For Many Colleges and Universities, Now is the Right Time for Change

John W. Dysart
President
The Dysart Group, Inc.

Another recruitment cycle has been completed and as always, there are winners and losers. Many institutions have been struggling for years to meet enrollment targets and have fallen short. Board Members, cabinet members and Presidents often know that real change is needed to secure different outcomes, but hesitate pull the trigger. Change is difficult, risky, often unpopular and can require new investments. The enrollment management landscape has changed the old days are never coming back. Here are a few reasons why now is the perfect time to implement a new enrollment model if campus leaders are dissatisfied with current recruitment and realities.

Demographics have shifted significantly and will continue to change in the coming years in ways that will make achievement of enrollment goals even more challenging. Population declines will persist in many parts of the country. Ethnic diversity will be the norm and schools ill-equipped to handle the demographic evolution are in peril.

At least in the short term, and perhaps for a longer period, poor economic conditions are going to lessen the general attractiveness of private colleges and universities. Stress on institutional financial aid budgets will increase. Additional cutbacks in financial aid available from states is likely. We can expect expansion in the ever-growing gap between real financial need and the ability of schools to meet it.

Endowments will remain under pressure as giving declines and endowment value stagnates or diminishes just at the time when such resources are needed more than ever.

Technology is advancing at a brisk pace. Just as those in the higher education community begin to master the web and email—social media, text messaging and blogging explode. Quick Response bar codes and new technological advances are becoming more popular.

We are entering into an arms race with regard to campus amenities.

Recruitment strategies and tactics have evolved considerably in even the last few years. Reliance on traditional mechanisms such as view books, high school visits, picture-laden brochures, building relationships with guidance counselors and scholarship competitions has given way to personalized marketing, sophisticated electronic communication, systematic outreach to parents, measurable relationship building with prospective students and individualized financial aid packaging.

Long-standing and slow moving “retention committees” are being replaced by rapid response student advocates.

Market needs and new employment opportunities in a transforming economy change constantly and the traditional approach to curricular reform and adaptation is simply no longer sufficient.

The competition for students is fierce. Higher education is an over-built commodity given current demographic realities, making recruitment and retention a zero-sum game. The colleges and universities most likely to survive are those willing to adapt, and to adapt first.

Making real change is hard. It requires expenditure of political and economic capital and there are, unfortunately, no guarantees. Change rocks the institutional boat and is scary and intimidating and controversial and uncomfortable. But there is something much worse than change. Continuing along a strategic path that for years has proven to be ineffective is worse. For at-risk colleges and universities, staying the course with an enrollment management model that is not working will likely prove to be much worse than change.