Getting Started: Assess Your Support
At some campuses, there is a high level of trust between different divisions and for the enrollment area specifically. At other institutions, this trust has yet to be earned. If trust is low, you will likely have to build a broader base of support for the planning process by involving colleagues from across campus. If trust is high, you could opt to create a smaller working group for your SEP – perhaps just a select group from the enrollment division, marketing, and the student service areas. This is a nice luxury, as it allows the group to work faster.
Gauge your support and build as broad a base as you need to for your plan, but don’t artificially inflate your working group to make it look important. Other areas can always be recruited once the core of the strategy has been built.
Get the Right People
The ‘right’ people are not always the ones you think. You might think that for the plan to be successful, you need to go to the top and recruit cabinet-level leaders onto the planning team. I have actually found this counter-productive. First of all, these are some of the busiest people on campus, with the most out-of-control calendars. By adding them to a planning group, you are almost guaranteeing that your process will be slowed.
I have found that the most effective tool is to ask the group this question, “If we are wildly successful in creating and implementing our strategic enrollment plan, what will the university look like five years from now?”
But there is also a strange power dynamic at the top. Trust me I’ve been there. If you include one vice president you typically have to invite them all to keep things in balance. If you have a table full of vice presidents, it will change the power dynamic and a lot of other good contributors will be too intimidated to talk.
Instead of targeting the VPs, look for the next level down. Invite their trusted lieutenants and the people at the upper mid-level of leadership. These folks usually know how to get things done. They are trusted to make decisions, are practiced at communicating up and down the ladder, and should have the flexibility of schedule to get to meetings.
Ask the Most Important Question First
In your planning process, you need a touchstone. You need something you can return to over and over again like a compass to make sure that the group’s work is not going off course. I have found that the most effective tool is to ask the group this question, “If we are wildly successful in creating and implementing our strategic enrollment plan, what will the university look like five years from now?”
A strategic enrollment plan cannot just be a list of tactics to solve a particular problem, it should organize these tactics into groups that coherently support a ‘why’ that is important to the institution.
You can modify it to three years or ten years, but the first step should be to visualize success. Make it concrete. Attach numbers. Not just “more students,” but “our enrollment would increase by 20 percent.” Think through all the major facets that enrollment touches – retention, revenue, alumni engagement, student quality, diversity, reputation, etc. Take some time to create a vivid, inspiring image of what success will look like. At the beginning of each meeting, or anytime you start with a new large topic, revisit this question to make sure the group stays focused on the purpose of your work.
Pick a Planning Direction
There are two “directions” you can use to develop your plan. You can start from the top conceptually and work down into the tactical details, or you can start with a list of tactics and see how they relate to each other. Either method can be effective.
If your group seems very big picture and conceptual, it makes sense to work downward. Set your vision of success, define your priorities, and identify themes at the strategic level (such as “produce more healthcare graduates” in the earlier example). Then switch modes and brainstorm the tactical possibilities for each theme (e.g. “partner to expand clinical sites”). When you have a healthy list of tactical options, ask the group to work together to research the feasibility and potential risk/reward of each tactic. Keep the best and eliminate the less convincing possibilities.
If your group struggles with the conceptual and needs to approach things in a concrete way, let them start by brainstorming tactical ideas and come up with as exhaustive a list as possible. Then work together to group these ideas into themes, and let those themes drive the strategic goals you adopt.
Ground it in Reality
When I begin organizing an SEP, I often start with the idea of the ‘Iron Triangle of Enrollment.’ This is a concept which says that an institution must prioritize its efforts between enrollment growth, revenue growth, and academic quality, or the three will work against each other. This is a good place to start the conversation so that your planning process does not become a laundry list of unrealistic expectations. The institution will have to make hard choices about where to focus limited energy.
There is also a strange power dynamic at the top. If you include one vice president you have to invite them all. If you have a table full of vice presidents, it will change the power dynamic and a lot of other good contributors will be too intimidated to talk.
It is also critical to allow those areas that will be most impacted by the SEP to have the loudest voice, or at least to be well heard. If your enrollment team, for example, feels like goals were set for them with little input, they will not internalize them, nor are they likely to reach them. You may also miss out on important pieces of data if those closest to the action don’t feel like they can share it.
Choose a Practical Format
Now you are ready to start putting your plan on paper, but you need to decide how you will present it. Let’s be honest: A really long and involved plan with scores of pages, appendices, and charts and graphs looks impressive when it is unveiled, but that may be the last time it is read. The longer you make it, the more difficult it will be for your campus community to remember what is in it and the less often it will be referenced. Some of your colleagues may love a huge narrative report, but others will digest things better if they are visual and not too dense.
If you can get support for it, choose a shorter, more visual framework. If you use narrative, keep it all to the front or back as a summary and just bullet or highlight in the main document. My advice is to start with a visual – like a diagram or flowchart of how the pieces fit together. This will be the easiest to present to others as you are introducing it. You can then expand it to more detailed or narrative versions as needed, but you will always have the simplest version that you started with to go back to for easy reference. A simple document like this is something everyone in your campus community can access to remember the goals and their part in them.
What I’ve Learned
This spring, I began the planning for my fourth strategic enrollment plan. I believe in each of my previous plans, I have kept my vow that I would do things differently than what I inherited. Each time, I have refined my process to make the plan more accessible, more nimble, and more measurable. I am happy to say that these plans have been effective in getting strong enrollment results at three different institutions.
If you have been tasked to develop a strategic enrollment plan, or been tapped to be a key player in the process, embrace it. Apply these lessons learned to make the most of your experience. It is an acquired taste, for sure, but you may find you grow to love the process, like I have and want to pass it on.