Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is enrollment management a skill or a discipline?

Two weeks ago I began another unexpected posting in an administrative role at Westminster College--Interim Vice President for Enrollment Management.  As you might imagine, I've spent quite some time contemplating whether anything in my previous experience has prepared me to be effective until the college hires a long-term VP with experience and expertise in enrollment.

The short answer is, of course, yes.  I've been at Westminster for five years now; that experience has certainly familiarized me with the campus' culture, stated goals, and implicit values.  I know how our budget process works, I've recruited undergraduate and graduate students, and I've worked closely with many on the staff in Admissions and Financial Aid, the main areas of enrollment management.

My own favored approach to work is becoming solidified as well.  I like to get people around a table to make decisions, I prefer framing the issue and then listening over having others frame the issue and present pre-determined options, I believe that building connections leads to unexpected responses to hard problems, I am confident that focused attention over time leads to better responses than quick decisions.  I would rather talk face-to-face or email over placing a phone call.  I am comfortable with an ever-changing array of issues, programs, and opportunities coming up each day.

Having said all this, though, I can't help but feel that Enrollment Management is a foreign country and I've just arrived without a visa or language skills.  Or in other words, my preparation has left me unprepared.

There is an ongoing debate in education between "content' and "skills" people.  The content folks argue that high school teachers (for example) ought to be trained largely in their disciplines, and their goal ought to largely be about helping students learn content.  History teachers should know their history; history students should be judged by their comprehension of history.

The skills folks argue that there are certain abilities--critical thinking, writing, leadership--that can be learned in any discipline, are essential for success in the real world, and ought to be the goal of education.  In this worldview, content is secondary to skills--it is the message and skills are the media.

My own reflection, and the research on content and skills, suggests that both camps are in error.  A content-only training is exactly what leads many university professors to be inept educators.  They know their disciplines, but they cannot convey their disciplines in any comprehensible way.  And skills-focused training runs up against the obvious fact that skills are context specific.  Writing in history, and poetry, and cosmology are radically different things.  Being good at one does not mean the writer is good at another.

So if neither content nor skills rule, how does one work with any success in a field outside one's own?  I have no deep insights.  But I have observed that skilled enrollment managers, like the man whose departure occasioned my temporary appointment and the colleagues I now work with in Admissions and Financial Aid, are practitioners before they are anything else.  Their jobs are about replicating the practices that have led to success in the past, ensuring that others do the same, and being mindful of when changing contexts make those activities suddenly obsolete.  Solving problems in a practice-based setting is not about coming up with a solution.  It is instead about changing behavior to see if those changes lead to different results, while knowing all along that the vicissitudes of time and place mean that all "solutions" are temporary.

These characteristics of enrollment management practice make it both fascinating and frightful.  And so to go along  with practice are a set of attitudes--the expectation that failure is always possible and always correctable, the willingness to accept responsibility, the temptation to hide mistakes until they fester, a fascination with trying new things.

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