May 7, 2019
We read the headlines about independent, non-profit, tuition-dependent colleges closing, merging and downsizing. Enrollment is down, losses ensue, and students and their parents are questioning the very value of education itself. Between 2015 and 2017, 28 percent of smaller private colleges saw net tuition revenue declines, and 21 percent experienced enrollment declines for the three years, according to a recent report from S&P Global.
These are just some of the difficult challenges enrollment leaders face every day as they work to differentiate their institutions, motivate their teams and figure out how to most effectively operate in the rapidly changing world of college enrollment.
In a recent conversation with Robert Massa, Retired Senior Vice President for Enrollment and Institutional Planning at Drew University and Edcura Advisory Board Member, we explored some of the challenges and solutions in enrollment strategy Dr. Massa has faced over his 45 years in higher education, which perhaps could help today’s enrollment leaders to transform their organizations.
Baird: Enrollment management has changed quite a bit over the past 20 years. What are the biggest challenges facing today’s enrollment leaders?
Massa: In the first 40 years of my career, I came to expect success every year. But the actual and projected decline in the number of high school graduates, the changing demographic and socioeconomic makeup of those graduates and the high price tag make success more elusive today than 20 or 30 years ago. When I was the dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins University in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, we saw year after year of success. Later, when I started as VP at Dickinson College in 1999, the economy was great, the market was good, and we were able to quickly improve enrollment and manage the discount rate. And so the biggest change for me and for many of my colleagues is that it’s much more difficult to be successful year in and year out.
“It’s much more difficult to be successful year in and year out.”
There’s a whole new skillset successful enrollment managers need today, and it’s different from what they needed 20 years ago. That skillset is focused on data analytics and diving into the details. Even as a high-level admissions leader, I’ve had to get into the weeds because the decisions that I would normally make based on experience and instinct weren’t working. The technology has changed. The expectations have changed. The competition has been ratcheted up.
People who have self-confidence after years of meeting goals are still sometimes unwilling to accept the fact that they need to change their outlook. There’s a psychological barrier. If you’re successful in everything you do, and then suddenly, it is more difficult to experience success, you don’t think about changing yourself or your outlook. You think, “Well, I’ll just work harder. I’ll do more of what I’ve done before. I’ll get better people to work for me.”
Baird: From a change management standpoint, it’s a huge step to be able to say, I’ve been successful, but I have to evolve how I am thinking about both the problems and the solutions in front of me.
We can’t control family incomes, we can’t control the pricing of the institution, we can’t control the macro shifts in demographics and enrollment. But anytime you feel there’s a lot you can’t control, successful leaders focus on the things they can control. In an admissions environment, for example, you can control how you interact with each student, when you interact, and what that interaction entails.
What have you seen change in the broader enrollment management landscape?
Massa: A number of things, and they’re all interrelated.
In 1995, only 10 percent of first-time freshmen submitted seven or more college applications. As of 2016, that portion has grown to 35 percent. The “safety school” used to be a college that students felt certain they could get into. Today, a safety school is one students and their families think they’ll be able to afford. That’s a huge difference that has driven market perception.
Also, parents are really looking for two things: prestige and outcomes. Much more than in the past, the prestige factor plays into college choice. Families are willing to make sacrifices for the window sticker. If my son gets into Duke, I’m willing to pay $70,000. But if my son gets into Drew (a very good choice, but without Duke’s prestige), I’m only willing to pay $20,000.
Students put tons of pressure on themselves in applying for college. What their peers do is incredibly important, which becomes an indicator in terms of their own success and achievements. And students of this generation are much more interested in outcomes, measurable outcomes — what’s the starting salary, what kind of job am I going to get — than students were even 10 years ago. So that’s another change.
Here’s an interesting one. Back in the early ’90s, the Justice Department filed a complaint against 57 colleges and universities, saying the schools violated antitrust laws and colluded to raise tuition and reduce financial aid. After the Justice Department’s suit, the schools agreed to stop exchanging the financial aid information of admitted students.
Two things happened as a result: colleges became much more competitive rather than collegial with one another, and college became more expensive as schools positioned themselves to win students based on price rather than program. In other words, increased discounting to remain competitive caused base prices to increase in order to cover the revenue loss from higher discounting. It’s a snowball effect from that one decision, which seemed right to the Justice Department, in order to keep colleges from “colluding” on price.
This change also helped to fuel an entire cottage industry of vendors to assist colleges in finding students who are likely to apply and who are now tracking online behavior to recruit students. Those tools are expensive, and they’ve had an impact on the college cost structure.
Baird: So how can enrollment teams fundamentally change the way they compete?
Massa: First, it helps to understand what the enrollment leader faces. If enrollment leaders come from a time when admissions was about selection more than recruitment, now they have to learn what recruitment is all about today. They don’t necessarily need to be data wonks, but they need to be able to ask the questions. What are the detailed, specific differences between the students who choose not to attend our college and the students who do? Ask the right questions and then hire the right people who can help you answer them — someone with both analytical skills and relational skills.
Secondly, it’s absolutely important to think broadly about who you’re serving. In order for the institution to continue to serve its core mission well, it’s going to have to generate revenue from new sources.
“Even though the whole market is shrinking, isn’t there a little, tiny bit of the market that I can bite into?”
Third, you can’t solve every problem all at once. You take it one step at a time. It’s not that we’re trying to leap from a freshman class of 400 to 500. It’s that next handful of students, and how do we appeal to them, and where are we looking to find them? Even though the whole market is shrinking, isn’t there a little, tiny bit of the market that I can bite into? There must be. So while numbers are falling and things feel more difficult, you have to know where to go, especially if you are not looking for thousands more students.
One of the extracurricular things I did this past fall was to mentor two young vice presidents, one of marketing and one of enrollment. We had phone calls twice a week. They shared what they were going through and asked for my input. I’d give them advice and tips and talk through issues. That can help an inexperienced leader develop perspective. It can be helpful to mentor colleagues who have less experience. We’re all trying to sustain our institutions and communicate the value of higher education.
Baird: That feels like a great piece of council. It’s pragmatic, it’s actionable, and it’s valuable in the chaos of the trends we’re seeing.
Massa: We can’t afford to have silos, especially within our own institutions. All of the energy we expend every day has to be efficient. Enrollment leaders need to be in constant communication with the chief academic officer, the chief marketing officer, the chief financial officer, and to some extent with the chief advancement officer.
I’ve found it’s so important to be transparent and honest. Not negative, but realistic. We have a difficult road ahead of us. And as enrollment leaders, we’re going to need every single partner at the cabinet level to advise us, and we will advise them. If you don’t have good, open, honest and transparent relationships, you’re not going to be successful. All of the senior leadership of an institution must be rowing in the same direction.