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Strategic Enrollment Management: Creating a Responsive, Student-Centered Institution

Evelyn R. Babey, PhD

Principal Consultant

Registrar & Enrollment Services Consulting

for Colleges & Universities


This paper was originally presented at the University of California, Santa Cruz , July 5, 2001 and updated July 2002.

Strategic Enrollment Management, more commonly referred to as SEM, became somewhat of a mantra in higher education circles over the past 15 years.  It has become a mantra because colleges today face a very different set off circumstances as they try to maintain or improve their market edge in recruiting and retaining students.  To meet their enrollment goals in the current higher education environment many colleges must transform themselves into institutions with students as the focus of their existence.  They have to do things differently—in some cases much differently—if they want to maintain or improve their competitive edge.

Strategic enrollment management planning is the critical first step in addressing the changes that a campus must make to enhance its institutional quality and to refocus its attention on students for it to meet its enrollment targets.  The SEM planning process results in action plans that turn SEM vision and concepts into reality.  To understand the driving forces behind SEM planning, we first need to look at some of the changes that cause institutions to rethink the way they do business.  The variables that have changed the higher education landscape during the past fifteen years are broad in range.  The number and broad range of variables mean that only a major change in campus culture will ensure a campus meeting its enrollment targets.  Some of the variables that changed are:

  • Changing demographics.  The pool of students seeking access to higher education is more diverse than previous generations of students.  Students are more racially and ethnically diverse.  More students come from lower socioeconomic levels.  They are more geographically dispersed.  More students with learning and physical challenges are applying.  We are aware of more students with different sexual orientations.  We have more academically prepared students but many more who demonstrate limited academic preparation to do college work.  Many of the latter students come from homes where English is not the first language.  There is an increasing number of transfer students many of whom bring college level work from institutions outside the United States. 
  • Rising costs of higher education.  As costs rise, students, and their parents, want to make sure that the institutions they select meet their needs and wants.  They ask more questions, search out more information, and seek the best price.
  • Increasingly competitive market,  particularly for high quality students.
  • New market forces.  Private, for profit universities, corporate universities, distance education programs and on-line degrees programs have grown dramatically during the past ten years.  They are eagerly seeking students whose main option to attend college in the past was the “traditional” college.
  • Increasing expectations and accountability from internal and external customers.  Students expect colleges to be student centered and responsive to their needs.  They expect good and convenient service when they want it, in the manner they want it and they want the service personalized.  Students, and their parents, want academic and co-curricular programs that are relevant and timely to them.  Governments and businesses want students to reach their educational objectives in a timely manner and with knowledge and skills relevant to today’s market needs.
  • Decreases in federal financial aidColleges find themselves using more institutional funds to recruit the students they want.  They must find the most effective ways to use limited institutional resources.  Financial aid packaging has become an art as well as a science.  Tuition discounting appears to be increasing.
  • Change in enrollees.  There are growing numbers of students who want access to college who are different from the “traditional” college student.  There are more non-traditional students, more re-entry, more adult learners, and more career-oriented students.

(Deborah Ford, 2001)


It is in this environment of change, sometimes crisis, that colleges begin the strategic enrollment management planning process.  Guiding the SEM planning process is the institution’s strategic plan.

      Strategic planning is the process of developing and maintaining a

      strategic fit between the institution’s goals and capabilities and its

      changing marketing opportunities.  It relies on developing a clear

      institutional mission, supporting goals and objectives, a sound strategy,

      and appropriate implementation (Kotler & Fox, p.73).  

It is the plan that is supposed to guide the actions of a campus to reach it goals.   Strategic enrollment planning that does not adhere to the campus strategic plan is very likely not to produce the results the campus wants or expects.

 To hope to be successful, strategic enrollment management planning must be a campus-wide initiative that focuses on the recruitment, admissions, retention, satisfaction of students’ educational objectives, and positive alumni and public relations.  “It is an institution wide process with the academic program at its roots “(Deborah Ford, 2001).  A committee of upper administrators, key faculty, student and staff representatives, and technical support staff usually leads SEM planning.  Many subcommittees supplement its work.  The work of the SEM planners must have the demonstrated support of executive leaders if it is to fulfill it function.

It is critical that all campus members have the opportunity to participate in the SEM planning process to insure their “buy in” to a new campus culture.  Everyone connected to the campus must be committed to SEM planning outcomes.  This is more likely if all had the opportunity to be involved in the process.  An expected outcome of SEM planning is that every member of the campus consistently demonstrate the attitudes and behaviors that reflect a responsive, student-centered culture, a culture that satisfies students’ expectations within campus resources.

      To develop a meaningful SEM plan an institution must undertake an analysis of its environment, markets, and competition and assess its existing strengths and weakness.  It must develop a clear sense of mission, target markets, and marketing position (Kotler and Fox, p. 9-10).  It must “research student wants and needs in order to provide programs and services that the match the institution’s mission and resources with the student’s expectations” (Kotler and Fox, p.320).

The SEM plan must establish clear and realistic enrollment goals—goals that are achievable and measurable--and that everyone internalizes and supports.  The SEM plan must be data driven (Peter S. Bryant, July 2000).  It must develop a marketing mix of product, price, place and promotional materials that make the institution attractive to prospects it wants to recruit, enroll and retain.

“To be attractive to prospects, an educational institution must provide a sound and appropriate educational program [product], at a price students and their families are willing and able to pay (with assistance if necessary) [price], in a reasonably attractive place [place]...[and] to communicate to prospective students in a timely, interesting, and accurate manner [promotion].” (Kotler and Fox, p.330)

 The SEM plan must include direction for programs and services that will aid in the retention of students.  “Retention is defined as the maintenance and enhancement of a student’s satisfactory progress toward his/her educational objective until it is attained” (Dolence, p. 17, 1996).  Economically speaking, retaining students uses fewer campus resources than recruiting a new student to replace one who leaves.


The plan must provide for programs and services that promote academic success and personal growth.  Programs and services that promote academic success help students meet their educational objectives.  Personal growth services and programs help connect students to the campus, help them develop relationships, and give them a sense of belonging.   Examples of these services and programs are: new student orientation, academic advising: learning communities; freshmen seminars; tutoring; learning support; writing and mathematical centers; language labs; computing labs; career planning and placement; social and cultural organizations; counseling and psychological services; health services; community service/volunteerism; leadership development; recreational activities; and intramural sports. 

The SEM plan must address two other factors that are critical to retention: (1) ability of students to have outside the class contact with faculty members and (2) the on-going assessment of the campus environment to determine that students continue to be satisfied.

A strategic enrollment management plan is visionary.  It is  transformative.  It is broad in scope.  It is a framework to guide future actions.  It reflects institutional commitment to change.  Its development  is a long term process usually three or more years.

The outcomes of a strategic enrollment management plan are to enhance institutional quality and to create a culture of a responsive, student-centered institution embraced by all members of the community.  A quality and responsive institution creates a high level of satisfaction among its prospective and continuing students as well as among its many other publics.  Satisfied students tend to enroll, remain at the institution and are supportive alumni.  Concrete actions that implement the vision and concepts of the SEM plan are the true outcomes of the plan.  What actions will a college implement to demonstrate that its culture is now a responsive, student-centered culture?  


 A responsive faculty will: 

  • Offer academic programs and courses that students want and need and schedule classes to enable students to complete degree programs in a timely manner.
  • Offer a mix of instructional delivery methods., e.g., traditional courses taught by a faculty member in a space on campus, internet or web courses or a combination of traditional and internet courses to provide flexibility for the differing needs of students.
  • Encourage faculty to teach to different learning styles so all students have a the opportunity to succeed.
  • Encourage faculty to create interactive classes that foster active student learning and team work.
  • Encourage faculty to demonstrate they are truly interested in a student’s well being and that they care about students.

At the heart of SEM is a faculty who is committed to teaching academic programs that meet student needs and wants and who care about students.  Students are attracted to a campus because of its academic programs and its faculty.  A caring faculty generates student satisfaction and the likelihood that the student will remain on the campus.  The most positive words a student can say about an institution are that the professors care.

            A SEM action plan is also responsive to the delivery of student services.  A responsive, student-centered campus will:

  • Review its organizational structure and develop a new one that is more responsive to students.  The integration of the functions of the primary student service units (Admissions, Registrar, Financial Aid/Student Accounts, and Advising) is such realignment. 
  • Create new roles that reflect this integration.  Cross train staff to be generalists who can answer most students’ questions involving anyone of the units eliminating the need for students to go from office to office.  Create cross-trained specialists who help students if their questions or situations are too complex or time consuming for the generalist to answer.
  • Locate student services in one area of the campus commonly referred to as one- stop shopping centers.  Enhance the physical appearance of the center to make it inviting for students and staff.
  • Review policies and procedures to streamline bureaucracy by eliminating the unnecessary and simplifying the overly complex.
  • Make it easy for a customer to complain.
  • Establishes assessment processes to measure effectiveness of programs and services.
  • Develop clear, easily understood communications.
  • Facilitate communication across campus.

A responsive institution will provide different types and points of access to services based on student need.  It will adopt new and appropriate technology tools to meet today’s students’ “just in time, want it now” way of thinking.  Students, including prospective students, expect to be able to access information and accomplish most things themselves 24 hours a day, seven days a week and they want it personalized.  (Providing different points of access to service, however, enables a student to talk to a staff member when the need arises. )  The “my page” or portal web site is becoming more commonplace.  Creating web sites by process or type of student, e.g., new student services web site, continuing student services web site, is another responsive approach. 

In reality we are talking about a virtual student center”.  From such a center, the student can:

  • Apply for admissions and check admissions status
  • Apply for financial aid and check status
  • Check immunization status
  • Apply for housing and check status
  • Access the college catalog
  • Access the class schedule for current and future terms
  • Register for classes; elect grading options, add and drop courses
  • Seek on line academic advising
  • Run a degree audit including capability to “model” degree programs
  • Check transfer work
  • Check academic status
  • Check grades; review transcript
  • Complete necessary forms
  • Access charges; pay bills
  • Order text books
  • Access Career Services; set up interviews
  • Access available internships, jobs
  • Access academic and campus event calendars
  • Access the Library
  • Access e-mail
  • Access on-line classes
  • Access news alert

(Jim Black, 2001).

The SEM plan calls for concrete action on the part of leaders to create an environment that motivates and satisfies staff (and faculty) to be student centered and to strive for excellence in all they do.  A satisfied staff begets satisfied students.  Creating such an environment is a key responsibility of leadership.  Leaders should create an environment that:

  • Treats staff fairly and respectfully.
  • Recognizes staff for their work and makes them feel that they are working for a worthwhile organization.
  • Builds teamwork.
  • Compensates staff fairly.
  • Allows mistakes and uses them as learning moments.
  • Provides staff with the training needed to be effective in their positions.
  • Provides staff the tools they need to give high quality, effective, efficient, and satisfying service.
  • Demonstrates the “golden” rule, “treat others as you wish to be treated”.

(Jim Black, “Creating a Student-Centered Culture”, 2001.)

Another key leadership responsibility is hiring new staff with students in mind (Kolter and Fox, p.26).

A final point, SEM is not static.  There is continual evaluation of the environment, evaluation of strategies and making appropriate changes to the SEM plan and action plans.  What is “best practice” today is standard practice tomorrow.  A new mantra might be, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow”!


Beede, M., & Burnett, D., Eds., (1999).  Planning for student services: best practices                      for the            21st century.  Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University                                 Planning.

Black, J. & Ford, D. (2001).  Presentation at American Association of Collegiate                                 Registrars and Admissions Officers seminar,  Strategic Enrollment Management.

Black, J. (2002).  Creating a Student-Centered Culture.  In D. Burett & D. Oblinger                       (Eds),  Innovation in student services: Planning for models blending high                          touch/high tech (pp.35-45).  Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and             University Planners.

Black, J., Ed., (2001).  Strategic enrollment management revolution.  Washington, DC:                  American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Bryant, P.  (2000).  Keys to enrollment success in public universities.  Presentation to              the University of Georgia System, Calloway Gardens, GA.

Burnett, D., & Oblinger, D.,  (Eds.), (2002).  Innovation in student services: Planning for                models blending high touch/hightTech.  Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College             and University Planning.

Doby, W.  (2001). Report to Office of the President, University of California.,  Future             visions: Student services at the University of California.

Dolence, M. G., Ed., (1996). Strategic enrollment management: Cases studies from the                      field.  Washington, DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and             Admissions Officers.

Dolence, M. G. (1993). Strategic enrollment management: A primer for campus                                    administrators.  Washington, DC:  American Association for Collegiate                                 Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Kotler, P., & Fox, F. A.  (1985).  Strategic marketing for educational institutions.                             Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.




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