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What’s AHEAD Commentary [Poll 3]

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Fall Enrollment: A Common Topic of Conversation Among Higher Education Leaders

In our third What’s AHEAD poll, we focused on identifying Higher Education Trend-Spotters’ views of fall undergraduate enrollment. We invited four people to comment: Penn AHEAD’s Peter Eckel, who writes from his perspective as a university trustee, and three Penn Alumni—Robert Alexander, Kathryn Regjo, and Jenny Rickard—all leading scholar-practitioners.

Enrollment Beyond the Number: A Trustee’s View

Peter Eckel
Senior Fellow, Penn AHEAD
Trustee, University of La Verne


Enrollment should be more than a number reported to boards of trustees. As we are learning at the University of La Verne, where I serve as a trustee and sit on the new enrollment ad hoc committee, enrollment should frame and drive three essential board-level conversations.

La Verne, an independent university in California that is highly tuition dependent, is in the category of institutions that fell short of its enrollment goals for first-time, full-time students (although it did well with retention and transfer students). In the past few years, the board has consistently talked “a great deal” about enrollment. What has changed is that we are talking about enrollment differently. The enrollment conversation at the board level is now about three different but interdependent dimensions: finances, strategy, and mission.

  • Enrollment as financial. Enrollment is always a financial discussion for boards of tuition-dependent institutions. What are the target numbers, and are we reaching them? What should we charge for tuition? What is the appropriate discount rate to remain financially viable and attract students? What are the financial implications of our enrollment, tuition, and aid decisions?
  • Enrollment as strategy. Enrollment is also about how we position ourselves in a highly competitive market comprised of other independent universities, community colleges, and public universities—as well as some for-profit providers. What price will the market bear? How can we best leverage scarce scholarship dollars? What makes La Verne most appealing to prospective students? Which programs are attracting students and which are not? How do we compare and compete?
  • Enrollment as mission. Enrollment is also an embodiment of mission. Through board decisions on the desired admitted student profile and tuition rate, we are enacting our values. Who are the students we want to serve? How well are we serving low-income, first-generation, and minority students? How well are we attracting and retaining adult and part-time students? How can we make the La Verne experience as affordable as possible? Are our enrollment decisions in line with our mission and values?

The challenge related to enrollment for many boards is twofold. First, these discussions are typically not intentionally framed in these three dimensions. Instead, they tend to emphasize just one: finances. Second, if addressed explicitly, these dimensions are typically discussed in different committees, such as finance and enrollment management, with little intentional cross-committee dialogue. The challenge for boards is to effectively address—and integrate—all three dimensions to effectively guide the institution and ensure it is living up to its ideals while remaining competitive.

Everybody’s Talking…But What Can We DO?

Robert J. Alexander
Vice President for Enrollment and Communication
Millsaps College


As the AHEAD poll indicates, everyone’s talking about enrollment, but what are they doing? At many institutions, chief enrollment officers are working to increase enrollment, and the resulting revenue, due to declines in state and federal funding. In a newly ascendant aspect of our role, enrollment managers have responsibilities not only to add new students, but also to decrease attrition and capture more revenue from each enrolled student (and simultaneously increase students’ return on investment when they leave with a degree). But too many enrollment officers are simply trying harder to market themselves in the same old ways to the same kinds of students they’ve always enrolled—a population that is, in large measure, shrinking. That’s why ours is often described as the hottest seat on campus.

Keen enrollment managers are exploring a number of pathways toward additional revenue. Some are pursuing new markets, with the new kinds of students ascending to the fore of the American college-bound population. Others are developing new academic programs that will draw new interest—including 4+1 programs that encourage students to earn master’s degrees before leaving and allow the institution to generate additional revenue from students already enrolled. Still other colleagues are investing in new ways to tell their institutional story and to articulate the value of higher education through that story. Yes, educational costs have been rising, but so has the value of a college degree. Collectively, our efforts are helping more Americans go to college and generate a return on their educational investment.

As enrollment officers become more engaged in the strategic planning efforts of their institutions, our focus will continue to widen beyond the old reporting lines of admissions and financial aid, broadening to include closer relationships with student retention, academic program development, and marketing. At institutions on the cutting edge, multidivisional efforts already underway reinforce the value for current students on our campuses, not only during the sales portion of recruiting new students but also throughout their educational experience. We’re beginning to think beyond graduation, to how institutions and alumni can deliver ongoing value through engagement in career networking and mentoring, fundraising activities, and as potential recruiters to perpetuate a virtuous cycle and sustain our colleges into the future.

Kathryn S. Regjo
Lincoln College of New England


Despite recent gains in the economy, affordability is an increasing concern for students and families seeking higher education. As prospective students increase their desire to shop on price, institutions will likely see one of three trends. Institutions that have the reputation as a premium institution will continue to experience more enrollment than serviceable. Those that have built their education delivery as a low-cost model will most likely continue to see increases in enrollment. Finally, those “stuck in the middle” will struggle in the coming years to promote and reinvent their value propositions to remain viable in the marketplace. The challenge, of course, is that most colleges and universities in the United States are susceptible to the third development.

Behind all of these trends is an added element of risk for those institutions largely dependent on federal financial aid. As the landscape of financial aid changes, institutions that rely heavily on federal aid will need to consider promoting curriculum that clearly communicates a student’s ability to succeed in coursework and complete a desired course of study on time. These elements have not historically been competitive distinctions highlighted by institutions in the middle.

I see a world where institutions that can effectively communicate solid outcomes, in addition to the unique values so often displayed in institutional missions, will be more successful in carving out a sustainable market position. Institutions that are less successful in this communication will most likely continue to see enrollment declines as students flock to premium education at a premium price or seek strong education grounded in affordability.

Discussing Enrollment: It’s Time to Embrace Reality

Jenny Rickard
Vice President for Enrollment
University of Puget Sound


On a spreadsheet, where net tuition shortfalls can be resolved simply by increasing the number of new students in a formula or decreasing a tuition discount rate, making budget projections work is a fairly straightforward proposition. In today’s dynamic market for college students, however, there are few straightforward solutions.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, college enrollment has declined nationally in recent years. So it’s not surprising that most campus leaders are discussing the implications of their fall enrollment “a great deal.” What is also perhaps not surprising, but certainly worrisome in this context, is the finding that increasing undergraduate enrollment is the most common theme of enrollment discussions on campuses while, at the same time, finances are cited as the perceived reason why undergraduates do not enroll. The conflicting nature of those two findings suggests that while conversations may in fact be happening, they may be occurring in a vacuum.

The conflict rests in the idea that somehow an institution can enroll more students, even though the price it is asking may be too high relative to that university’s perceived value in the marketplace. That idea reflects a lack of understanding (or acknowledgement) of the competitiveness of an institution’s offerings in the market from which it has traditionally enrolled students, as well as perhaps a naiveté about the institution’s realistic potential to attract students from new markets. This is not the time for higher education leaders to have their heads in the sand when it comes to the reality of their institution’s market position.

While it is good news that senior leaders are having conversations about enrollment, those conversations need to go beyond the simplicity of spreadsheets to the complexity and dynamism of the relationships among enrollment, institutional mission, market position, and financial sustainability.