Successful Enrollment Management Post-Pandemic: Stop, Pivot, Proceed
Interim Chief Enrollment Officer
San Francisco Art Institute (San Francisco, California)
This past winter, I assumed my first interim role through The Registry to serve as the interim Vice President of Enrollment Management at the San Francisco Art Institute, one of the oldest fine arts colleges in the country. In my decades-long career, I have led enrollment programs at colleges and universities nationwide, including faith-based, private, public, and historically minority-serving institutions. Even in the best of times, these roles require professional agility, discipline, and a collaborative spirit—then came the pandemic. So many of the tools and assumptions we have held about the recruitment and retention of students have been turned upside down and inside out during the past 18 months. As we move forward it will be more important than ever to know how to stop, pivot, and proceed with an even more carefully honed lens focused on the future.
Coming out of the pandemic, historical data on enrollment trends and financial aid leveraging may not be as reliable as they used to be. As institutions recognize the impact that optional score reporting has on the demographics of their entering classes, we will see even more schools making standardized tests optional. This pandemic has brought to light characteristics about students that may be of greater importance than those scores: resilience, tenacity, persistence, and creativity are just a few. Think about how you may be able to measure the way that the character and values of your prospective students match those of the institution, using existing assessment tools such as recommendations, essay, and activities lists. This will require getting input from faculty and other stakeholders, doing the research to support the change, and having agreement on the importance of the results.
Financial aid eligibility is based on a family’s income two years ago. Thus, financial aid appeals will likely become more prevalent, and the need for equitable professional judgement all the more necessary. This post-pandemic period may be an opportunity to rethink awarding strategies with an eye towards changing family circumstances and the role that financial aid will have on students’ perception of your institution. Just as some schools were doing “probable” admission letters prior to their official decision date, there is a mindset that in uncertain financial times, sticker shock may cause application paralysis where students and their families cannot see a path forward to complete the application process. For very similar reasons, unless a school is among the more selective, old deadlines are likely to be more of a burden than of assistance in meeting enrollment goals. February 1 as an application deadline and May 1 as the deposit deadline will not serve all schools or all students with equity. Being poised to pivot to meet your students where they are, while keeping a firm grip on the culture and mission of the institution, keeps change relevant.
Post-traditional learners, students who may be working full- or part-time, or who may be care-givers, face unique challenges: these students may be unable to attend school full-time without a break, they may have been out of high school for a while, or they may be just graduating but with continuing responsibilities at home. Our institutions of higher education must be ready to admit and support these students. Normalizing online learning will foster access and providing academic and personal support when and how students need it will foster success. The pandemic uncovered inequities in our health, education, economic, policing, and technological infrastructures. The influx of diversity, equity, and inclusion openings and their elevation to cabinet level positions indicates that higher education is looking to address these issues. These are big changes but changes that are necessary as our student bodies change. Proceed and find ways to show that your institution’s approach to meet the needs of these students is distinct and worthy of their enrollment.
We have lost much, but we have learned much during the pandemic. When we step into interim roles, whether as a system, campus, or divisional leader, we do so not to fill a space but to build a bridge, and never has our work been more challenging or important than now. Colleagues will want to hang onto and revise the practices that existed pre-COVID. Doing so while while proceeding with the change that the post-COVID world requires is our challenge and our opportunity.