The Human Dimensions of Enrollment Management

By John Maguire

I want to discuss the human dimensions of what I have too often treated (thinking with my instincts as a theoretical physicist) as a scientific methods problem. Experience has taught me that the human forces of a problem are often more important in determining how we meet challenges in an educational institution than the technical aspects. Indeed, management of offices that relate to such functions as admissions and marketing, financial aid leveraging and pricing, retention and registration, student information systems and research resembles an art more than a science. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, “The heart is more responsible than the head for management success and for that matter, most human endeavors.”

Research, information systems and the latest advances in artificial intelligence remain critical. I am not forsaking all I have said and written in the past. And yet I am now persuaded that the “people” dimensions of enrollment management are much more important than I had initially believed. The 1980s classic, In Search of Excellence, helped to crystallize these conclusions and I would like to relate the essential principles of this important work to my own ideas for making an enrollment management operation thrive.

In Search of Excellence suggests that the most successful organizations, whether Amazon or Harvard University, are not profit-driven as much as they are values-driven. We assume that there is a vast difference in marketing approaches for higher education and for business, but closer analysis shows the merging of these sectors. Of course, marketing in business is intended to lead to a profit. But the profit is an effect, not the cause. The cause is a strong set of values, usually first espoused by the founder of the company, which drives the enterprise with a promising idea and a number of extraordinary people pursuing that idea to its conclusion.

The first principle of management can be illustrated by that (in)famous story about two close friends hiking in the mountains when suddenly confronted with a rearing, ferocious grizzly bear. For a few pregnant moments, all three were frozen in place. Then, ever so slowly, one of the hikers started to reach for the jogging shoes in his backpack. His friend whispered, “Surely, you don’t think you can outrun that grizzly bear!” And his partner replied, “I don’t need to outrun the grizzly bear. I only need to outrun you.”

The grizzly bear in higher education is the threat of extinction for many colleges and universities; and perhaps the lesson to be learned from the allegory is that we can all be friends, share data and exchange stories of challenge during times of plenty. But in a close circle of competition, when there is a possibility that one of us may go out of existence at the expense of the other, will this collegiality disappear?

So for me, the first value of enrollment management that emerges in these times of daunting challenge is integrity. It is interesting to note that Fortune magazine, in analyzing successful managers, listed integrity as the most important qualification for corporate executives. I agree wholeheartedly and I don’t embrace the simplistic definition of integrity as honesty or not lying. As Boston University’s late president, John Silber, once said, “We have a higher obligation to ethics than merely to avoid conviction under the fraud statutes.” There is a deeper dimension of integrity (or lack thereof) which we confront today in higher education. I suggest that we need honesty in a situation where survival is at stake and hype is too often the rule of the day. We can too easily argue, “If everybody else is doing it, then, of course, we have to do it.” It could be to put more emphasis on SATs; it could be to ignore large numbers of scores that might pull the average SAT scores down; it could be to make photographs of one little tree on the campus and make it look like the campus is somewhere in the middle of Maine; it could be the Frisbee or the balloon at a college fair. The full meaning of integrity—rock-ribbed integrity—when survival is confronting us, is one that is a lot easier to discuss at a conference or in this essay than it is to live up to when looking that bear of extinction right in the eye.

However, integrity is not a binary condition. You don’t have to be naive as you face megatrends in higher education: declining enrollments, financial disaster, fierce competition and the tensions between quality and equality—all in the year 2020 compounded by a global pandemic. These are problems of great magnitude. Leaders who rigidly stand against any change, in defense of integrity and upholding standards, will put their institutions in grave jeopardy—unless they are heavily endowed. There is a middle ground that preserves integrity and at the same time allows us to implement creative change through research, good marketing practices and flexibility in the use of resources.

Our major goals always must be to advance knowledge and to serve students, not necessarily in that order. We as professionals and ultimately, our institutions, our presidents, our boards of trustees must stand for values that are not subject to the faddism or whims of the marketplace. We must follow the example of the companies which are values-driven, not market-driven.

Those of us who have been in admissions for multiple decades have seen great changes in the discipline. Certainly, back in the 1960s, leading into the mid-1970s, the admissions officer was seen more often as a recruiter, a glad-hander, someone who actively “sold” his or her institution. Now, of course, things have become more sophisticated and admissions professionals must have more than charisma. Our measures of excellence must be more comprehensive.

The following principle of excellence is the fundamental one on which all the other values hinge, including integrity.

First principle: Excellence is found more in people than in systems.

Having come to admissions from physics, having looked at it too often as more a science than an art, having done tremendous amounts of research to understand our markets, there was a time when I felt we could develop the perfect admissions system by focusing on quantitative indices. Now, I confess what most of you who don’t have my limiting scientific background have known for a long time; it is obvious that …

Second principle: People drive systems and not vice versa.

Let me take these coupled fundamentals and build from them some corollaries.

Corollary #1: The most important charge we have as managers is the task of finding and cultivating good people. In order to identify the strongest candidates, thorough, organized evaluations are essential.

Corollary #2: This is a heresy to some, but I believe strongly in adapting structure to people and not vice versa. I’ll go to any length to get the best person even if he or she doesn’t have all the skills required for the position. I’ll rearrange job descriptions, argue with the director of personnel who likes neat tables of organization, force the system to fit the people to avoid turning away a good person with potential simply because he or she is not “exactly what we’re looking for” at that moment in time. True story: When we were searching for five admissions officers many years ago, we had a disagreement with the Personnel Office over whether or not we wanted to advertise that a master’s degree and three years’ experience were required. We won the battle and did not require a master’s degree or three years of experience in admissions. (The director of personnel chortled when we got well over 1,000 applicants for the openings. In the end, all five people we hired were missing one or both of the qualifications, and they all worked out superbly.)

Corollary #3: Diversity is the hallmark of a successful operation. The worst thing you can do, particularly in our business where there is so much ambiguity, is hire people like yourself. It is important that there be diversity. Different opinions will surface and there will be creative tension that results in halting, but steady, progress—a kind of Darwinian natural selection process. When you clone yourself as a manager, you’re talking into an echo chamber. When you hire different kinds of people, there are times when they will disagree with you even to the extent that you would like to dismiss them. But the advantages of different points of view outweigh the disadvantages.

Corollary #4: It is important to give people responsibility. That means you must trust them. Once you have hired excellent people, let them carry out processes that they design. If you want to see good people grow in your operation, if you want to see people of substance come into your operation, you’ve got to give them the opportunity to do things their own way rather than simply make them functionaries. I saw my role as dean of enrollment management much more as a facilitator than as a surrogate director of admissions or a substitute registrar or a stand-in director of financial aid. I think that this attitude toward my work has enabled me to attract extraordinary people who work hard and who are challenged by their position because they make important decisions and exert influence on the operation.

Corollary #5: The spirit of entrepreneurship should be encouraged from entry-level positions to the top. This involves creativity, experimentation and risk-taking. Too often , the Admissions Office is so terrorized by a president or an academic vice president or an academic dean that it calculates its success of the day or the week in terms of minimizing the number of errors, rather than maximizing the number of successes. If you generate an atmosphere in an organization that stresses perfection, calls failure to task, criticizes constructive risk-taking when it leads to mistakes, you will indeed reduce those failures. You will also reduce creativity and in the long run, positive results will suffer and the number of successes will decrease.

I am not suggesting that managers should be indifferent to sloppiness. I am saying that excellent people like Albert Einstein and Thomas A. Edison took chances and some risks led to failures, but their positive discoveries have made all the difference. Creative, constructive experimentation revitalizes talent. Concomitantly, the process of merging the goals of the person with the goals of the institution benefits the institution as well.

Corollary #6: Loyalty is an important consequence of adapting systems to excellent people, rather than the reverse. Most people think of loyalty in the context of a staff member’s loyalty to the supervisor. I am advocating a more symmetric and challenging kind of loyalty, that of the supervisor to the staff. In its rarer frame of reference, loyalty will allow an atmosphere of creative risk-taking as well as dynamic tension. People will disagree without being disagreeable, protected from outsiders in a “greenhouse” atmosphere where they can experiment, make mistakes, even fail— and grow in the process.

Corollary #7: Staff turnover can be healthy. There are good and bad reasons to leave an institution. It is our responsibility to minimize the bad reasons and optimize the good. There are many managers who make it a major goal to keep all satisfactory staff in place. They value stability and, in so doing, take a step that leads to ossification. If people don’t grow professionally, if they are slotted into a system and left there, they eventually lose the spark and ambition which stimulate change and new ideas.

I believe that a better measure of a manager’s successes will be the number of employees he or she has lost/promoted to more challenging jobs. How many directors have you spawned? If you are a vice president, how many of your staff have moved up to vice presidencies of other organizations? Ambitious, effective employees tend to be on an upwardly mobile track, contributing a great deal to each position. An office composed of this kind of worker is bound to have more turnover—which should be viewed as inevitable change within a dynamic environment.

As a physicist, I observe that the second law of thermodynamics is violated in healthy staff turnover. More order than disorder results from this ongoing process of change. The people who want to replace those who are leaving are often of an even higher caliber, because the organization is strengthening its reputation as an exciting place to work. Given choices, a manager is able to improve even further the quality of the system, and the cycle repeats itself.

Corollary #8: Balance the goals of the individual with the goals of the organization.

When absolute integrity and the pursuit of excellence are demanded from all staff, these values are translated into action, which serves the best interests of the organization. In response, the needs and aspirations of individuals must be acknowledged and dealt with, because the demands placed upon them are often so great. Many organizations make the mistake of focusing too much attention on the importance of the institution’s welfare. Some stray too far in the direction of making work fun and reducing standards of work performance. The finest companies have learned how to adapt institutional needs to the varying requirements of their workforce without losing the critical mass level of self-interest to preserve and extend the core values of the institution.

Third principle: There must be an unwavering service orientation—the constant outreach to and feedback from the customer.

People orientation extends beyond staff dynamics. An organization must be very service-oriented. Research can help you serve others because analyzing research about your constituencies (parents, guidance counselors, prospects, inquiries, accepted students, matriculating students, students who leave your institution to go elsewhere, etc.) will teach you a great deal about them and their perception of your own institution. Some of what you learn will be painful because you won’t be able to do anything about it. But other information will guide you and your institution in planning for change and striving for improvement.

In operations involving sophisticated enrollment management, there are literally millions of decisions made each year, most of them small, but some with “life and death” importance to individuals and their families. It follows that there are opportunities for tens of thousands of errors. There is no way you can reach perfection, but does that mean that “zero-defect” should not be the goal? Absolutely not! IBM treats every slightly dissatisfied customer as if he or she were the one defect they generated that year to be extracted like a cancer. The company’s incredible service orientation is much more responsible for their success in business than their happenstance of being first with the most in the computer field. And Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, went on record as saying that he feels the principle that made his company flourish was respect for the individual. This included both the people within his company and the customer for whom a single defect is intolerable.

How can this principle coexist with the principle of the “greenhouse” environment alluded to earlier? On the one hand, I sound like an autocrat—we completely lower the boom on that poor soul who is responsible for the one defect in an atmosphere where there are going to be thousands of mistakes. On the other hand, I encourage risk-taking and mistakes. The two are not mutually exclusive if you have the mortar of effective communication and trust between supervisor and subordinates, and between the organization and its many publics.

The most widespread criticism of managers relates to poor communication. Fault is found with specific, garbled messages. But more often, communications problems have to do with the fundamental difficulty of providing clarity in a complex network. Mathematically, if the number of people in an organization goes up by N, the number of interactions goes up by something closer to N2, and therefore, communication requirements go up geometrically rather than linearly. As your systems grow, whether it’s a committee or an office or an institution of higher education, the complexity of interactions and the potential for ineffective communication will grow rapidly. If you maintain close, positive contact with your own people, this potential is minimized. The “greenhouse” remains intact because dissension and experimentation are under control and mostly kept in-house. At the point of making contact with the consumer, however, the quality of the interaction is expected to be of the highest caliber.

Fourth principle: Except for a few core values and expectations such as integrity, people-orientation and quality, decentralize decision-making and responsibility as much as possible.

The “Simultaneous Loose/Tight Properties” principle suggests that the advantages of combining centralization and decentralization should be considered. A good illustration in the field of enrollment management is the research function. It would be easy to centralize all research in an Office of Institutional Research. Everyone except the staff in that specialized office could wash their hands of the necessity for doing research. At the other extreme, you could completely decentralize research. Everyone could be responsible for doing his or her own thing. But in an era of artificial intelligence and centralization of management information systems, the latter approach is very impractical. The happy medium of balancing the benefits of centralization and decentralization usually works better. I think it is terribly important to designate someone within your own operation to be primarily responsible for research. But this person’s fundamental job should be to inspire others to think about research who are not so blessed with those skills and to involve them in studies that cut across office or functional boundaries.

Fifth principle: Stimulate a bias for action in the face of ambiguity and complexity.

This final principle is one of the most intriguing. We are dealing with unimaginably intricate systems—hundreds of faculty members, thousands of students, tens or hundreds of thousands of inquiries, a universe of a million or more students every year. This is a profoundly ambiguous network. We should confront it with decisiveness. Leaders who work in enrollment management every day know better than most that acceptances and denials must be decided upon with limited delay, and that yields must be projected to enroll a class for the relevant term. On a daily basis, we are forced to make choices with less-than-perfect evidence. I have come to believe that decision-making is more an art than a science, certainly more an art than I had originally surmised when I first walked into this minefield as a naive physicist.

Managing is a holistic enterprise. It is important to be technically knowledgeable and astute to reach top echelons in management. But a good decision-maker is able to do more than understand things in a broad framework. In a Harvard Business Review article, “Planning on the Left Side, Managing on the Right,” McGill University professor Henry Mintzberg, president of the Strategic Management Society, suggests that there is some kind of a dichotomy between planning and managing. Mintzberg argues that working with people is a right-brained function, whereas planning is a linear left-brained kind of activity. Intuition and those ambiguities that we have to confront in decision-making are helped tremendously by research, by consultation and by computers, but in the end, decision-making has come more often from the heart than from the head.

The point of the principle is that action provides tangible feedback. If you allow yourself to be paralyzed by analysis, avoiding action, then you won’t get the feedback that is necessary to make the next, right, small move. Those of us in admissions select a class knowing full well that there is barely a parent or a student in the pool who is going to think that his or her son or daughter, or he or she, should have been turned down. We also decide knowing full well that we are going to make some mistakes.

I like to compare strategic planning to sailing. It is those surprising twists and turns in the course of moving forward that are interesting. If we could know in advance which way the wind was going to blow, the computer could set the sail. Sailing is fun because of the challenge of responding to all those unexpected twists and turns. Action provides measurable results and an analytical approach allows us to adjust along the way, as the sailor who must adjust again and again.

If there is anything common to great institutions, it is this propensity for action. Rather than generating 500-page reports that gather dust, these leaders move forward, not irresponsibly, not irretrievably; but there is an action, evaluation, another step, then reevaluation. It’s inexorably Darwinian. This relates to the risk-taking approach to our profession. It is a style of management—the encouragement of action in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty—that links many of the other principles together.

It has been a challenging and self-informing exercise to think through the whole business of the human dimensions of enrollment management. Successful management centers on one overarching approach to work. Execution is all-important, and therefore, the people you choose will make the difference and effective leadership will bring out their talents.

As we contemplate the megatrends that confront us—declining enrollments, financial instability, great problems of quality and equality, the risks of rampant technology leading us to an unbridled admissions equivalent to the arms race, and now the 2020 global pandemic—and as competition escalates among us, we stand to lose what is fundamentally important: the integrity in which this business must be founded and the people orientation that will make it thrive.

John Maguire is founder and chair of Maguire Associates. He and his firm have been thoughtful editorial contributors to NEJHE, including this Q&A on Inequality. Recently, Maguire Associates became a Premier Partner of NEBHE.



One Response to “The Human Dimensions of Enrollment Management”

  1. Peter Burns

    This is a very good article. Thanks!

    Peter Burns
    Vice President for Undergraduate Enrollment Management
    Manhattanville, College


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