A Four-Step Guide to Increase Investment in Strategic Enrollment Management, Part One

As I write this, I recognize that many of you in enrollment management are fighting hard to hold on to what you have in the FY 21 budget and make the argument to hold the FY 22 budget steady.

In other words, at a time when institutions are facing significant budget challenges, you can’t see how you can ask for additional budget resources to invest in enrollment management.

You feel your time is better spent demonstrating that the FY 22 budget should be held level as opposed to developing a proposal for new investment(s).

However, I suggest that this is exactly the time you must press and press hard for investment in enrollment management.

If not, the likelihood you will achieve your institution’s enrollment goals over the next few years and into the next decade, specifically the goal of providing the undergraduate (UG) net tuition revenue the institution needs to operate, hovers around slim to none.

Best Practices for Strategic Enrollment Management

Over a 21-year career as an Army officer and 18+ years of higher education experience as a senior associate director of admissions and a vice president of enrollment management, through crisis and calm, in good and dire budget times, I've always been successful obtaining the resources my organization needed to accomplish their mission.

My process involves four steps, which are not distinct, there is overlap among the steps.

Step 1: Identify the strategic and tactical necessity

Step 2: Network to gather feedback and build support

Step 3: Develop and present the proposal

Step 4: Gain approval and move quickly to implement and display quick return on the investment

I must also share two warnings.

  1. As you review the steps, you may say, “I just don’t have the time to do this.”

    My response is that this has to be your top priority, and you must make time. One of the most important things a leader and manager can do to ensure they and their team have the resources they need to accomplish their mission, i.e., accomplish their goals, is to obtain the necessary resources.

    If you don’t make the case and fight for the resources you need, you are doomed to keep spinning your wheels, and I would say you should also start updating your resume.

  2. Before you ask for new budget resources, you and your team must analyze in detail if there are opportunities to redistribute and/or reallocate your current budget resources.

    Your proposal won’t have much chance if you can’t explain your reallocation/redistribution process before the proposal moves forward.

    I suggest the steps above are a good guide for an internal process of assessing your ability to reallocate/redistribute your budget resources. I talk more about that in step 3.

    Further, I believe the steps build recognition and support horizontally and vertically and helps create your reputation as an excellent resource manager who gets results, which will help when you have to submit future “asks.” More on that in step 2.

Over the next two posts, I will go into more detail about each step.

Additionally, I offer myself as a resource if you would like to discuss your situation and budget environment in more detail and brainstorm your approach to build a proposal and gain approval.

You can contact me at chris@othot.com.

Let’s get started with the first two steps.

Step 1: Identify the strategic and tactical necessity

Given that undergraduate (UG) tuition is the primary source of institutional revenue for most U.S. institutions, private and even public, and that you and your team are the enrollment experts who understand the enrollment goals and market, you shouldn’t have to do much to establish the strategic necessity for the university leadership to maintain funding for the EM functions and support EM investments.

However, in my experience, this is not the case.

Admissions, financial aid, and student success have faced the same budget cuts as other budget centers across the university, and in some cases, as “administrative” offices, they have faced greater cuts than the academic units.

It is counterintuitive to cut funding to the primary revenue center or reject investments to increase the likelihood of sustaining and ideally increasing UG tuition revenue, nevertheless, in most cases, this is the reality for enrollment leaders.

Granted, much of your attention is focused tactically and operationally, achieving your first year and transfer goals for the coming fiscal year (FY).

The goals are probably expressed as headcount, net revenue after aid, diversity, access, quality, or all of the above. You may have additional goals beyond these.

For instance, you and/or members of your team may also play a lead or supporting role in student success, i.e., retention and persistence to graduation.

However, most of your time and effort, especially from a resource (including budget) planning and allocation perspective, must be focused on the strategic timeframe, i.e., analyzing your goals and the expected market conditions two, three, five years from now, not the tactical and operational timeline.

Broadly, the following internal and external data and information I recommend below will help you build a strategic case for investment.

You must interpret and blend the data and information to enable you to identify gaps and/or opportunities and be able to paint a picture of the enrollment environment and where you stand in the environment in the near and long term.

Types of Data

Internal to your team

  • Descriptive (what’s happening) and diagnostic data analysis (why is it happening) of your team’s operations.

    Note, most institutions are limited by descriptive and diagnostic analyses, which provide a look backward, but with no capability to look forward, a view that advanced analytics, such as predictive (what is likely to happen) and prescriptive (what do I need to do) analyses, provides.

    I feel advanced analytics are a necessary investment in this decade and beyond.

  • Submit queries to the National Student Clearinghouse to understand your competitor set and monitor changes over time.

    You can obtain data on your competitor set overall and by specific populations of students, e.g., quality, diversity, college or academic program, etc.

  • Periodically, it doesn’t have to be annually, conduct an admitted student questionnaire (ASQ) to assess why students are choosing your institution, why they went elsewhere, and to obtain additional competitor data.

Internal to your institution

  • UG enrollment assumption that is being used to build the five-year budget forecast (source: CFO and/or budget director, as well as the institutional strategy and comments by the president).

    • The UG net tuition revenue assumptions in the forecast

    • The first year and transfer enrollment goals that lie behind the overall UG enrollment forecast

    • The retention and graduation rates that lie behind the overall UG enrollment forecast
      • Did IR or your data analysis team prepare the five-year UG enrollment forecast, or did the budget office? If the budget office, I urge you to ensure you understand and agree with the assumptions behind the forecast.
    • Your projected five-year budget allocation

The resources above provide views of the overall higher education environment, the national and regional enrollment management market, and your current performance within the market based on current resource allocation and management.

They provide the raw materials for the foundation of your budget request – they paint the picture your leadership needs to see and acknowledge and provides the background you need to share as you build support for your proposal with your institutional colleagues.

Once you’ve gathered the information and established your case, feedback from your colleagues is important to validate your approach/ask.

Step 2: Network to gather feedback and build support

Gaining feedback and support from key colleagues and institutional constituencies before making your formal proposal is a critical step.

If you skip this step, your proposal may be dead on arrival or result in much more work if there seems to be merit in the proposal because you will have to answer objections and/or conduct necessary coordination.

These instances are frustrating for everyone and often delay approval for months, if not years.

Here are the main groups to talk with about your proposal:

  • Coordinate with key partners

It is critical that you meet with, discuss, and coordinate as necessary, your proposal with your chief information officer and key members of their team, and often the director of institutional research.

Beyond their insights to strengthen your proposal, it is likely they will be asked for input by the decision maker(s), and their support could be decisive.

  • Gain support from key internal constituencies

In my experience, the deans were the critical constituency I needed to support my initiatives and/or budget requests.

However, before I met with the deans separately or collectively, I often met with members of their team, the associate and assistant deans, to gain their support and have them begin the process of “selling” the proposal and gaining support from the deans.

In my experience, this was one of the keys to success. However, ultimately you will need the deans’ voices supporting your proposal.

Therefore, frankly, you will often have to speak to what’s in it for them. How will they and their college/school/programs benefit? Will it increase their enrollment and/or increase net tuition revenue?

If your institution uses a revenue center management (RCM) budget model where enrollment revenue flows to colleges, being able to address the impact your proposal will have on net tuition revenue in the near and long term will be essential.

  • Socialize it with the key decision makers

My experience has been the decision makers are generally the provost, provost’s budget manager, and CFO, and/or institution budget officer, but depending on your institution’s structure, the decision maker may be the president, and you may have to present your proposal to the governing board.

The first time key budget decision makers hear about your proposal should not be during your formal proposal! You should have had formal and/or informal interaction with them related to what you seek, why, and how it will help you achieve the institution’s enrollment goals. For instance:

      • I don’t feel we have the data and analytics necessary to achieve our goals, so I am researching courses of action.

      • The enrollment environment is so dynamic, we must seek better analysis tools to improve the quality and timing of our decisions, and I have some ideas.

      • There is advanced analytics available that would allow me to optimize my admissions, financial aid, and student success resources, and I’m going to bring you a proposal.

During the socialization process is a good time to tease out the concerns or potential objections of the decision makers to ensure you have a response to them when you make your formal proposal.

One thing you may hear is: “Don’t ask for more money.” If you feel the investment is tactically and strategically critical to your ability to accomplish your enrollment goals, then I encourage you not to let that statement stop you.

A potential response could be:

“I understand, and of course, I will look to reallocate internal resources first. However, I hope that if I can demonstrate, with confidence, the probable return on the investment in terms of net tuition revenue (and/or other enrollment goals), that you will consider the proposal.”

Obviously, the earlier you start steps 1 and 2 before making your budget proposal, the better. This will always be time well spent.

Stay tuned for next steps

In my next post, l talk about building your budget proposal and moving from approval to implementation – from what to include in your proposal to what and who needs to be involved in the implementation of your strategic enrollment management plans.

As I mentioned earlier in the post, if you’d like to talk about your strategic enrollment management budget plans, send me a note at chris@othot.com.