How Boston University is Responding to Today’s Enrollment Challenges

Scott Jeffe

Vice President, Research (Graduate and Online)

July 30, 2020

David Cotter is a national expert on strategic enrollment management and a passionate advocate for advancing diversity and inclusion in graduate enrollment. In his role as assistant provost for graduate enrollment at Boston University, he is playing a key role in addressing the institutional response to two challenges confronting higher education today: the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and an increased focus on racial and social justice.

David participated in a panel discussion at the RNL National Conference on how both enrollment and academic leaders of graduate, online, and undergraduate adult programs are responding to today’s enrollment challenges during the pandemic. (Here’s how you can access the conference sessions on demand.)

I called David after this session to do an episode of RNL@Home so I could dig deeper on his thoughts on how American institutions can effectively move forward on both of these new challenges.

Watch the RNL@Home episode with David Cotter

Social justice, the pandemic, and the road ahead for enrollment managers

On the day that we spoke, Boston University announced the arrival of Dr. Ibram Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, as the founding director of the Center for Antiracist Research. It was also announced that Dr. Kendi would hold the Andrew W. Mellon Professorship for the Humanities—the only other holder of which was Elie Wiesel. David made the point that this was only a beginning, not an end in and of itself.

David also indicated that more than 80 percent of BU’s graduate programs will be available in a “Learn From Anywhere” modality. Most courses will be available online and in the classroom, allowing students to choose—on a daily basis—how they learn. This has taken an incredible amount of time, and tough choices with regard to resources that prioritize moving forward with these flexible options. But institutional leadership determined this to be the best strategy for the long-term health of graduate and professional programs in an era that will likely see the virus flare up in the future.

He went on to say that as strange as it may seem, the increased focus on social justice and the challenges associated with the pandemic are interrelated. Among the reasons why are:

  • The demand for a more urgent response than institutions are used to; and
  • The underrepresented population is disproportionately affected by the pandemic—from a multiplicity of angles. Outreach and inclusion are critical in the response to both.

8 key takeaways on how enrollment leaders can address today’s enrollment challenges

David shared these key takeaways on what enrollment leaders need to do to address both the immediate challenges of today’s higher ed environment as well as those that lie ahead.

  1. We have proved that we can move faster than we ever thought possible. Institutions need to leverage this to advance both social justice and the pandemic response.
  2. We need to acknowledge that substantive, tangible, ongoing, and permanent change will be required in order to move forward in addressing the both the pandemic and social justice.
  3. The existential challenge is not fall 2020—it’s fall 2021 and beyond. Most stakeholders often deal in the short term—getting to the end of the semester—but enrollment staff members constantly have to look further ahead. This has to go mainstream. Enrollment leaders need to constantly advocate for the longer view.
  4. Institutions that ultimately succeed may take a hit this fall but have a plan for the longer term.
  5. There will be substantive changes to the way that graduate education will work in the future. We don’t know exactly what that will be, but we need to anticipate this and NOT assume that things will ever go back to the way that it was.
  6. There may be permanent changes to how we market to and recruit graduate students. Will people continue to enroll in graduate education? Yes. Will the mix of domestic and international be the same? Will the domestic geographic mix be the same? Maybe not.
  7. Institutions need to see the challenges—in both the pandemic and the social justice agenda—as institutional and infrastructure challenges even more than they are curricular challenges. Again, this is an “all hands on deck” approach.
  8. Finally, don’t forget that morale is low among our teams as they deal not only with “macro” issues like social justice and the pandemic, but also “micro” issues like budget cuts and fears about layoffs, furloughs, and more. With remote working, we need to be more sensitive than ever to these concerns and do all we can to reinforce that our teams are working toward the greater good. Also consider discussions with the team about how cuts and contractions could also improve the work situation by eliminating some of the less appealing aspects of the job (i.e.: extensive travel around the country to recruitment events, etc.)

I invite you to watch the video above and tap into the wonderful insights that David had, as well as see other episodes of RNL@Home with enrollment leaders in our Podcast library. You can also catch David’s session as well as the other sessions from the 2020 RNL National Conference on demand.

Watch the 2020 RNL National Conference sessions on demand

Registrants for the RNL National Conference can log in and watch the conference on demand. If you missed the conference, you can purchase on-demand access for $150.

Buy on-demand access

About the Author

Scott Jeffe, RNL

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

Read more about Scott's experience and expertise

Reach Scott by e-mail at Scott.Jeffe@RuffaloNL.com.

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