As a higher education professional in the enrollment management business unit, I have frequently observed the role that context plays in strategy implementation. I have also witnessed the challenges currently facing colleges and universities across the country; such as, declining enrollments, decreased tuition revenue, and shifting demographics. Moreover, failure to understand the context of these challenges as they relate to an institution’s enrollment goals can and will stymy leadership’s efforts to progress toward their strategic goals.
Most enrollment operations tend to follow the classical strategy, as described by Reeves, Love, an Tillmanns in “Your Strategy Needs a Strategy,” because of the historical stability of colleges’ market positions and the number of high school graduates. However, in a climate of declining numbers of high school students and decreased public funding (among other perennial challenges), such a strategy will inhibit an institution from being able to explore new recruitment markets, attract non-traditional students, and devise new pricing schemes in the same manner that a shaping, or even, adaptive strategy would allow.
While colleges tend to excel at stable and consistent classical strategy and high-level, long-term visionary strategy, they often fall short at offering themselves the ability to easily change to new market conditions and the result is a culture of “we’ve always done it this way.” Like the article suggests, such cultures end up reinforcing the reluctance to adopt an adaptive or shaping strategy precisely because they run so counter to conventional operations at a college or university. That said, I feel that there is room for a hybrid approach to enrollment strategy by employing short planning cycles around different phases of the enrollment year, as seen with shaping strategies, with the predictive forecasting of a classical strategy.
By focusing on the enrollment cycle in “seasons”; fall recruitment, fall and winter application review, and spring admitted student yield efforts; enrollment leaders can monitor their progress toward meeting their enrollment goals continually throughout the entire year and, if necessary, alter their strategy for each season based on the successes and failures of the preceding one. This is turn allows the overall enrollment strategy to be contextualized based on the market conditions in that given year. Taking this short-term approach further and layering in analysis of historical trends, enrollment leaders can predict, as best they can, how each season will unfold while allowing themselves the flexibility to revise their models as new events occur.
Finally, colleges and universities who can accept and even embrace the uncertainty of the current higher education landscape and devise adaptive or shaping strategies within this context will be able to create an enrollment operation that focuses not just on stability and consistency, but instead welcomes new opportunities to serve more diverse and interesting students that might not fit the conventional mold colleges have been used to. Context, therefore, is ultimately a determining factor in how an enrollment strategy will or will not work and needs to be constantly assessed to best position the institution.