Friday, October 12, 2012

What kind of business is enrollment management?

Until recently, one of the most consistent complaints about American higher education was that it had become too much like a business. (Ironically, now the louder complaint, coming from a different source to be sure, is that colleges and universities are not enough like a business, spending time as they do on things besides job training.)

The debate about whether higher education should or should not be like a business obscures a smaller but important question--what sort of business discipline should the components of a college be like?

While someone who knows more about the business office and fundraising operations of a college could write something brilliant about whether those offices should be more about accounting, finance, or entrepreneurship, I would like to touch on a question in my area: What kind of business is enrollment management?

This question matters because over the past twenty years, enrollment management has become a marketing discipline.  By this I mean that its key foci (pricing, branding, messaging, advertising) fall within marketing as a discipline, and that the obsessions of marketing (novelty, agility, cleverness, persuasion, differentiation, growth) have become the core obsessions of enrollment management.

Those obsessions seem to work best in a growth market, one where many additional consumers are looking to buy a product and are making decisions about the purchase based on marketing questions (How much will it cost me? How will it make me feel?  Is the product glamorous or prestigious? Do its ads and sales pitches speak to me?).  In this landscape, enrollment management teams can improve and expand marketing and thereby expect ever better results.

It may be that we don't live in that landscape any more.  Students are increasingly skeptical of traditional marketing tactics, and parents are dubious about the prices being charged for education.  Schools with a powerful brand can still rely on that brand, but the down economy and skepticism about the value of regular higher ed suggest that marketing tactics may not enroll students the way they used to.

So if enrollment management is becoming less like marketing, is there a business discipline whose insights are more helpful?

I would put my money on supply chain management as the disciplinary future of enrollment management. (Thanks to Dr. Brian Levin-Stankevich for making an off-handed remark that sparked my thinking on this.)

Supply chain management argues that it is not marketing, but instead creating value through the entire supply chain that leads to a product's success.  Further, it argues that relationships and customer service are more powerful than messaging and advertising in ensuring satisfaction.

In a supply chain model of enrollment management, admissions offices would think of establishing supply chains of students rather than increasing the number of prospects.  These supply chains--in schools, churches, non-profits, employers, would be in relationship with the college, and would be tasked with selecting the best supply of students for the particular college.  They would be fully empowered to make that decision--given control over a scholarship budget and admissions decisions.  Their work would be evaluated on outcomes--if students succeed in college, the suppliers would continue to get rewards.  If not, then the college would seek out new suppliers.

In turn colleges and universities would go out of their way to build, strengthen, and satisfy their suppliers, since there are many competitors for the supply chains.

Describing access to college in this language sounds, well, business-like.  But looked at another way it is an effort to solidify relationships that ought to be strong, but instead are weak in American society.  Would high school counselors know their students better if they were actually responsible for getting them into college?  Would high school and college curricula align better if there were real incentives to the high school to have its graduates succeed at particular colleges? Would freshmen be more likely to be retained if they attended a college where many of their older classmates attended? Would communities be healthier, and colleges more focused, if their supply of students depended on maintaining good relations with other institutions?

The answer to all of these questions is yes.  And if we could respond to all of them positively, we could be sure, too, that both students and society would be benefiting from the power of a meaningful college education.

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