by Bob Massa and Bill Conley
(Published in Inside Higher Ed, April 10, 2023)
In January and February of this year, Inside Higher Ed published two opinion pieces by John Roberts, an engineering recruiter at the University of Kentucky. In the first piece, Roberts argues that admissions counselors should not be held responsible for hitting enrollment targets. In his second essay, he attempts to make the case that, in the world of the internet and virtual gatherings, travelling to visit schools is an unnecessary expense.
In a time of significant disruption of the student recruitment marketplace, Roberts is right to challenge some of the conventional tactics of the profession. However, we think a more nuanced approach to enrollment accountability and recruitment travel is a better antidote to what challenges the health of our institutions.
Only recently retired enrollment vice presidents, we had the opportunity to engineer ever-evolving uses of technology in student recruitment. We embraced the use of virtual events and contacts well before COVID made these tactics commonplace. However, we also recognized that in-person interaction, when well-targeted, made a huge difference in moving prospective students through the decision journey while also securing our institution’s recognition and support from high school college counselors.
As part of yet-to-be published research with colleagues at the University of Southern California and the University of Michigan, one of us conducted interviews of chief enrollment/admissions officers from across the country. They expressed a conviction that virtual meetings are here to stay; not as a substitute for in-person travel, but as a supplement to it. Building relationships with school counselors and with students can certainly be done on-line (and on-line meetings and programs can also expand a college’s reach), but we believe that face-to-face interaction, when possible, will always play a critical role in building and maintaining your markets.
In 1989 United Airlines ran a TV ad showing a boss handing out airline tickets to his sales force. At one point, one salesman asked of his boss: “Are you going anywhere?” The boss, holding up the last ticket, replied: “Yes, I am going to visit our oldest client who fired us.” Besides the implied objective to fly UA, the ad also conveyed that the company needed to reconnect with their customers right away and in-person. We don’t foresee a time when admissions counselors will not be using Orbitz or one of its competitors to book and manage travel.
The challenge for today’s enrollment leaders is to determine the appropriate balance of in-person versus virtual contact. Which programs/high schools need to be visited in-person and how frequently should we make those visits (annually, every other year)? Where can we get essentially the same results from a virtual visit as we would derive from an in-person interaction? These questions are answered with data, including the number of students seen during a particular visit or fair overtime, the conversion of those students to applicants and , if admitted, their yield to enroll.
Roberts also talks about customer service in his “travel versus virtual” essay, implying that if admission representatives are “on the road,” they cannot serve prospective students and families as well as they could on-campus. The irony of this position, of course, is that many admissions counselors are using technology to stay in touch with students whether from their office, their home, or on the road. Our point here is that admissions staff must optimize their use of technology in student recruitment, while also selectively employing tried and true in-person recruitment strategies and tactics. This maximizes their reach while also embracing the value of the personal touch.
His earlier essay on “…judging admissions counselors on enrollment,” prompted some head scratching. Although Roberts surely understands that institutions need enrollment goals to set budgets and pay the bills, he suggests that the responsibility of meeting enrollment goals be “move(d)” to admissions and enrollment leaders, rather than being shouldered by individual counselors.
Fair enough. As vice presidents, we were ultimately responsible for meeting university enrollment and net revenue targets. Our president does not want to hear, “But it’s my staff’s fault. Two of them did not meet their individual goals!” The buck stops with the leader and that leader must also hold individual staff members accountable. At the aggregated level enrollment goals are straight forward: head count and net tuition revenue. However, achieving those objectives requires hitting a wide range of micro goals: geographic, diversity, academic interest, athletic talent, etc. Here, staff need direction and targets to achieve at each stage of the admissions funnel and be held accountable for taking the steps necessary to meet those goals.
Over the last ten years we implemented and/or recommended use of machine learning platforms to leverage the vast amount of data available to influence student choice behavior throughout the funnel. Targeting enrollments by segment requires reverse engineering: how many admits, applicants, inquiries and prospects will you need to meet your enrollment goal? The assigned counselor must know these data points and, with leadership and peers, must develop tactics to achieve them. If they are falling short in the recruitment cycle, leadership and staff must strategize together to implement new tactics to either achieve the original goal, or to lower the goal in one region while perhaps increasing it in another.
Roberts suggests, and we agree, that admissions staff should be evaluated on the execution of tactics that increase probability of enrollment, such as covering specific high schools, meeting with a student or groups of students, staying in touch through text, phone, emails, or personal hand-written notes. But he goes on to say that “holding admissions counselors and recruiters…responsible for something they cannot control (enrollment) is frustrating.” We suppose this is no less true for admissions deans and enrollment vice presidents. Ultimately, none of us can “control” the decisions an 18-year-old will make. Those of us who have or had teenaged children can attest to that! Our end game is not of attracting applicants, though Roberts suggests that counselors should be evaluated on that metric. Rather, our collective role is to recruit students to enroll in our institutions.
Effective enrollment leaders do not blame staff members for failures; after all, that would be a failure on their part to supervise and to provide the necessary resources to get the job done. The operating premise of our work is not to control the decisions of teenagers. Rather, we must influence and impact their enrollment decision by how we recruit, the relationships we build and the financial assistance we provide. The first two of these are certainly within the counselor’s job expectations, while the third, aid awarding policies, are often determined by leaders. Staff and leadership must work together, therefore, in strategic enrollment planning and execution. All members of the team, from counselor to vice president, play accountable roles in meeting institution-wide enrollment targets.
(this article was published in Inside Higher Ed, March 19, 2023)