How to Create a Winning Strategic Enrollment Plan

A strategic enrollment plan will only work if you make it accessible and bring people along for the journey. Here’s how to do exactly that.

By: Aaron Basko
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My first strategic enrollment plan was one I inherited. I had just stepped into a new role as an assistant vice president, and was told that we had recently completed an enrollment planning process that had taken nearly a year and involved multiple consultants and an army from across campus to complete. My job was now to maintain and update the plan and make sure that it was carried out. 

It was a good plan, and a lot of work had gone into it, so I diligently tried to follow up on all of the goals and recommendations, even as I was learning my new job. 

But after a few months, I noticed a recurring theme: No one cared. 

Despite all best intentions, this strategic enrollment plan as an institutional priority was quickly forgotten. Clearly, the stakes had been high to create a high-visibility document that included all of the most important players on campus. It had to be a success. But so much effort went into the process and the pomp that by the time the last meeting was held and the dust from the departing consultants had settled, everyone was ready to get on with their lives and move on to something else. 

It was a lot of institutional time, energy, and resources to go into something that mostly sat on a shelf. I vowed that when it was my turn to lead the planning process, I would do it differently.

What is a Strategic Enrollment Plan?

A strategic enrollment plan, sometimes also referred to as a strategic enrollment management plan, has been defined as “a comprehensive process designed to help an institution achieve and maintain optimum recruitment, retention and graduation rates of students, where ‘optimum’ is defined within the academic context of the institution.”

What Should a Strategic Enrollment Plan Look Like?

There is no universally agreed-upon format for a strategic enrollment plan (SEP). I have seen some that are nearly 100 pages and others that are only three pages. Some are written by committee and others authored primarily by one person. Technically, the only two things an SEP must have are a) a focus at the strategic level, and b) an organizational structure that allows you to make decisions and track progress. This sounds simple, but that’s not always the case. The word strategic is often thrown around very loosely to mean “anything we do that is important,” while the “plan” part can easily become just a bulleted list of wishful thinking.

Strategic vs. Tactical

To start with, everyone involved in the planning process should know the difference between ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical.’ Strategic is what you want to do and why, while tactical focuses on the how. If my university decides that it wants to graduate more qualified health care workers (what) in order to better support the needs of its community (why), that is strategic. If it decides to do this by adding health care majors and partnering with the local hospital to create more clinical opportunities (how), that is tactical.

If you can get support for it, choose a shorter, more visual framework.

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. In order to be considered a ‘plan,’ it should also define the markers that would indicate whether this “why” is being fulfilled. 

If you have met these criteria, a strategic enrollment plan can be as long or short as necessary to achieve your goals. A plan can be largely narrative or almost completely bulleted. You can follow someone else’s template or design your own format.

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.

Aaron Basko

Aaron Basko

Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management, University of Lynchburg

Aaron Basko has 25 years of experience serving as an enrollment growth specialist and student success strategist for multiple institutions. He has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, The Journal of College Admissions, Recruitment and Retention in Higher Education, Career Convergence, Career Developments, and the State Department’s Fulbright blog.


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