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The art and the science of managing enrolment

How to recruit and retain the right students.


At the University of Saskatchewan, the enrolment challenge this year was an unexpected surge in applications from Alberta. At many universities in Atlantic Canada, the ongoing concern is how to manage declining demographics. For the University of Windsor, it’s figuring out how to grow the student body in a region with a relatively small population.

Planning university enrolment has never been easy. Demographic trends are predictable but societal changes and swings in the economy are not, and surprise developments – as when a provincial government cuts funding to universities, sending applicants scurrying to neighbouring provinces – can disrupt enrolment targets. So, in recent years universities have been putting time and effort into a more strategic view of what is meant by enrolment management.

“The traditional view of enrolment management is about setting targets and managing demand, and how many offers you make to get the right number of students,” says Richard Levin, executive director, enrolment services, and university registrar at the University of Toronto. “It’s transactional.”

Strategic enrolment management, he says, is a long-term process that attempts to engage students from the time they are prospects to the time they graduate, with the idea that if the university admits the right students and makes sure they succeed, the process is better for everyone.

Strategic enrolment management, or SEM, originated at Boston College in the 1970s and gradually spread through colleges and universities in the United States; a SEM conference has been held by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers every year since 1990. The concept was picked up much more recently in Canada, according to Strategic Enrolment Intelligence, billed as “Canada’s first book on strategic enrolment management” and published by the Academica Group in 2010.

Canadians’ interest in SEM reflects the changes in the postsecondary landscape, including increased competition among institutions and new provincial mandates for growth. “There are very few facets of enrolment management that are the same as they were a decade ago,” observes Scott Duguay, director of enrolment management at Bishop’s University.

Universities today rely more on tuition revenue to pay for teaching than they did in the early 1990s. Enrolment is a factor in the size of a university’s operating grant from most provincial governments. And, says Mr. Duguay, students and their parents have higher expectations. Moreover, universities are competing with each other as they try to attract students beyond the local area. All together, these factors mean that more attention is being paid to the student experience and student success.

“If there is a thread to all of this, it’s that the landscape is changing – the internal landscape and the external landscape,” says Asa Kachan, assistant vice-president, enrolment management, and registrar at Dalhousie University. “Much of what we do is a dance. There’s a science to it – hard data. The other piece is an art.”

One big change has been in the way universities present themselves to potential students. Because Dalhousie now competes in many different markets, says Ms. Kachan, it sells the “Dalhousie experience” rather than the academic programs. A positive experience creates good word-of-mouth, she says, and helps attract and keep students.

To promote the Dalhousie experience, recruiters are trained to listen more closely to prospective students to learn whether the experience will work for them. “It’s less about a sales pitch and more about listening to what matters to them and seeing whether there’s a fit,” says Ms. Kachan.

This is the first stage in building a lasting relationship with a student, and it’s a crucial part of SEM. Retention is as important as recruitment, in part because it costs less to keep students than to recruit them. But it’s also better for students to choose an institution that’s a good fit for them. There are all sorts of approaches to retention, and many are geared to keeping students from dropping out during first year, when attrition rates are highest.

The University of British Columbia made a fairly radical change to its admissions process last year for its Vancouver campus. UBC now requires applicants to submit, along with their high-school marks, a personal profile where they answer questions about their personal characteristics and non-academic strengths. The new broad-based admissions process is designed to help the university choose students who will engage with others, show leadership and be able to deal with obstacles. Evaluating the personal profiles entails an enormous amount of work, says Walter Sudmant, director of planning and institutional research at UBC. But, he adds, it’s worth it because marks don’t tell a university all it needs to know. That may be especially true for a university like UBC that recruits from a narrow band of high-achieving students.

UBC’s Sauder School of Business has used the broad-based admissions process for more than six years, and early results show it is working. Pamela Lim, assistant dean and director of undergraduate programs at Sauder, says the retention rate has grown to 91 percent from 87 percent. There has been a measurable improvement in student engagement, with 29 percent of students now involved in student government, associated clubs and conferences. The number of students going on international exchanges rose dramatically since the introduction of broad-based admissions, to 34 percent from 15 percent.

Enrolment management is more effective if all the relevant players in the university are involved. Sometimes structures are changed to encourage that. U of T, for example, melded student recruitment, admissions and financial aid offices into one unit called enrolment services. It also put in place a SEM committee made up of registrars and recruitment and admissions staff from faculties and campuses that admit students directly from high school. The committee identifies and clarifies recruitment goals and reviews a range of data, including surveys of applicants and current students; retention and graduation information; and ways that the university communicates with students. The committee then works to align approaches so that recruitment is evidence-based and coordinated, explains the university registrar, Mr. Levin.

“We also bring these sorts of issues to broader committees, including deans, so that the university is fully engaged with enrolment management strategies and evidence,” adds Mr. Levin.

As enrolment management moves beyond recruitment, it is crucial to get all parts of the university involved in creating a sense of student engagement, says Jody Gordon, vice-president, students, at the University of the Fraser Valley. She says it’s easier to get buy-in from faculty about their role in the process if they can be shown how their behaviour influences enrolment. “If it’s data-rich and evidence-based, the faculty is more likely to get involved,” she says.

Parents are a bigger part of the picture these days as well, and that affects the way universities handle recruitment and retention. “Prospective students and their parents want authenticity,” explains Ms. Kachan of Dalhousie. Parents talk to other parents and “word of mouth is golden,” so they have to be satisfied with their children’s experience, too.

A very large piece in the enrolment puzzle is the quality of the data. Universities have always relied on data to plan enrolment, but the ways they collect, use and process data have changed. Data collection and the ability to analyze information have improved markedly over the last decade, says Bruce Winer, assistant vice-president, institutional research and planning, at Carleton University. It’s now easier to categorize applicants and registrants by a variety of demographic details, and that gives universities feedback on their recruitment successes as well as failures. In the past, this kind of data crunching was too expensive, he explains, but costs have fallen as business tools have improved.

And universities need more data today because recruitment has become very competitive, says Mr. Duguay of Bishop’s. “We now need to understand our students like a business would understand its customers.” Bishop’s is no longer satisfied with data that shows how it ranks compared to other schools; it wants data it can use to improve the student experience at Bishop’s. A recent example: when surveys showed that students were dissatisfied with the dining hall, the university completely renovated it.

Mr. Levin of U of T says that refined data can also be used to fine-tune recruitment strategy by determining, for example, whether students who visit the school are more likely to apply than students who don’t visit.

Two newer sources of data are website analytics and social media. Recruitment professionals watch to see which parts of the site prospective students are visiting and then “tweak it accordingly,” says Mr. Levin. He says that with the help of customized applicant information as well as social media, “we personalize the application process much more.”

The data that universities collect to manage enrolment can help administrators decide whether to recruit more students – or close programs. Susan Gottheil, vice-provost, students, at the University of Manitoba, says predictive modelling helps universities understand enrolment trends, and what will happen if the trends continue.

Data on enrolment trends also help universities target their messages to the right audiences – the ones with growth potential. Out-of-province students now make up more than half of the incoming class at Dalhousie,so Dal isn’t pitching exclusively to the home market any more, says Ms. Kachan. To reach the parents of international students, it translated a question-and-answer page for parents into multiple languages.

The University of Windsor relied on data to change its whole recruitment focus, says Clayton Smith, the mid-sized university’s vice-provost, students and international. When it saw that it was already drawing 60 to 70 percent of the region’s high school graduates who go on to an Ontario university, and knowing it had a limited geographic pool in Essex County, it determined to recruit more American students, particularly from the nearby states of Michigan and Ohio. It started to offer Americans a special tuition rate and to recruit like a U.S. university – at high schools, for example. U of Windsor now treats Detroit, rather than Toronto, as its nearest “big city,” says Dr. Smith.

The University of Saskatchewan undertook a SEM project over the last two years to look at its capacity and where to expand or cut back. The study focused on growing demographic groups, including Aboriginal and international students, and determined the university should increase enrolment by about 400 students to 18,466 by the fall of 2015. That represents an increase of less than 2.5 percent over two years. But, for the 2012-13 academic year, qualified applications grew more than 25 percent from the year earlier, says Dan Seneker, the U of S manager of student recruitment, so this means more rejection letters and longer waiting lists.

At the graduate student level, enrolment management is becoming a concern, too, says Shari Sekel, director of graduate programs at Brock University’s Goodman School of Business and vice-president of the Canadian Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals. “In the last five years, graduate enrolment management has become extremely important,” she says, “because getting graduate students has become extremely competitive.”

Enrolment management is especially important for course-based graduate programs like MBA programs; these, unlike research-based graduate programs, tend to make money for universities. But even that is changing. In Ontario, a one-time funding envelope from the province to help meet domestic graduate enrolment targets put pressure on research programs to learn how to “manage customers” too, says Ms. Sekel.

For Mr. Duguay at Bishop’s, this all boils down “to a value question for students.” Enrolment management works best, in his view, when students perceive that what they get out of their university experience is greater than the intellectual and financial effort they put into getting an education.

“I define enrolment management as not just about retaining students, but also about increasing the experience for those who would stay anyway.” For a university to develop a good enrolment management strategy, “you have to take a deep look at yourself and your institution,” he says. “We take the time to analyze what we’re doing and whether we’re answering student needs.”

Daniel Drolet lives in Ottawa and writes often for University Affairs.

Daniel Drolet
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