own thing, and this means that we rarely take the time to share what’s happening in one part of the institutional universe with others. When you are mired in a particular problem day in and day out, it can be difficult to even imagine that others are unaware of the pressures of your role.

For institutions to persist and thrive through what’s coming in the next dozen years or so, it’s critical that faculty understand what’s coming, what their institution is doing to address it, and what factors are beyond the institution’s control. Once they do so, they can be full partners in ensuring the college or university can continue to fulfill its mission, even in the face of powerful headwinds. Wise campus leaders will find ways to engage faculty directly in pursuit of solutions, and bridge this campus divide.

What are We Afraid Of?

In speaking with various academic and enrollment leaders recently, there is one word that has come up in every conversation, and that is “fear.” There is so much to fear in higher education these days. Of course we are all watching the news, tracking the attacks on academic freedom and the Supreme Court decision that stands to undermine years of hard work intended to undo systemic racism within colleges and universities. We have all been aware for decades now of the economic challenges baked into our business model. Meanwhile, we are barreling towards the “enrollment cliff.” Despite this awareness, our daily obligations convert us to somewhat passive riders on a merry-go-round; we know we have to get off this ride but we’re just too caught up in the quotidian slog to take the time we need to prepare for what may indeed be a crisis for our institution.

Of all of these fears, enrollment challenges are the most fundamental. Most people who work in higher ed are aware that the majority of institutions in the U.S. are “enrollment driven” (aka, “tuition dependent”). But does everyone working on campus fully understand the meaning of the phrase, and all of its implications? Put very simply, it means that we rely on tuition revenue to pay for nearly all that we do. When your annual budget depends on tuition not only for the majority of operational costs, but for the vastmajority (as high as 94-97% at some institutions), then budget considerations are always the priority. Even a 3% drop in enrollment will negatively impact your ability to offer programs, pursue strategic initiatives, offer raises, hire key staff, etc. A steeper drop will have more dire consequences still, as we have seen at a range of institutions. Enrollment concerns are serious enough that for some institutions, it is not hyperbolic to say that they are existential.

Fear is an understandable reaction to all of this, but it is not, of course, very productive. So we are asking three questions now:
  1. How can we face the future with confidence?
  2. How do we adapt and change to the shifts that are happening?
  3. With so many unknowns, how can we plan for the future?

First, confidence. Even in the most difficult circumstances, confidence emerges from awareness, knowledge and data. It’s been our experience that there is often a gulf between the admissions and academic areas of an institution. Admissions staff are charged to fill seats and meet revenue goals. But do they fully understand the nature and nuance of the academic offerings? That is, are they filling those seats with the right students, meaning those who will thrive at that institution? On the other side of the house are faculty and academic leaders, who too often point to admissions or marketing as the cause of their enrollment problems: “they” are not recruiting for “us” as best they could.

The truth is, enrollment is everyone’s business. The more everyone understands enrollment management and can take a clear-eyed view to the true realities of the situation, the better. The more admissions and marketing staff know how to speak about the institution’s value proposition as well as the details of its programs, the better. The more faculty understand the precise challenges that the admissions staff face in yielding students, the more they will be able to fulfill their roles as true partners in recruitment. In the end, these two areas must unite around a shared vision.

Second, let’s talk about change. It is a timeworn truism that “academics do not like change.” Institutional change is slow, particularly when shared governance comes into play, because the processes of shared governance simply take time. But it’s important to understand that change is critical, and some of it may need to move more quickly than we would like. This is because the realities of the admissions, enrollment, and retention landscapes are shifting right under our feet. So if we do not keep up, we lose precious ground. That all sounds abstract, so let’s explore an example. There was a time (and that time may have been when many of us were in college) that you received an offer of admission along with a financial aid offer and then you simply made a decision. Applicants now apply to more institutions than in the past (thanks in part to the Common App), and then they begin negotiating their financial aid offer among those institutions who’ve accepted them. Obviously, faced with this fact, our financial aid planning must build in some flexible systems that will allow us to compete for those admitted students.

Third: planning. The importance of planning cannot be overstated. Most institutions follow a strategic plan, but those often do not truly and fully address enrollment. They might include a desire to launch a few new programs, or improve retention. But what’s often overlooked in a strategic plan is just how fundamental enrollment is. Within the reality of tuition dependency, if the enrollment piece is not in place, nothing else is possible. A strong enrollment plan is at least as important, and perhaps more important, than a strategic plan. An enrollment plan should begin with a thorough assessment of the current situation (where are the enrollment pain points, as well as opportunities?), then go on to give a clear shape to relatively short list of priorities for the next 3 to 5 years. Such a plan allows an institution to bring everyone together into this discussion, gaining widespread buy-in so that everyone knows which way the ship is headed. Finally, a successful enrollment plan anticipates the known and the unknown, allowing an institution to be resilient rather than reactive. It keeps a narrow focus on agreed upon priorities and prevents an institution from being distracted by every new possible initiative. As one of our thoughtful colleagues recently shared, “if you chase twelve horses, you catch zero horses.” Enrollment operations, and indeed entire institutions, need a narrow and disciplined focus on priorities that are transparently understood by the entire campus.

Ensuring that everyone within the institutional community—staff, faculty, administration, board, and even students, alumni, and community members—understands where enrollment priorities are will go a long way to building trust and confidence. These in turn will assist the community in getting on board with needed changes. Planning allows everyone to understand decisions—why one program is launching or growing, while another may not be, to cite just one example. With a strong enrollment plan in place, there should be, as the saying goes, nothing to fear but fear itself.