Sunday, September 25, 2011

Enrollment management, cost, and quality--the questions

For a brief time the national conversation on higher education was attentive to the relationship between cost and quality, with open learning advocates and technology fans predicting a future where education might be both more affordable and better.

More recently, though, the two matters--cost and quality--have become separated.  The smaller stream, focused on quality, has been concerned with findings like those in Academically Adrift which point to the lack of learning taking place in higher ed.  The broader stream has focused on the cost of higher education, especially in relation to an economic decline which puts into question the dollar value of a college degree.

There has been little attention to enrollment management in the discussions.  This is a shame, since regardless of the direction of the stream, enrollment managers are the ones most likely to have a sense of what preoccupies prospective students and the most likely to have to explain new approaches to education to those students.

So here are several questions about the relationship between cost, quality, and enrollment management, all of which I've been wondering about over my past couple of months in enrollment management::

  1. What is the current relationship between cost and quality at your institution?  What should it be? On most campuses discussions about cost take place in budget meetings while discussions about quality reside in faculty meetings, so the two rarely meet.  When they do, enrollment managers often are not at the table.  For this reason campuses are not always clear about where they stand on this issue, and unclear about which direction to move.  That direction needs to be set both by practical considerations (the "is" question) but also by strategic ones that can only be uncovered by asking the "should" question.
  2. Who does attend your institution?  Who should attend? Most campus stakeholders have some idea about who should attend their institution, and those views have a great deal to do with where the stakeholder stands on the cost and quality issues.  But those views are rarely informed by an understanding of who does attend the institution and why.  Often, enrollment managers are the ones with the information that makes a conversation about the demographics of the student body possible.
  3. What does your school mean by quality? What role do students play in that definition? One of the reasons that the conversation about cost has outpaced the conversation about quality is because the meaning of quality is so unsure, especially at institutions where inputs--the wealth and academic performance of entering students, the wealth and prestige of the institution--are not the key measures of quality.  Here, enrollment managers seem to be behind the game, largely using input measures as the key indicators of quality. But if quality is about student growth, or about learning outcomes, then an input approach to the entering class gets in the way of advancing an institution's work on lowering cost while improving quality.
  4. Does your school have a coherent philosophy regarding merit- and need-based aid? Over time more and more institutional funds have gone into merit-based aid (academic scholarships) and less into need-based aid. If this shift aligns with an institution's strategy about cost and quality, then it makes sense.  But if not (which I expect is the case on many campuses) then not only does enrollment management fail to support the institution's direction, but it cuts against it.  If, for example, your school is more costly than its peers, and your students are struggling to afford it, and campus stakeholders believe the institution should be accessible to a diverse student body, then a merit-focus cuts against strategy and culture.
  5. Does your school have a defensible balance between standard aid practices and special sources of aid?  Most schools have published aid grids--if you have XX ACT score and X.XX GPA you get a scholarship of $XXXXX.  But they also award aid to students for other things--athletics, science achievement, coming from abroad, etc.  Many of these special sources of aid advance strategic initiatives, others support new programs, or meet the interests of donors, or seek to open new student markets.  It would be naive to think these special sources should go away.  So the question is whether the number, size, and frequency of these special sources of aid undermines the main financial aid strategy.
  6. Does enrollment management have a meaningful place in the campus strategic plan? Many strategic plans include enrollment management in an operational role--the plan says to do things X, Y, and Z, and enrollment management will get us enough students to provide revenue to do them. But especially if an institution is serious about making headway on cost and quality, enrollment management has to be an active part of the plan--not just meeting enrollment goals but providing insights into who is likely to attend, why they attend, and who the plan is most likely to serve well.

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