Beyond Admissions and Enrollment: What Does the World Need Us to Be?

WittKieffer is fortunate to have had two renowned admission/enrollment management leaders join our search consulting staff recently. Both will focus on recruiting a range of leadership roles in these areas, helping institutions to build pipelines and leadership teams for admissions and enrollment. In her distinguished career, Christy Pratt has served as director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Notre Dame as well as in key senior admissions positions at the University of Virginia, East Carolina University and Hood College. Robert “Rob” Springall comes to our firm after serving as assistant vice president for enrollment management and executive director of undergraduate admissions at Penn State University; he has also held admissions and enrollment roles at Muhlenberg College, Bucknell University, University of Central Florida, Cornell University and the University of Vermont. In the conversation below, we ask Christy and Rob to share insights on the current state of enrollment and admissions, and where U.S. higher education is headed.

We’ve heard about the enrollment cliff in higher education for years, but what do you see as the most intractable challenge for admissions and enrollment management leaders today? How can it be addressed? 

Christy: We know that there will continue to be more competition for top talent, fewer students in certain areas of the country and financial constraints for colleges to do more with less. But also of significance are the backgrounds of those students and their needs. Not only will they need greater access to advising on the college process, they will need more wrap-around financial and student support to attend college and thrive. Attending college is so much more than tuition, housing and meal plans. College students today, more than ever, need ready access to mental health support and colleges are struggling to keep up with the demand. The expansion of these services is a growing need and the leaders to provide them is just one area that we at WittKieffer can help make an impact.

Rob: Reaching the cliff is not a singular event nor is its impact uniform (see Nathan Grawe’s great work, for example). Some institutions are seeing enrollment declines now and wrestling with the best approaches to their futures. At the same time, some universities are breaking enrollment records year after year. Enrollment leaders must continually develop their ability to understand and address the circumstances for their institution. There is no single solution. My go-to question was, “What does the world need us to be?” From there, find the most honest and helpful answer possible.

Where are the opportunities? Do you see admissions/enrollment leaders who are pursuing unique, visionary initiatives? What are they? 

Rob: The opportunity for enrollment leaders and executives in higher education is to develop an unambiguous sense of mission for their organization, rigorously look at the students available to enroll, and clarify the revenue picture. When you find that combination that is authentic and sustainable, champion it and find others who will champion it with you.  

Enrollment leaders shine the spotlight on what the institution should be most proud of, often help create points of pride and shape the student body. At the end of the day, though, families choose campuses because of institutional commitments like unique academic offerings (like the K-Plan) or a great first-year experience (University 101 at my alma mater, the University of South Carolina), as well as location, major and their perception of value. Some great ideas come from enrollment management but they ultimately have to be full campus commitments.  

Christy: Lowering the barriers to attending a four-year institution has been one area of focus throughout my career. As a first-generation college graduate, it is imperative that colleges and universities continue to invest in helping eliminate barriers for students to enroll in college. From advising on the college process by organizations such as The College Advising Corps to financial aid models that eliminate loans, there has been great advancement in first-generation students attending and graduating from college. One example of a leader who has been creative in eliminating barriers is Dean of Admissions Whitney Soule at the University of Pennsylvania. From adding an admissions essay topic for students to express gratitude to eliminating the enrollment deposit, she is leading her team and Penn into a new era that is showing that all students are welcome at the institution.

Your colleague Melody Rose has written “high-quality, enrichening higher education is essential for a civil society.” It’s an important, timeless message. Do you feel it still resonates with institutions and the students and families they cater to?

Rob: I think it does but like so many elements in public discourse, we oversimplify it. Too often it’s either liberal arts or engineering, practical education or an appreciation of the arts and humanities. I reflect on my own college experience to explain that either-or thinking isn’t helpful. I went to an undergraduate institution that is unabashedly career-focused, Rochester Institute of Technology. RIT made sure that I developed my skills as a writer and as a critical thinker. It just happened that some of those courses were in the context of a STEM-focused academic program.

Christy: While the landscape of education is evolving, higher education remains a vital institution in today’s society. Its role in fostering knowledge, skills, research, personal growth and societal progress continues to shape individuals and communities, making it a significant force in contemporary society. The type of institution does not matter as much as the education itself.

Deloitte recently stated, “The United States can no longer assume its pole position as the dominant source of higher education across the globe.” One could look at this pessimistically, but what do you see for the future of U.S. higher education?

Christy: Higher education in the United States is highly regarded globally and known for its diverse range of institutions, academic excellence and research output. However, it’s important to note that higher education systems vary widely across different countries, each with its own unique characteristics and strengths. Those institutions in the U.S. that forge partnerships with colleges and universities globally are providing opportunities for students that provide the best of both.

Rob: We sometimes take it for granted that American colleges and universities have been the gold standard. Over the last few decades, many countries around the world—notably China and India—have been developing their own elite institutions as a means of educating more of their students domestically. It is necessary for colleges and universities to know what they may be able to bring to the international student market and if it makes sense to find international partners. Just like with domestic recruiting through a pandemic, social change and demographic shifts, this will require new ways of thinking and acting that are globally aware. Again, “What does the world need us to be?” 

You both recently decided to leave academia after distinguished careers there. What was your motivation to become executive recruiters? How hard was the decision? 

Christy: While working in admissions and higher education provided me the opportunity to impact individual students’ lives, transitioning to executive recruiting has allowed me to have a broader impact on the leadership of colleges and universities. I can contribute to shaping the leadership teams, influencing organizational strategy and leadership that ultimately benefits the student experience. Leaving the campus side of higher education was bittersweet as I will miss working directly with students and their families, but I am energized that I have the opportunity to help place outstanding and innovative leaders that will make the student experience even more transformational for the years to come.

Rob: Leaving Penn State was very difficult. Higher education has been my whole career. Over those years, what I most enjoyed was solving problems with my colleagues and helping people find opportunities to grow. Coming to WittKieffer allows me to continue to do that with a broad set of colleagues and institutions. Nothing would make me happier in a few years than being able to describe how we helped institutions find great leaders and how those folks are thriving. 

How does your background prepare you to partner with your WittKieffer colleagues to identify exceptional higher education leaders across roles and functions? 

Rob: As I mentioned, I’ve been fortunate to work at a wide variety of colleges and universities. Throughout my career, I have also worked with colleagues around the U.S. to deliver professional development programs, work on consortium committees and serve on the board of directors for a national organization that serves over 900 member institutions. This involvement has shaped my understanding of the higher education landscape and the many ways institutions address their own opportunities and challenges. I have collaborated with colleagues across academic and administrative enterprises. I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with chief business officers, top fundraisers, athletic directors, provosts, presidents, foundation leaders and board members. To WittKieffer and our clients, I bring an understanding of the challenges of running educational institutions and nonprofit organizations in very dynamic times and the curiosity to understand the unique circumstances of each client. 

Christy: My career in higher education has provided opportunities to work in many different areas of higher education. From working in an allied health department at a community college engaging with students entering fields such as nursing and nuclear medicine technology to a top 20 R1 institution with a faith-based education, I have worked with many types of leadership models and individuals. Most recently my experience leading through the global pandemic gave me insight into what our leaders will need moving forward with today’s workforce.