Friday, July 15, 2011

The role of consultants and vendors in enrollment management

One of the major differences between enrollment management and other parts of colleges is that enrollment management relies heavily on consultants and vendors to do its work. We develop prospects with help from one vendor, analyze data with another, use a third to develop our publications, and employ several others for smaller parts of our work.  Consultants help shape our strategy, test our messages, and improve our workflow.  And a great enrollment management consultant, Ian Symmonds, is my guide and mentor as I learn my way into this work.

None of this should be surprising.  Enrollment management is a results-driven business that relies heavily on data to make decisions. And it is a business that has changed rapidly in the last 20 years.  That change has made space in the market for businesses with specific expertise. And if those businesses can demonstrate return on investment, then it makes sense to contract with them, rather than expanding the college's fixed costs by hiring full-time employees to do that work.

One surprising thing about the field, though, is that consultants and vendors are also the source of most of the research about recruiting, admitting, funding, and enrolling students.  Compare data about enrollment management with data about the next step in the student's experience--the freshman year--to see the distinction.  Data about the views of freshmen comes out of the higher education research institute at UCLA.  The epicenter of ideas about  curriculum and retention in the first year is the first-year experience project at the University of South Carolina. And learning about the first-year emerges from peer-reviewed journals and academic conferences.

By contrast, summaries of research in enrollment management are more frequently compiled by vendors, as in the case of this report put out by Noel-Levitz.  The best-known experts in the field are consultants, be it Symmonds or George Dehne. And the list-servs, best practices, and conferences are sponsored by companies who sell products and services to colleges and universities.

There are several reasons that this is the case. Enrollment management as currently practiced is new--perhaps only 20 years old.  Therefore graduate programs that produce researchers in other fields haven't grown up yet in enrollment management.  The rapid change in the field makes it possible for individuals or small consultancies to gather and distribute meaningful data.  The competitiveness of the field, with dozens of colleges battling for top students makes practitioners less willing to share information among themselves.  And the nature of enrollment management--as practice more than discipline or skill--means that campus-based professionals aren't situated in a position to make the sort of generalizations that are the basis of academic research elsewhere in higher ed.

One wonders what this means for the future of enrollment management.  Will it eventually become an academic discipline with its own literature, faculty, etc.?  Or will it leave the university entirely, and become an outsourced service in the way that food service, bookstores, and security are now?

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