Uniquely Qualified to Lead Enrollment Management Operations

Mike O’Grady
Senior Vice President
Student Loan Corporation

The higher education industry has changed dramatically over the last thirty years. Separate offices devoted to financial aid, recruitment and retention have often been collapsed into enrollment management divisions. 

The trend has been at some cost to financial aid professionals. In many cases, representatives in the Financial Aid Office no longer control the parameters of institutional scholarship and grant programs, even those based upon financial need. They are lucky to have a seat at the table as these programs are constructed but are still held accountable for their impact on expenditure levels regardless of their effectiveness. Award policies are often devised collaboratively within the enrolment management division and even financial aid processes and procedures are no longer under the sole auspices of financial aid professionals. 

In reality, the problem is not the trend toward enrolment management. Collaborative approaches with regard to recruitment, retention and financial aid make sense. The real industry challenge is that so few financial aid professionals are promoted to leadership ranks in enrolment management. Vice Presidents for Enrolment positions are dominated by people with admission and recruitment experience. This is unfortunate for colleges and universities because many financial aid professionals are uniquely qualified to effectively lead enrolment management operations. 

People do not like to openly talk about it, but there is a significant difference in the art of recruitment and the art of financial aid. Both can be taught and learned. The nuances of financial aid, however, are simply more complicated and more difficult to learn. While both professions involve knowledge and creativity, only financial aid professionals are subject to so much accountability from outside forces like state and federal regulators. Further, the rules are subject to change as soon as you learn them! The point is that a professional with detailed knowledge of financial aid is going to have an easier learning curve on recruitment and retention than a recruitment professional seeking to understand financial aid. 

Enrolment management is data-driven. It requires an understanding of numbers, trends, yields and fund management. Financial aid people deal with these things everyday. They are comfortable with numbers—they have to be. They are detail-oriented and experienced in generating reports and monitoring expenditures. They are used to being accountable for the bottom line while balancing the needs for recruitment and retention. 

Financial aid professionals generally have greater experience working with broad constituency groups. This is extremely important for enrolment managers. Certainly admission staff members work with prospective students and parents. Financial aid administrators work with prospective students and parents as well, along with currently enrolled students and parents, graduates, lenders, federal and state governments, faculty, business officers and more. 

Detailed understanding of financial aid from all sources is so important in enrolment management. Control of institutional expenditures at private colleges and universities will often have more impact on the institutional budget than recruitment or retention. One must understand pricing options and the impact of pricing decisions on revenue and enrolment. It is clear that financial aid professionals are inherently more qualified to manage aid resources and meet institutional objectives regarding net revenue. Administrators in financial aid manage pricing decisions every year. 

The point is not to criticize enrolment managers with recruitment experience. We must recognize, however, that we have a huge cadre of uniquely qualified individuals who do not seem to be given level opportunities to advance to leadership positions in enrolment management. College and university administrators should be doing more to identify enrolment managers from within the financial aid ranks. Perhaps more importantly, financial aid professionals should be much more proactive in seeking these leadership positions. Improved enrolment management clearly benefits the institution, but it ultimately serves students well.