Source: Oinos Educational Consulting
by Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D., FCEP
A massive tapestry entitled The Miraculous Draught of Fish (Luke, 5:3–11; John 21:1–17) woven by Pieter van Aelst from sketches drawn by the famous Renaissance artist Raphael Sanzio prominently hangs in the Vatican Museum (Link). Commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515, the artwork is part of a series of ten exquisite silk draperies that once lined the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel.
According to the biblical account that provides the basis of the famous embroidery, Simon Peter, his father, and their two partners had been fishing all night without success. Approached in the morning act of “mending their nets,” Jesus asks Peter to “put out a little from the dock” and allow him to address a crowd of onlookers from his boat. When finished, Jesus instructed Peter to re-launch and cast the nets of his fishing trawler into the “deeper waters” of lake Gennesaret (Luke 5:4). At first reluctant, Peter is subsequently stunned when he discovers that his net is bursting with fish. As a result of the miraculous catch, Peter and his fishing partners, James and John, astonishingly leave their valuable bounty behind to follow Jesus as his initial disciples.
Sanzio and van Aelst’s interpretation of Saint Luke’s miracle story depicts James and John towing a net of abundance into an overloaded boat while Simon Peter kneels in supplication before Jesus. Beyond the impressive detail of cranes and seagulls in the foreground consecutively representing vigilance and apostasy, the exquisite drapery alludes to the inauguration of the universal Christian Church symbolized by an overflowing net and the reflection of the partially constructed Basilica of Saint Peter shimmering on the lake’s surface.
Unlike the fishermen depicted in the Vatican’s masterful execution, the administrative tapestry of many of the nation’s theological schools and seminaries, unfortunately, depicts their respective enrollment nets hollow and in need of mending. Contemporary admission officers lament that their vigorous efforts have not sufficiently yielded the enrollment numbers required to ensure the sustainability of their institutions. If this regretful situation is to change, a new approach is needed that will afford these “fishers of learners” the opportunity to drop their nets into “deeper waters” where the potential of larger harvests are possible.
According to the Research Center of the National Student Clearinghouse, the overall postsecondary enrollments for 2019 decreased by 1.7% from the previous year. Enrollments decreased among four-year for-profit institutions (19.7%), two-year public institutions (3.4%), and four-year public institutions (1%). As a result, while considered unthinkable just a few years ago, unsustainable discount tuition rates of 60% or more have become relatively common.
Statistics from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) unfortunately supports the Clearinghouse’s national data. According to ATS, enrollment at its member schools has been on a slow, steady decline for years. In fact, the median campus has lost about 8% of its enrollment since 2001. However, while head-counts at theological institutions (151-1,000 enrollees) fell from 74,253 in 2011 to 72,116 in 2015, data also show that schools with fewer than 75 students actually grew their market share in 2018. Significantly, while extension enrollment dipped by 26% over the past decade, online numbers more than doubled during the same period.
The 2017 report entitled Mergers in Higher Education: A Proactive Strategy to a Better Future? published by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA), concludes that since 2009, there have been nearly 100 private, nonprofit closures in higher education. Based on an analysis of these institutions conducted by Parthenon (Ernst & Young), TIAA identifies the following seven predictive risk factors: (1) weaknesses in institutional strength, including enrollment under 1,000, (2) not having a complete online program, (3) revenue generation, including annual tuition increases greater than 8%, (4) tuition discount rates greater than 35%, (5) tuition dependency greater than 85%, (6) financial structure, including a ratio of endowment to annual expenses less than 3:1, debt service greater than 10% of expenses, (7) expenses greater than revenues.
The interrelated fiscal challenges of limited resources, declining enrollment, and unsustainable discount tuition rates, usually mask broader institutional complications. Consequently, enrollment experts warn that colleges who are intent on stemming these systemic complications by simply providing scholarships and/or, increasing tuition discount rates are making critical mistakes.
According to Stephen Graham, the ATS Senior Director of Programs and Services, one of the top five impediments to achieving financial equilibrium in seminaries and theological schools involves enrollment issues. “With fewer prospective students being “called” and more students pursuing their education on a part-time basis or through nontraditional means,” Graham insists, “schools must work harder to attract and retain sufficient students to create a community of learning, generate necessary tuition revenues, and help assure appropriate salary expectations for graduating students” (ATS General Institutional Standards).
Enrollment continues to be a challenge with obvious implications for the economic well-being of the nation’s seminaries and theological schools. When asked in an interview by the Chief Financial Officer Society (2010) if there are any strategies that seem to offer particular promise for achieving financial equilibrium, Graham, recommends “looking beyond the usual three strategies of (1) raising tuition or enrollment, (2) building endowment, or (3) increasing annual giving . . . shifting from a simple admissions program to a Strategic Enrollment Management program aimed at both proactive recruitment and thoughtful retention, for instance, is a more holistic approach to ensuring a sustainably sized student body.”
In their Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management (2014), Don Hossler and Bob Bontrager agree with Graham and recommend that as an alternative to providing scholarship and tuition discounts, “schools would be better served to implement Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) systems that proactively link strategies and tactics across marketing, admissions, programs, and technology.” In so doing, argue the authors, SEM can help institutions of higher learning “increase their funnel of qualified students, improving retention rates, and, thereby, stabilize their revenues.”
In her Special Report, What Your Head Needs to Know about Enrollment Management (2017), Heather Hoerle, Executive Director of the Enrollment Management Association, explains how “demographic and economic shifts necessitated higher education’s move from a traditional admission model to a Strategic Enrollment Management model in order to achieve institutional goals.” Like Graham, Hossler, and Bontrager, Hoerle insists that if schools are to survive and thrive into the future, “admission offices must push beyond their conventional focus (acquisition of new students) and become more strategically focused on the marketplace and all the drivers that contribute to steady, long-term enrollment success.”
But what exactly is the Strategic Management of Enrollment? What are its primary components? How does it differ from existing admission strategies? And what impact would the implementation of SEM methodologies have on the nation’s seminaries and institutions of higher theological education?
According to the Education Encyclopedia (StateUniversity.com), an online resource for professional educators, Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) “refers to the ability of institutions of higher education to exert systematic influence over the number and characteristics of new students.” A primary goal of SEM is to also “influence the persistence of students to continue their enrollment from the time of their matriculation to their graduation.”
The general notion of Enrollment Management (EM) emerged on private college campuses in the 1970s. The Bridge Magazine of Boston College published an article by Jack Maguire in 1976 entitled, To the Organized, Go the Students. “Enrollment Management,” wrote the originator of the then-novel approach, “is a process that brings together often disparate functions having to do with marketing, recruiting, funding, tracking, retaining, and replacing students as they move toward, within and away from the University.” Although these various strategies were, to one degree or another, widespread in most colleges and universities at the time, Maguire informed his readers that Boston College was “on the leading edge of the growing movement to reduce fragmentation by systematizing and integrating these fields into one grand design.”
Like Maguire, Don Hossler and John Bean emphasize the integrative benefits of implementing a strategic approach to the management of enrollment. According to Hossler and Bean, Enrollment Management (EM) is “an organizational concept and a systematic set of activities designed to enable educational institutions to exert more influence over their student enrollments. Enrollment management activities are organized by strategic planning and supported by institutional research.” In their book, The Strategic Management of College Enrollments (1990), the authors further delineate Maguire’s institutional EM practices by suggesting that, when properly implementing, they will “analyze and guide the areas of new student recruitment and financial aid, student support services, curriculum development, and other academic areas that affect enrollments, student persistence, and student outcomes.”
Hossler and Bean identify four general Enrollment Management models: (1) Enrollment Management Committee, (2) Enrollment Management Coordinator, (3) Enrollment Management Matrix, and (4) Enrollment Management Division. Each classification has been further been delineated in Hosstler and Bontrager’s 2014 Handbook. With careful and realistic long-term planning to enhance recruitment and retention, the authors insist that EM “is not a panacea, but can assist independent schools in achieving their enrollment and revenue goals.”
According to Hossler, Bean, and Bontrager, the Enrollment Management Committee Model is usually “advisory in nature and simply an institutional committee that includes representatives from admissions, financial aid, student affairs, academic affairs, and institutional advancement.” Alternatively, the Enrollment Management Staff Coordinator is an administrative staff position model that coordinates activities that are related to the enrollment function and does not require a major change within the organizational chart.
The Enrollment Management Matrix is the authors’ third model classification that assigns responsibility and decision making to a senior-level administrator. While the Enrollment Matrix Model is comprised of services linked by a collaboration rather than by office leadership, the Enrollment Management Division is the most hierarchical of the four administrative structures that can be implemented to coordinate an institution’s enrollment efforts. Conventionally overseen by an executive/senior-level administrator, the Management Division “strategically superintends the related activities of recruitment, marketing, admissions, financial aid, academic and career advising, institutional research, orientation, retention, and student services and, thereby, becoming more effective.”
In their study entitled, Enrollment Management Strategies: Effectiveness and Usage at Member Institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (2011), Bethany J. Schuttinga concludes that, while one common structure cannot be identified, enrollment management systems over the past 30 years have yielded optimal enrollment results. Consequently, enrollment management at any institution, Schuttinga suggests, should be adapted and refined to complement each respective campus’ organizational climate, needs, and administrative skills.
As envisioned, Strategic Enrollment Management strives to nurture an institutional culture of strategic planning that is nimble and dynamic, allowing institutions of higher education to adjust and change as necessary. While admission is a critical component, it does not drive the entire process. Enrollment management focuses attention beyond the admission entry point to include strategies for attrition, retention, and financial aid. Such integrated enrollment strategies go beyond slick videos, open-houses, retreats and pep rallies, to become an institutional culture that involves the entire learning community. In the final analysis, the goal of Strategic Enrollment Management is the leveraging of the interconnectedness of enrollment with facility, staffing, and rich data for the purpose of financial stability.
Like Schuttinga, Christine Hailer Baker defines Enrollment Management as an “institutional response to the challenges and opportunities that recruiting and retaining the right student body present to a school’s financial health, image, and student quality. It is a research-based process that creates a synergy among recruitment, pricing and financial aid, academic affairs, student life, and constituent relations.” In her book, The NAIS Enrollment Management Handbook (2012), she outlines four key areas of effective enrollment management that are similar to those of Hossler and Bean: (1) admission, (2) retention, (3) research and analysis, and (4) marketing.
According to Ian Symmonds, admissions is generally understood as the active effort of creating a sustainable enrollment. While a core administrative function, the term is limiting in that it only describes the process of entry rather than all the activities that are needed to create and maintain a school’s student body. Alternatively, a strategic approach to enrollment is based on a larger and more proactive ecosystem approach. In his book, Long Live Strategy (2014), Symmonds further apportions Baker’s key Enrollment Management areas into a seven-spoke platform model that integrates (1) recruitment, (2) retention, (3) research, (4) admission, (5) financial aid and net revenue, (6) information management, and (7) marketing communications.
Recruitment, says Symmonds, is a “demand generation function” that translates into the creation of inquiries, applications, and visits to campus. Admissions, on the other hand, typically defined by the systematic gathering of information that contributes to a candidate’s portfolio for consideration, is literally the process of entry into a school or college. A strategic management approach to enrollment integrates recruitment, admission, and retention in a collaborative effort across school divisions, requiring input and insight from academic leaders throughout the organization.
Financial aid is typically a method of utilizing funded or unfunded financial assistance to generate revenue, sustain enrollment, and create access to a school. According to Symmonds, Strategic Enrollment Management sets systems priorities on the use of such financial aid and seeks to accomplish one of three objectives: (1) fill unused capacity to generate revenue, (2) shape programs/classes with specific types of students, and/or (3) provide access to underrepresented populations.
Strategic Enrollment Management emphasizes the systematic tracking of human behavior and the analysis of institutional activities so that school leaders can make wise choices. Such an enrollment approach requires a robust information management/tracking system. Symmonds argues that “rich input, throughput, and output data” is, therefore, the “backbone of an effective enrollment platform.” On the other hand, the act of generating and sustaining interest and demand in the market requires effective marketing communications. This is the area where the management of enrollment intersects with brand identity and strategic communication planning.
An effective enrollment management program, according to Symmonds, “requires collaboration across divisions, with shared responsibilities and roles in marketing communications and advancement areas.” At its most basic level, insists the SEM expert, “it is about removing unnecessary barriers and creating client-centered incentives toward persistence in the input, throughput, and output process.”
Like Hossler, Bean, Bontrager, Schuttinga, and Baker, EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit membership association created to support those who lead, manage, and use information technology to benefit higher education, recommends that Enrollment Management should engage students from when they first hear about the college to the day they graduate. In their Learning Initiative monogram, 7 Things You Should Know About Enrollment Management (2019), EDUCAUSE underscores that “models for enrollment management have evolved based on strategies derived from analysis of an institution’s mission, vision, and environment, enabling institutions to connect activities in student recruitment and marketing, admissions and enrollment, financial aid and scholarship administration, course registration, institutional planning and analytics, and student life and leadership.”
Alexander Kesler is an advocate of EDUCAUSE’s directives. In his eCampus Innovations in Higher Education article entitled, 5 Tips to Drive Applicants and Boost Enrollment (2017), Kesler outlines five steps for implementing an effective enrollment management strategy: (1) develop market personas, (2) audit existing content, (3) leverage storytelling/communications, (4) promote institutional research, and (5) create multi-media experiences. When implemented correctly, Kesler insists that educational institutions will penetrate and influence target audiences, address their questions, and generate excitement about enrolling.
In his article, Nine Strategies for Successful Enrollment Management in Today’s Higher Education Environment (2013), Peter Bryant encourages colleges and universities to quickly adapt to new enrollment trends, data, and best practices. Like Symmonds, Bryant insists that, if institutions of higher education want their enrollment strategies to be successful, “leaders should adopt a data-informed approach that addresses campus marketing, student recruitment, and student retention.” While every campus is different, Bryant outlines the following nine data-informed Enrollment Management strategies for (1) identifying, (2) cultivating, (3) recruiting, and (4) retaining students.
- Set realistic enrollment goals—not projections
- Identify and secure sufficient resources to meet enrollment objectives
- Develop 3-5-year strategic enrollment and revenue plan with annual marketing and recruitment goals
- Devote as much attention to student retention as to recruitment
- Build a recruitment database and inquiry pool by design, not by chance
- Track marketing and recruitment activities
- Qualify and precisely grade prospective students
- Implement a strategic communications flow
- Award financial aid so students get what they need and expect to enroll
Finally, in his 2009 Colloquy interview entitled, Reaching for The Stars: Four Strategies for Boosting Enrollment, David Worley, author and noted vice president of institutional advancement and enrollment at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, outlines the four enrollment management strategies that he and his enrollment team implemented to achieve stellar enrollment results in his School. Despite enrollment declines in theological education generally, at the end of the 2008–09 recruitment season, Iliff reported that inquiries were up 16%, campus visits up 79%, and applications up 46% over the prior year. In fact, the incoming class of September 2009 is the school’s largest since 1996 and new master’s degree students are up 36% over the prior year, making this the best year on record.
In reflecting on Iliff’s recent successes, Worley strongly urges “boards and senior administrators of theological schools to pay close attention to both their lead enrollment officer and the whole enrollment staff. After all,” argues Worley, “growing and maintaining enrollment is one of the most important leadership initiatives facing seminaries today.” In his article, Measure and Mix (2014), Worley lists the following four key questions that boards, presidents, academic deans, and other senior administrators of institutions of higher education should ask their enrollment team.
- How well do we distinguish ourselves from other schools?
- How do our current enrollment metrics compare with prior years?
- Are we attending to student fit?
- Is the lead enrollment officer integrated into the institution’s leadership team?
Growing and maintaining enrollment is one of the most important leadership initiatives facing the nation’s seminaries and institutions of higher theological education. Demands on enrollment, however, will require a collective effort. Strategic Enrollment Management is a research-based process that can provide such an effective institutional response to the interrelated challenges of recruitment, pricing, financial aid, academics, student life, and constituent relations. While beyond the scope of this brief commentary, leaders of the nation’s seminaries and institutions of higher theological education would find great value in using Worley’s four questions to stimulate an honest and comprehensive conversation with their enrollment management staff.
Scripture memorializes two different fish-netting miracles. While the Evangelist Luke (Luke, 5:3–11) focuses his attention on an extraordinary event that occurred during Jesus’ initial call of Simon Peter, John’s Gospel provides details concerning a similar but Post-Resurrection episode (John 21:1-17) in which a total of 153 fish are curiously tallied in the catch. The early Church biblical commentator, Saint Jerome, was the first to popularize the prevailing exegetical view that postulates that Saint John’s numeral figure refers to all the different “species” of fish known to exist in Lake Gennesaret at that time. The biblical message for Jerome and other Patristic writers was, therefore, clear. The evangelical mission of the Church is not limited to the Jewish people but is universal in nature. “The casting out of that net into the lake,” wrote Saint John Chrysostom, “is an icon of the Gospel. Our Savior wants to show us how the catching of the fish is an icon of the Church’s mission to the entire oecumene (civilization).”
There is a crucial need today for leaders of the nation’s seminaries and theological schools to accept the Lord’s invitation, and, like Simon Peter, drop their respective enrollment nets into the varied student markets of college-bound possibilities. Sanzio and van Aelst’s famous tapestry of Simon Peter’s miraculous catch of fish powerfully illustrate the value of venturing into the faith territories that such deeper waters will undoubtedly require. They must guard against the safety of wading in the shallows of established security by prudently launching their respective enrollment strategies into uncharted environments with an unyielding desire of serving the “oecumene.”
Yes, wading in the shallows offer the comfort zone characteristics of control, direction, and speed. Apart from always in touch with the bottom, land is always in sight, and safety – a mere step away. Deep water, on the other hand, requires trust in one’s craft, compass, and captain. In the shallows, leaders can depend on themselves. In the deep, they must rely on Him!
The survival of the nation’s seminaries and institutions of theological higher education will be determined by whether or not their leaders are content to remain in the ankle-deep shallows of convention or whether they are willing to place their creative trust in a Savior who beckons his followers to continuously deepen their relationship with him. Strategic Enrollment Management provides the requisites for doing just that . . . for prudently venturing away from the shallows and into the deeper waters of institutional possibilities.
“Duc in Altum!”