It’s no secret: I love bread. And there are two different methods for describing good bread. One way is to talk about its texture, taste and chewiness. This would be the narrative description. The other way is to describe the recipe, or the technical details of how it’s made. The latter is the description you really need if you want to make that bread again.
Unfortunately, institutions’ discussions around identifying, recruiting, enrolling, retaining and graduating a student body in accordance with their mission and goals tend to focus on the narrative description. But this process, known as strategic enrollment management (SEM) planning, needs the full detailed recipe to work correctly.
4 critical components of a successful SEM plan
An effective SEM plan is like a good loaf of bread. There are a lot of things you can add to the recipe, but if you are missing one of the four key ingredients it likely won’t turn out well.
For bread, the key ingredients are water, salt, flour and yeast. You can add a lot of other things but leave out any of those four and you are unlikely to have a successful bake. The same concept applies to SEM planning.
A good SEM plan requires the following four key inputs to improve student (and institutional) experiences and outcomes – from recruitment to graduation.
1. Clear numeric goals
Setting clear numeric goals with your institution’s business office around how many students your institution seeks to enroll is the first step in effective SEM planning. If the business office is planning for a total class of 2,500, but your goals in the SEM plan add up to 2,400, that disconnect is going to cause all kinds of problems. Because one key feature of SEM is that it is a cross-campus, integrated planning approach that involves multiple departments, it’s critical to make sure that your institution’s financial leadership is involved.
The numeric goals should be aligned with the overall institutional goals. For instance, if the institutional strategic plan is to grow its healthcare management program enrollment, then a possible goal might be to grow freshman enrollment in those programs by 10 percent (or X number) of students. If the institution has determined that retention is the problem, again a clear numeric goal is important to determine resourcing and tactics.
2. A defined target audience
If your goal is to gain additional students, or to hold onto more of the types of students you already have, it is important to know who they are. This involves compiling a short, bulleted list that focuses on your school’s key differentiators and why a student might choose your program over others.
Doing this exercise not only helps your marketing and recruiting efforts, it saves you time. For example, if you are not going to reach out to male and female prospective accounting students differently, then you don’t need to waste effort breaking that down.
In addition, ensure your desired audiences are categorized in a way that they can be targeted. For instance, if you say you want “leaders in the high schools,” you have to take the time to define what qualifies someone to be in this group. Is that measured by activity participation or GPA? If it is one or the other of those, do you have the means to target your efforts based on that criteria?
3. Timelines and budget
One of the most essential aspects of any plan is its accompanying timelines and budgets to keep you on track to meet goals. For SEM plans, establishing these factors will help provide the right direction as you move throughout the enrollment cycle.
One area I consistently see mistakes made is in unrealistic budgeting. Every enrollment professional I know has been in the situation where they are asked to increase enrollment over the previous year with a smaller budget. Is that possible? Yes. But it’s not likely – and it’s not just going to magically happen. Having a set budget allows for a more honest discussion about the financial investment necessary for hitting enrollment goals, as well as a reference point for future planning discussions.
4. Metrics to measure success
Enrollment professionals have an incredible amount of data at their fingertips through their customer relationship management (CRM) systems. However, all of that data does little good if you haven’t determined what’s important, why it’s important and how you’re going to measure it.
I often identify what I want to measure by first looking at the “must-wins.” For example, I’ve written plans where student retention improvement was the goal, but the key to moving the overall retention rate was keeping students enrolled between sophomore and junior year. In another year, we missed our enrollment goal in nursing programs badly due to a change in admission policy. The next year, tracking nursing numbers monthly was a “must-win” because we knew we couldn’t reach our overall enrollment goal if we left nursing seats empty. Having clear metrics gives your institution a place to start the enrollment planning discussion for subsequent years and allows you to make informed adjustments.
Make strategic enrollment planning a priority
There are other important components to SEM planning that I didn’t mention here. I’ve never written a plan that only included these four things. However, I’ve also never written or seen a successful plan that excluded any of these four key ingredients.
Like bread, you can experiment with your own ingredients. But it’s essential to start with these foundational elements. Doing so will help ensure your goals align with efforts in marketing, recruitment, admissions, tuition setting, financial aid, academic and student success programming.
For other ways to improve your institution’s recruiting and enrollment efforts, check out our article “10 Higher Ed Enrollment Dashboards That Can Help Inform Recruitment Strategies.”