Your institution's admissions culture & why it matters

Is your institution having challenges reaching your enrollment goals for certain groups of students?  Perhaps you have initiatives for online curriculum or competency-based education that are not getting traction. Your institution’s culture could be setting you up to fail and you may not even be aware of it. 

I recently had a discussion with the director of enrollment services for a large institution's online college where we discussed challenges this person is facing in optimizing enrollment for that area.  These challenges were a direct outgrowth of the overall admissions culture at that institution -- which is something that I've seen at other institutions.

Admissions Culture Defined

Let's start by describing why I mean by admissions culture.  For this article, I am using the following definition:

Culture is a way of life for a group of people -- The behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them

From an admissions context, I've seen two different types of culture by which organizations operate.

  • A culture of scarcity, focused on eliminating potential candidates
  • A culture of abundance, focused on enrolling qualified candidates

These differences are ingrained throughout the institution and are driven primarily by traditional freshman enrollment demand.

Culture of Scarcity

Let's delve into more detail on the scarcity admissions culture.  As previously mentioned, this culture is most often driven by institutions where the number of qualified traditional (freshman) admissions applications far outstrips the institution's capacity to teach them in a traditional manner.  In this circumstance, there may be many qualified candidates who could be admitted, but most of those candidates must be eliminated from consideration.

In many of these circumstances, outside factors drive a candidate's interest in the institution, such as rankings in news publications -- and the admissions process does not need to prioritize engaging with candidates at an individual level.  In some circumstances, whether a candidate is able to navigate a complex and difficult process is considered helpful in making an admissions decision.

This means that the admissions process is often organized around multiple rounds of sorting and ranking candidates; eliminating candidates at each round.  Once the pool matches enrollment targets, offers are sent out.  Admissions organizations with this culture often do the following:

  • Recruiters primarily engage 1-1 with guidance counselors versus candidates
  • The application process is complex, with many questions, essays, and supporting information requested
  • The organization uses software with the core competency of categorizing, sorting, and ranking candidates.

Culture of Abundance

The other type of culture exists where there isn't scarcity in an institution's ability to instruct qualified candidates.  In a similar manner, this culture is most often driven by the traditional (freshman) admissions process -- where the capacity is in line with the pool of qualified candidates likely to enroll.

Interestingly, higher education's trends are moving in the direction of increasing the capacity to reach new students, increasing representation of nontraditional and under-represented groups, and adopting innovative education models.  This means that even in institutions with limited capacity for traditional students; there are many places where that scarcity doesn't exist.  Here are some examples:

  • Online colleges -- where many traditional constraints on capacity don't exist
  • Under-represented groups from both an ethnic and socio-economic perspective
  • Continuing education
  • Community colleges and other non-elite instituions

In this circumstance, the admissions process is generally organized around qualifying candidates and then engaging them throughout the attract-to-onboard process.  Admissions organizations with this culture often do the following:

  • Recruiters engage 1-1 with students.  Admissions staff are proactive in engaging with candidates in the admissions process
  • The application process is streamlined and easy to navigate -- only requesting information needed to qualify, engage, and enroll the candidate
  • The organization uses software with the core competency of attracting and engaging candidates

Impact to new initiatives

As mentioned above, we believe that all institutions have scenarios where they would like to attract and admit more students than they are.  However, the culture of many institutions can prevent this from occurring; especially when the culture is ingrained to a degree that people don't recognize it.  Here are a few drivers of this in those organizations:

  • The recruiting and admissions organizations are optimized around processing applications and not engaging with people
  • IT is resistant to initiatives that engage 1-1 with candidates, such as texting and QR codes
  • Faculty is resistant to new initiatives that increase enrollment due to concerns about hurting the reputation of the institution.

Moving forward

The first step in moving forward is recognizing what is blocking progress.  Because culture is generally accepted without much thought, you will need to shift peoples' thinking -- at least as it relates to the initiatives affected by it.  This means that often your job changes from project / initiative management to evangelism.

  1. The first step is to get the facts and tie them to something everybody sees the value in.  This gives you ammunition to help people question their assumptions.  Here are a few examples:
    • We have a goal of having 20% of our enrollment from our online college.  
    • We are only tracking to 5%.
    • Of those who begin an application, only 5% complete it.
    • Yield for online applicants is 10%.
  2. The second step is to begin an evangelism initiative. Quite often, this involves creating a steering committee of respected executives and elicit their help in a number of meetings throughout the institution.  Giving it a snappy name like "the digital campus initiative" helps brand what you're trying to accomplish.  Because culture is spread widely, this can involve many, many meetings with different parts of the organization.  This means reaching out to people that you might not normally contact, such as department heads, faculty, and information technology.
  3. Finally, starting small is often the key to building momentum.  You can think of your institution as a large ship.  Changing the direction of an enormous vessel can take a lot of effort and requires buy-in at the top levels.  However, if you start smaller, such as an instructional area with a significant need -- you can be more nimble and build on early successes.  In essence, you'll have created a pilot boat to safely lead the way to where your institution needs to go.

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