09/23/2013 04:20 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

What Kind of Race Will You Run?

As president of a private university who came to the role from the ranks of CFOs, I can tell you that the key to enrollment success lies somewhere between the steady acumen and creative risk-taking of the business world and the welcoming quality characteristic of nonprofit higher education, with a touch of plain good fortune thrown in.

This year -- a year that has seen significant decline in enrollment at some universities -- Stetson University is celebrating the largest undergraduate entering class in its history, at nearly 900 students after a record 10,500 applications. For the first time in years, Stetson has a waiting list.

But I know our fortune was not rooted in chance. How did we end up celebrating when so many other institutions are cutting back? When headlines and the government proclaim that our non-MOOC business model -- students living on campus and interacting with professors and peers in liberal arts classrooms with low faculty-student ratios -- is broken?

Student enrollment is a tricky thing. It is often like long-distance running and sometimes like a sprint. It takes focused effort and training. You have to assess the lay of the land. You must constantly improve against your own markers.

As we identified our hurdles and set the pace for enrollment success, here are three top benchmarks that we used - and that are transferable to organizations outside higher education.

1. Know your market

It took us three years to arrive at a solid student profile, refine our data-driven strategy and messaging, and connect with students for whom Stetson resonates. Our university is not for everyone -- but it is life changing for the right ones. There are three critical levers to employ when pushing off the starting block:

  • Know what you do well and how to communicate it
  • Know the profile of your students who excel, what matters to them and where to look for them
  • Do not be afraid to take calculated risks

2. Stay on track

That is easily said, but there are many, many ditches into which you can veer -- often unknowingly -- that are detrimental to the outcome. Staying on track starts and ends with a good, collaborative management team and a simple guiding philosophy: "Hire great people, agree on direction and goals, and stay out of their way." It also is about predictive modeling and financial aid matrices. Reallocating limited resources and constantly monitoring your progress. Most of all it is about adrenalin - envisioning success, and using creative thinking and swift resourcefulness to heighten your senses and motivate you toward the finish line.

3. Be your best self

At Stetson, we are committed to the marathon -- to preparing our students to lead significant lives, not merely successful ones. We don't overpromise or under-deliver, and we have moved our culture and messaging from humility to proud assertion; to thrive, you cannot afford to be a best-kept secret. You must magnify your strengths while resolving your weaknesses. Authenticity rules, because it is a win-win only if prospective students' campus visit experiences match that of current students.

The admission process is indeed a race against other institutions, all competitors vying for the best and brightest. More importantly, it is a race where, as all athletes know, your biggest competitor is yourself. Finding the best students for your institution will help you finish strong and ultimately win the race.

We expect that the mechanisms we put in place that have paid off this year will see us through subsequent years. By studying the track, emerging with smart strategic plans, and engaging the entire campus in the race, we hope to be winners again, year after year.