Keeping Enrollment Issues Top of Mind during a Presidential Search and Transition

With Amy Crutchfield

Enrollment is inextricably linked to a higher education institution’s success and thus it is imperative that a college or university president truly understand and embrace this area. Presidential candidates must ask the right questions around enrollment and admission as they interview, and show a definite commitment to working in partnership with enrollment leaders should they be hired to lead the campus. In the following interview, Amy Crutchfield, principal and leader of WittKieffer’s successful Enrollment practice, considers the role of the top enrollment officer in a presidential recruitment.

How does enrollment factor into a presidential search?

Crutchfield: Enrollment factors into a presidential search in several ways. First, enrollment is usually a key charge for a new leader. Because many institutions are dependent on tuition revenue – with a significant portion of their budgets coming from enrollment – and because of the visibility that healthy enrollment brings an institution, presidents are being asked to attend to it as a top priority. For institutions that are experiencing a downturn in enrollment, there can be no greater charge than to stabilize and, hopefully, grow enrollment. One hopes that presidential candidates are increasingly aware of the importance of enrollment to institutional success. Well-informed candidates will seek out the chief enrollment officer if he/she is on the search committee. Regardless, they will ask detailed questions to learn how this area has been performing and what their role may be.

Additionally, parents and prospective students are increasingly savvy, and they may wonder what impact a new leader will have on the future direction of an institution. They may want assurance that their investment in the institution is protected. For the enrollment officer, communicating to prospective students and their families about the continuity in leadership and goals for a smooth transition can help negate concerns.

What should presidential candidates be expected to know in regards to enrollment issues?

Crutchfield: The expectations for presidents in regards to enrollment have changed. This is due to the impact of enrollment on public perception, reputation, and financial viability for institutions. Many candidates are bringing strong knowledge of the area, particularly those for whom enrollment has been a direct report in the past.

Institutions are seeking leaders with a past history of impacting enrollment and concrete examples of success. While a new president doesn’t need to be an enrollment expert – one would hope that they have a solid chief enrollment officer leading the area – they do need to understand key issues such as the competitive landscape, changing student demographics, the importance of data and technology, and how marketing and branding
impact enrollment. Strong candidates will know the right questions to ask to ascertain the strength and needs of enrollment. Some of these specific questions include:

  • How is enrollment strategy tied to the mission, goals, and strategic plan of the institution?
  • Is the institution recruiting and retaining students with diversity and inclusion as a top priority?
  • What portion of the institutional budget comes from tuition and how much is tuition being discounted?
  • What is the institution’s financial aid picture and are financial aid expenditures sustainable into the future?

These are just a few examples of the type of probing that a presidential candidate should do around enrollment issues.

Which skills or characteristics bode well for a president regarding enrollment matters?

Crutchfield: The enrollment field is changing rapidly and the skills that made one successful in the past don’t guarantee success in the future. The same is true for presidents. In today’s landscape, presidents must be aware of the pace of change. Someone who is forward-thinking, innovative and willing to take risks will partner especially well with enrollment.

Boards and committees should also seek candidates with strong analytical and strategic skills. An understanding of data is essential, as is the ability to ask the right questions to determine if enrollment is headed in the right direction. Institutions have to have a culture of enrollment management to be successful. Whereas enrollment was once the job of one division, it is now everyone’s job to nurture and support healthy enrollment. A president who understands that will create a community of enrollment champions.

How can a search committee and institutional leaders reassure stakeholders during the presidential search?

Crutchfield: An appropriate level of transparency will help assure the campus community that the search is in good hands and progressing as expected. While we are seeing more processes conducted behind the curtain – assuring confidentiality for candidates – campus constituents typically receive updates about the process. This is often communicated through a website devoted to the search. Information shared may include the composition of the search community, an approximate timeline – without revealing the dates of candidate interviews – and periodic updates. A change in leadership, even when exceptionally managed, creates anxiety for an institution. Conveying a sense of calm, direction, optimism, and confidence can go a long way when a community is feeling uncertain about the future.

When the search concludes, what role does the enrollment officer play in getting the new president up to speed?

Crutchfield: The chief enrollment officer will be a key player in on-boarding a new leader. At smaller institutions the head of enrollment will likely be a direct report, whereas at more complex places the enrollment officer typically reports to the provost. Regardless, the head of enrollment will be a source of information, particularly for a new leader who is hungry for data. These data can give a new president a better sense of who the students are and where they come from and how strong an institution is. Given the importance of enrollment, new presidents should hit the ground running and view the head of enrollment as a partner for future success.

[This interview is included in the Third Edition of Best Practices in Higher Education Presidential Search.]

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