Enrollment Management and the Admissions Experience

During junior and the first half of senior year most high school students often find their mail flooded with solicitations from schools such as the University of Chicago or many they have never heard of.

What is behind this flurry of marketing pieces? Each college’s enrollment management system collects student data from PSAT or PLAN registration, college fairs, or website visits (to name just a portion of sources) which are then used to aggressively solicit potential applicants. As Jack Maguire, the father of enrollment management systems noted over 35 years ago, “To the Organized, Go the Students.” (Bridge Magazine, 1976)

As a recipient of this attention, the best approach is to sit back and let the wave of paper flow by. If an offer beckons, such as a waiver on an application fee, indulge. These solicitations are guided by algorithms written to increase the school’s application pool, broaden the geographical scope of its student population, or to recruit students that will help bring up the school’s median standardized test scores. The reason for the paper flood could be any, all, or none of these: objectives are as varied as the institutions themselves, but the paper blasts are driven by the metric objectives of the institution’s enrollment management system. 

Enrollment Management Systems arose from Boston College’s crisis in the early 1970’s. Boston College, after 113 years of aspiring to become the ‘Catholic Harvard,’ had instead become the ‘Chestnut Hill Catastrophe.’ The profile of the college was woeful:

  1. Virtually the entire student population was from the greater Boston area (it was primarily a commuter school) or portions of New England or the Mid-Atlantic area; worse still, the number of high school graduates from this region of the country was projected to decrease by 45%.
  2. BCs endowment was around $5 million; it had negative net assets.
  3. BC was ‘hemorrhaging students’ (p. 5 “The Creation of Enrollment Management at Boston College,” Jonathan Epstein, Concord, MA, 2010). Its retention rate was low though there were no metrics in place to accurately measure
  4. Boston College was in discussions with the University of Massachusetts to sell them the Chestnut Hill campus, which would then become ‘U. Mass Boston”.  

The Dean of Admissions, a former assistant professor of Physics, Jack Maguire, in order to save BC, fabricated the ‘principles of enrollment management circa 1976.’ Maguire created an enrollment management system containing extensive research and analysis, applicant trend identifiers, competitive school metrics, and a ‘sophisticated rating system for admissions,’ which remains wholly in place today (p.11 Ibid.). In essence, Maguire recognized the interplay of customer service, research, and marketing. It worked and is still working miraculously well.

By the time Doug Flutie, the future Boston College Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, applied to BC in 1981, applications had risen from 7,000 to 14,000, and acceptance levels had dropped from a high of 90% to 35%, while the applicant pool had expanded from being mostly regional to national in scope.

Improving selectivity is the bedrock of virtually all successful enrollment management programs. Selectivity attracts more academically competitive applicants, raises US News rankings, which attracts alumni contributions, and better faculty, all leading to an upward spiral of success. The BC success story did not go unnoticed. USC, one of the legion of schools to follow the enrollment management model, not only implemented its enrollment management system, reducing its admissions rate to 21%, but in 2007 established the USC Center for Enrollment Research, which was soon incorporated into the USC Rossier School of Education. It “…encourages enrollment professionals to place their trust in corporate strategies and support efforts to transplant them into the higher education sector.” Assuredly, the paper will continue to flow with an ever stronger current.