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Strategic Hiring: Pinpointing the Right Traits for Enrollment Leadership in Higher Ed

With the launch of 2024, it’s the perfect time to reconsider the most important skills for vice presidents of enrollment, chief enrollment officers, and other enrollment leaders. The new year will bring various opportunities and burgeoning challenges, and these leaders must have the skills to manage the ever-evolving landscape of higher education.

 

2024’s hottest topics will likely include issues ranging from enrollment declines to DEIB to AI and other advancing technology. The skills needed to succeed as an enrollment leader are wide and varied, but the following ten areas provide a guide for where enrollment leaders should focus their energy as the year gets underway:

 

Strategic Planning and Vision

Enrollment leaders are the conduits connecting the ‘business’ of an institution with the real-life connections with prospective students. Essential skills are needed to develop and implement long-term student recruitment and retention strategies to align them with a college’s overall mission and goals. As 2024 begins, it’s a great time for enrollment leaders to take stock of their institutions’ short- and long-term strategic direction and evaluate where changes may be needed in the annual enrollment operating plan.

 

Leadership and Team Management

An enrollment leader is just one part of an interconnected function filled with diverse viewpoints and talented professionals. As in any leadership role, it’s imperative for enrollment executives to demonstrate strong leadership skills to inspire and manage diverse teams and foster collaborative and inclusive work environments.

 

This is particularly relevant today for Gen Z hires and in an age where DEIB is both growing in significance and facing increased pushback. One study found that 42% of employees report their colleagues resent DEI efforts and/or view them as divisive, indicating a need to proactively address pushback and ineffectiveness to develop a more organic, systemic approach. Enrollment leaders spearhead these efforts for their teams and represent a university’s DEIB approach to outsiders, including prospective students.

 

Data Analysis and Decision Making

Data-driven decisions are critical to achieving higher ROI on enrollment budgets. Today’s enrollment leaders must demonstrate proficiency in analyzing enrollment trends, student demographics, and market data. This data can then be translated into actionable insight to inform decisions and strategies. With new technologies constantly arriving on the scene, 2024 can be the year where enrollment leaders truly leverage tech to achieve greater results.

 

Marketing and Recruitment Expertise

Enrollment professionals must be experts in more than just higher ed. They also need a broad knowledge of modern marketing techniques in today’s competitive landscape, including digital marketing, to effectively promote a college and attract a diverse student body.

 

This is particularly relevant with the increase in alternatives to the traditional four-year college or university course. From for-profit institutions to micro-credentials and professional certificates, students have more “customizable” options than ever before. The traditional, on-campus, just-out-of-high-school undergrad is no longer the default. To attract this diverse range of students, enrollment leaders must build a marketing strategy that emphasizes how their institutions address varied needs and support a broad spectrum of college ambitions. Never has the term ‘enrollment management’ been more accurate—it truly is about managing the enrollment of the entire organization, not just the traditional freshman class.

 

Financial Acumen

As any enrollment professional can tell you, finances are one of the biggest determining factors in the entire recruitment and enrollment process. Today, students and families may face stretched budgets, confusion over student loans and interest rates, and the new FAFSA process. Top enrollment leaders in 2024 must have a solid understanding of budgeting, financial forecasting, and resource allocation. This is not only to ensure the enrollment department’s financial health but also to be a source of knowledge and support for inquiring students in the pipeline. Financial aid is the enrollment professionals’ job, too.

 

Technology Savvy

2024 is set to be another year of rapid technology changes. Enrollment leaders must be prepared by ensuring their familiarity with enrollment management systems, CRM platforms, and other relevant technologies to streamline processes and improve efficiency.

 

Machine learning and AI rose to the forefront in 2023, and 2024 is likely to see even more advances in this fast-growing field. It’s critical for today’s enrollment leaders to stay on top of these trends and develop strategies on how AI can improve aspects of enrollment, like targeting, outreach, and personalization.

 

Communication Skills

The sheer scale of technology in today’s world means people are in search of a human connection more than ever. That’s why excellent verbal and written communication skills are so critical for interacting with various stakeholders, including students, parents, faculty, and staff. Students and families aren’t just looking at lists of majors and campus perks when making enrollment decisions; they’re also looking to feel ‘at home,’ and no technology can replace honest, authentic, human-to-human communication. People recruit people. We all like getting a person on the other end of the phone when we have a question that needs a nuanced answer.

 

Change Management

One of our few certainties going into 2024 is that it will be another year of enormous change. However, after the stresses of the last few years, change is starting to wear on many teams. A significant 77% of HR leaders say their employees are feeling fatigued, and 82% think their managers aren’t equipped to lead change. In turn, change fatigue makes employees 42% less likely to stay, leads to 30% lower levels of trust, and creates 27% less sustainable effort, among other negative outcomes.[3]

 

Enrollment leaders must, therefore, hone their ability to adapt to and manage change, particularly in response to shifts in higher education trends, policies, and technologies. Managing change well can be the difference between a successful enrollment department and one that misses the mark.

 

Diversity, Belonging, and Inclusion Awareness

Even as definitions and cultural contexts shift, enrollment leaders must have a firm commitment to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in student recruitment and campus cultures. DEIB itself continues to evolve, encompassing new ideas and strategies requiring fresh management solutions. DEIB has become even more complex on college campuses due to the 2023 SCOTUS ruling that struck down race-based affirmative actions. Enrollment leaders will be at the heart of developing new strategies that comply with this ruling while still advocating for the value of inclusivity, diversity, and belonging.

 

Innovative Thinking

Above all, 2024 can be a year of opportunity and creativity. Enrollment leaders can embrace this attitude with a sense of openness to new ideas and innovative approaches to challenges in enrollment management and higher education. A willingness to be flexible and think outside the box will serve leaders well as they guide their teams through expected and unexpected challenges. Combining the best of previous strategies with new and exciting ideas can keep things fresh for each successive class of prospective students.

 

Higher education will keep changing, as will the world around us. Enrollment leaders have an enormous part to play in ensuring their institutions highlight the best of themselves and find new ways to connect with students. It can feel like a daunting task to keep up with everything all the time, which is why prioritizing and delegating is so important. If we can work together and approach these shifts with thoughtful, problem-solving outlooks, we can make a big difference for our teams, students, and institutions.

 

By Jacquelyn D. Elliott, Ed.D.

 

About the Author

Dr. Elliott is a Higher Education subject matter expert across multiple functions, including Strategic Enrollment Management, Financial Aid, Institutional Advancement, Student Life and Retention, and Academic Affairs. Dr. Elliott brings to the table a unique understanding of an institution’s need for specialized talent and the candidate’s desire to affect positive change. She has worked with more than 200 schools across the globe in a consulting capacity and has coached countless cabinet-level executives on strategy, job placement, meeting enrollment, net tuition, fundraising goals, and faculty development and training.

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