Q&A on strategic enrollment planning with RNL’s leading expert and presenter at upcoming Executive Forum

Lewis Sanborne

Vice President

March 31, 2017

Updated October 2019

As the leader of our strategic enrollment planning at RNL, I work with institutions of every size, type, and mission to create strategic enrollment plans that help institutions align with changing academic demands, employment needs, and student diversity.In this post, I respond to some common questions I hear from campus leaders, in anticipation of our upcoming Strategic Enrollment Planning Executive Forum, December 3-4, 2019, in New Orleans.

What are the building blocks of a strategic enrollment plan?

President Eisenhower once said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” The foundation of a good strategic enrollment plan is a good strategic enrollment planning process. The key is to bring the right people to the table, provide them with access to institutional and external data, foster collaboration across the institution, embrace transparency, and roll up your sleeves and get to work. Know at the outset that the goal is not to do everything, but to identify those few strategies that the data say have the greatest potential to improve institutional performance, and that will mobilize the campus community to action. It sounds simple, but it requires strong leadership.

What distinguishes strategic enrollment planning from recruitment and retention planning?

While institutional mission must be at the center of any strategic planning process, the most effective strategic enrollment plans link academic and fiscal planning with recruitment and retention planning. Our marketing and recruitment efforts are designed to bring students to our institutions to study in our academic programs. Our retention efforts are designed to foster student success so that students will remain enrolled in our programs and then complete them. The entire financial enterprise, from capital campaigns to financial aid disbursement, are designed to help students enroll, to provide quality programs, and to pay the bills. If enrollment planning is just about getting students and keeping them, then it is not likely very strategic. While strategic enrollment planning will not magically remove organizational silos, by design it will lessen their effects on organizational collaboration because individuals from across the institution will come together to identify challenges and opportunities, and to develop plans that will strengthen the enrollment and the fiscal foundation of the institution.

How does strategic enrollment planning differ from institutional strategic planning?

By design, institutional strategic planning (ISP) has a broader scope than strategic enrollment planning (SEP). We will have a free optional session to explore ISP following the SEP forum in New Orleans, but in essence, ISP starts with a review and refresh of the institutional mission and vision. ISP then expands to include advancement and fundraising, comprehensive fiscal planning, facilities planning, and the student-facing issues that are most commonly the focus of SEP:

  • marketing and recruitment
  • student success, retention, completion, and re-enrollment
  • academic and co-curricular program planning.

We are committed to the same action-item and return-on-investment approach in ISP that has served our campus partners well for well over a decade through strategic enrollment planning. We are also committed to helping institutions move toward sustainability. That means paying as much attention to institutional expenses as to revenue streams.

How do we develop an effective strategic enrollment plan that includes input and collaboration from all areas of the college?

One of the first steps of any strategic enrollment planning process is the construction of an organizational structure. We’ll cover this in detail during our SEP forum, but here are a few pointers: the SEP leadership group should include key campus experts—from enrollment, academic affairs, and finance—but should not necessarily be representative of all divisions or it will get too large, and so less effective. A structure with a coordinating group supported by working groups with particular focus areas, i.e. marketing and recruitment, finance and financial aid, academic programs, student success, will expand the number of participants and allow for representation when the organizational structure moves to the second, working group level.

How do we measure the success of a strategic enrollment plan?

Another early step in the process is determination of the Key Performance Indicators. Ultimately the strategic enrollment plan is successful if the metrics you identified as important at the outset move in the desired direction through the implementation period of the plan. But a good planing process should have organizational and cultural benefits beyond just moving the metrics. An inclusive, transparent planning process should engage the campus community and raise awareness of how enrollment influences institutional health and success. It may also break down silos, provide a common campus vocabulary, and change the ways institutions use data in decision making. Campus culture and climate changes may be harder to measure, but should be an important aim of the SEP process.

How do we effectively use data in making enrollment decisions?

At RNL, we prefer data-informed decisions to data-driven decisions. Colleges and universities are complex organizations, and focusing only on the data can lead to overlooking important cultural and human elements that should be considered in the decision-making process. That said, we are committed to using data to the best of our abilities to inform decisions. How to do that? First, you need to have data you can trust: what does your environmental scan tell you about what’s happening in the demographic and educational market around you? What do your internal data tell you about your institution’s performance? How does your performance compare to local, regional, or national benchmarks? When making enrollment strategy decisions, the key is to understand the data first, to look for its messages to help inform your strategy considerations. For example, if you are geographically situated in an area that is seeing growth in a population you have not previously served, then the data would likely suggest a market development opportunity.

If your retention data show that a particular population is under-performing compared to the norm, you will have identified a population that is at risk. You will need to look more deeply at your data to strive to understand the causes of that performance gap before you jump to strategy development.

Similarly, you might discover that a program development strategy will be fairly costly to implement, but the market demand research shows weak enrollment potential. Don’t think of the planning work as wasted effort if you don’t launch the program: to the contrary, your work to collect data and build projections may save your institution from investing in a program that will not cover the costs to deliver.

How can I insure my plan is truly strategic?

In every planning process there is a risk of excessive activity syndrome, of trying to do too many things simultaneously. There is also the risk of playing it safe, of favoring low-risk, low-reward initiatives because you think you can do them with the people and tools you already have.

RNL’s strategic enrollment planning process, by design, leverages the data-informed approach I described above to shift the focus from the tails of the normal distribution to the student populations under the meat of the curve. How many students do we have to recruit or retain for an initiative to be considered strategic? How much net revenue do we need to generate? Obviously the answers to those questions will be different for each institution, but exploring those questions during the planning process is essential to identifying truly strategic initiatives.

What can I expect if I attend the RNL SEP forum?

The answers above only begin to address these frequently asked questions. During the forum, we’ll dig deeper into how to make a strategic enrollment planning process effective for your college or university. Our RNL experts will guide you through the process, balancing instruction on best practices with focused time to apply lessons to preparing for strategic enrollment planning on your campus. If you can, bring a team and use the forum as a strategic enrollment planning retreat.

Past participants who have taken this approach have found themselves re-energized, organized, and prepared to make positive enrollment change happen on their campuses as soon as they return.

Join us in New Orleans, December 3-4

2019 Strategic Enrollment Planning Forum New Orleans

Attend the 2019 RNL Strategic Enrollment Planning Forum to see how to navigate your campus through the academic, demographic, and economic challenges ahead.

The sessions will feature hands-on planning times for teams so that you will already have completed a substantial amount of preparatory work required for an effective plan. This year, we are featuring a new optional session on institutional strategic planning as well.

Consider bringing a leadership team to the forum so that you can maximize the benefit of what we will cover and return to campus ready to move forward with your strategic enrollment plan. Learn more and register.

About the Author

Lewis Sanborne

Dr. Lewis Sanborne is RNL's leader in strategic enrollment planning. He offers three decades of experience in higher education and enrollment management, with a range of expertise including annual, and strategic enrollment planning, student success...

Read more about Lewis's experience and expertise

Reach Lewis by e-mail at Lewis.Sanborne@RuffaloNL.com.

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Enrollment, Student Success