Those of us who work at colleges and universities understand the critical role that successful enrollment plays in the sustainability of our institutions. As in private industry, the number of students whom we enroll annually represents the successful “sales” that our institutions need to achieve to operate reliably and fulfill their role of educating students. Particularly when institutions miss their enrollment targets or lose students through attrition, life can become very challenging for them. While high-end elite universities typically don’t have this problem and public institutions are often buffered by both the large volume of students enrolled and state funding, the rest of our institutions must work to attract and retain sufficient supplies of new students yearly.
To make things more complex, the supply of traditional high school students is waning, forcing campuses to come up with more innovative ways to achieve their enrollment goals. Increasingly, student-centric admissions and retention strategies have helped many colleges succeed. Administrators, advisors, and faculty with a common mission and determination to provide excellent educational experiences and high levels of customer service to all students are winning in this race.
The numbers of students that are now predicted to grow significantly are students from diverse backgrounds, including nontraditional learners and those who are first generation, underserved Latino students. High-touch, student-centered strategies of retention, persistence, and completion are evidencing higher success rates particularly with such populations. Current innovations such as those regarding predictive analytics being implemented by Civitas Learning and the Education Advisory Board that track the students’ footprint through their university journey and pinpoint when and where they succeed and fail, with appropriate and timely interventions to ensure that they don’t fall off track, are breaking new ground in the field of student-centered enrollment practice.
At Fairleigh Dickinson University, a new degree completion program is being created and Petrocelli College has been transformed from an atomized and siloed series of individual programs to a unit that has built a far more proactive, efficient enrollment structure. We meet weekly with all program directors to review the success of our lead generation, conversion rates, applications, and registration data. Our model is blended, flipped to ensure that students can rely upon online learning and instruction and come to campus once a week or less; current research shows that flipped class models work well for adult cohorts and helps them to remain in their study programs. We are also conducting focus groups and consultant studies to work on ways that our operation can reduce the many inconveniences that often drive students away from degree study. We consistently communicate the message to students that we are there to enable their degree completion and to remove obstacles in the way of their goal. Such student-centric messages and behaviors help to instill trust in our students and serve as the glue in a high-touch model that grows degree completion programs.
This watershed moment of change and opportunity signals that our institutions of higher learning must change and adapt to the times if they are to survive. Especially tuition-driven private institutions must find ways to alter and adapt their business models. Renowned Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen warns:
"…higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don’t feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble."
This focus on the student, rather than on the institution, shifts the paradigm and underscores the real reason that we work in universities—i.e., to serve the student. Students need to know that those on campus care about their development as individuals. Implementing this practice can make the difference between holding onto students and watching them walk away from our campuses. Developing proactive, student-centric business models that are systemized and a regular part of our day-to-day operations can significantly increase enrollment growth and keep our students happy and in class.
Lisa R. Braverman, Ph.D.
Dean of the Petrocelli College of Continuing Studies
Fairleigh Dickinson University