As I have observed from conducting Enrollment Opportunity Assessments on community and technical college campuses over the last two years, times are indeed changing. Following peak enrollments a few years ago during what has been termed the Great Recession, enrollments have been declining steadily for many of the nation’s two-year institutions amid the continued economic recovery. Compounding the problem are changing demographics, flat or declining state and local financial support, increased accountability for student outcomes through performance-based funding, and an extraordinarily competitive marketplace. Together, these forces are prompting a more aggressive and strategic approach by community and technical colleges to attract and retain students.
When we conduct on-campus analyses for two-year institutions, looking for ways to be even more efficient and effective in attracting and retaining students, we now focus more on enrollment “right sizing” rather than striving to return to peak enrollment levels achieved some five years ago at the height of the economic downturn. Our collaboration and discussions center more on identifying the headcount and full-time equivalent student number that actually provide the desired and necessary level of enrollment, revenue stability, and vitality.
Checklist of 10 questions to assess enrollment opportunities
The following questions provide some structure and guidance for two-year institutions that are reviewing current enrollment-oriented approaches and determining the “right” enrollment size for 2017 and beyond:
- Is there a three- to five-year strategic enrollment plan and, if so, is it an accurate reflection of the institution’s strategic plan?
- Does your institution have realistic enrollment goals rather than enrollment projections based on budget needs? Are the goals based on a recent environmental scan and demographic review of the district served, the programmatic needs and interests of the service area, and an understanding of the real capacity of the institution? Is there an ongoing plan to identify and fill those programs that are under-enrolled?
- Is the college sufficiently nimble and flexible to diversify its enrollment streams, including responding to the needs and interests of adults, online learners, and other potential audiences for existing and possible new programs and services?
- Is the annual enrollment plan (both student recruitment and student retention) driven by goals, data, and strategy, with incremental objectives that reflect the longer-term institutional strategic enrollment plan? Or is the plan simply a “grocery list” of activities to be carried out during the year without continuous measurement?
- Has the college quantified, internalized, and shared with faculty and staff the value of the net revenue per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student from all sources? A college community needs to know the real impact financially of the gain and loss of each prospective and currently enrolled student. This information also helps the institution to better understand the return on investment with the resources that are devoted to attracting and retaining students.
- Is there a cohesive, integrated approach to attracting and retaining students and the avoidance of silos? To assure a well-conceived, efficient, and effective enrollment program, it is important to have all enrollment components (admissions, marketing, recruiting, financial aid, institutional research, institutional technology, web development, orientation, retention, etc.) aligned and rooted by well-understood goals and objectives that contribute to enrollment success.
- Is there involvement and support in meeting enrollment objectives from the president and senior cabinet? Are they helpful in mobilizing the campus community in understanding the important role each person plays in attracting students? Does the campus community (board, administration, faculty, and staff) understand and appreciate the issues and challenge of meeting enrollment objectives in an ever-changing and highly competitive marketplace?
- Is there a working enrollment management task force with the ability to identify and obtain the necessary resources to produce a successful enrollment program? Does the college have continuity and stability among enrollment professionals with an ongoing professional development program to help them stay current on the latest best practices in meeting enrollment objectives? Is the staff structured and aligned properly in recognition of enrollment goals, including market segmentation initiatives?
- Is there a person specifically assigned to developing and implementing a goal- and strategy-driven retention plan with the benefit of the necessary data (analytics, diagnostics, surveys) to impact student persistence, progression, and success? If an institution wants to grow by 10 percent, a well-conceived and coordinated retention effort to realize at least half of the growth from “closing the back door” can contribute significantly to right-sizing the institution.
- Is the institution monitoring the influence of cost and the availability of student financial aid from all sources in a student’s ability to enroll and continue at the institution? Is the college tracking the ability to meet a student’s financial need and the amount of the need met with gift aid (grants and scholarships) versus self-help (work and loans)? Is the college proactive in monitoring and promoting the real affordability of the institution to maximize enrollment?
Each of the above items depends on a data-driven approach to inform enrollment goals, strategies, and decisions. Is there agreement collegewide, and do the key decision makers know which data are needed, in what form, for what purpose, and with what frequency? Are enrollment management status reports developed for review by staff on a weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis and, importantly, is the data being used to inform 30-, 60-, and 90-day enrollment action plans for both attracting and retaining students? Finally, is the data being used strategically to further improve efficiency and effectiveness of each and every strategy and tactic toward “right sizing” the institution?