08/08/2012 12:14 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2012

Intentional Enrollment

With a few notable exceptions, America's colleges and universities are dependent upon their comprehensive fee. These fees are typically defined as tuition, fees, room and board, and with auxiliary revenue and endowment spending draw down, form the financial foundation upon which institutions operate. As the principal source of revenue, they represent the lifeblood of an institution whose health is directly dependent upon the ability of their admissions office to bring in the class.

What is surprising given the importance of the comprehensive fee is the archaic and haphazard manner by which many institutions assemble their classes. At the weakest institutions, building a class can be a little like throwing darts at a dartboard to determine which applicants stick. The principal tool -- financial aid made possible by discount rates that average between 30%-40% at most institutions -- is applied idiosyncratically with more of an effort made to fill the seats than to meet tactical objectives in support of a strategic enrollment plan that blends admissions needs with financial aid availability to achieve a desired strategic outcome.

There are alternative approaches, however, that can move enrollment into the 21st century. The most important of these is to recognize that the best enrollment plan directly supports the college's strategic plan. In turn, the best strategic plans are simple declarative statements of purpose, movement and aspiration and almost all talk about the type and quality of students that the institution must attract. Accordingly, an enrollment plan must be a tactic through which the College meets its strategic goals. Nothing can assist goals on quality, diversity, breadth of class, and residential life better than a well-executed enrollment plan. As the financial driver of most institutions, enrollment shapes, perpetrates, or changes the perception of the College and its sense of self. We can point to "egghead," "social justice," "nuts and berries," "Greek," and "jock" schools based in large part on the reputation earned by those enrolled and the alumni they produce through the culture that persisting students create. Enrollment reinforces perception through admissions policies that promote it.

There are critical components when building a class. The two most obvious are athletic and legacy recruitments, although others like religious affiliation, the quality of academic programs, and a location in a major metropolitan area can also be determining factors. In addition, there are strategies like early admissions programs that officials at stronger schools can employ effectively. And finally, how these officials use financial aid -- whether need based or merit -- can also powerfully impact the size and quality of an incoming class. The result is a mix of historic demographics, tactical admissions recruiting and financial aid modeling that work together to form the basis of an admitted class at any selective 4-year college, whether public or private.

There is a basic problem emerging from this approach. While these practices generally assure -- more or less -- the presence of a newly recruited class on campus every August, they do not contribute successfully to the formation of the right admissions class. What's more the admissions class often perpetuates the kind of class that the college's strategic plan is designed to address, especially if the college seeks as most do to strengthen its admissions profile. This problem of cognitive dissonance between practices and planning produces a class that reflects both the past and the easiest route to travel but it fails to utilize other, new building blocks that will assure the relevancy of the institution at a time of profound change in American higher education.

For American colleges and universities, the question becomes one of substance over style. Beyond the student athletes and legacies, senior officials and their boards must first ask: What kind of institution do we wish to become? What are our responsibilities to the public? If 50 percent of American students begin their education at community colleges, what relationship exists with them? If students learn differently, how do we blend online learning with the Socratic method to assure that we drive the technology rather than be driven by it? If America is to lead a global society, what is the right mix of foreign students, faculty and student exchanges, and globally based internships on a campus? What does "diversity in all its forms" mean when working the numbers into the financial aid model? The answer is that recruitment must be more than the ability to translate the brochures into Spanish or working harder to attract stereotypical Asian students into Eastern science and engineering schools. To answer the question best is to ask it again. In light of our strategic plan, how do our admissions efforts answer the question: Who do we wish to become?