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Enrollment Officer Survey: Work Is Challenging But Satisfying

Maguire Associates once again joined with The Chronicle of Higher Education in a research partnership.  This time we surveyed senior admissions and enrollment management officials nationwide.  Over the years, we have worked with hundreds of admissions and enrollment professionals, but we had never surveyed them systematically until now.  In our findings, over three-quarters of respondents say they are “mostly” to “extremely” satisfied with their jobs.  However, these professionals also report significant challenges in meeting the demands of a rapidly changing profession. 

The 461 respondents (22% response rate) reported substantial increases over the last 10 years in parental involvement in school assessment and choice.  This finding underscores parents’ heightened interest in the perceived value of an education along with the price sensitivities and willingness-to-pay that parents and students bring to the task of calibrating one college relative to another.  (See related article, What Is Your Value Argument?  You Have One, Right?)

Interestingly, respondents who reported higher job satisfaction were more likely to spend time in strategic planning, where they may have access to the value and pricing discussions at the core of their jobs.  Those who had fewer opportunities to plan strategically may have felt unable to deliver value arguments to the right audiences at the right time with the right technologies.

Who are these senior level admissions and enrollment management officials?  They are mostly male (61%), white, and middle-aged; 28% are graduates of the institution where they work.  Almost half earn $100,000 or more, but 10% earn less than $60,000.  They work hard; three-quarters of them report that they are on the job 50 hours a week or more.  As a group, they are highly experienced (a substantial majority have been in admissions work for 10 years or more), but they are also mobile: one-third have been in their present position for two or fewer years.

They represent every state in the Union and the District of Columbia, and they work at public (33%), private religious (45%), and private non-religious institutions (21%).  Their institutions range all over the map with respect to enrollment, average standardized test scores, tuition cost, and endowment. 

What do they do, and how satisfied are they?  More than other activities, respondents report spending time communicating with other campus offices. The next most commonly reported activities are: supervising, managing, and/or training staff; strategic planning; and analyzing recruitment assessment data.  More than half describe themselves as “mostly satisfied” (scale point 4 on a 5-point scale), and another one-quarter describe themselves as “extremely satisfied.”  Their average satisfaction rating was somewhat lower than that for college and university presidents and governing board members on a similar satisfaction scale used in our earlier Chronicle studies. 

The most highly satisfied group of admissions and enrollment management officers was more likely than others to report spending time on strategic planning, as referenced above, and to give a higher rating to their level of support from IT.  Those who were not so satisfied mentioned such causes as “not enough resources,” “unrealistic expectations,” “office organization,” “too much work,” and “lack of support or understanding” as sources of their discontent.  In short, the less satisfied respondents feel expected to accomplish too much with too little.  Interestingly, we observed that there are no differences in satisfaction level across respondents from public, private-religious, and private non-religious schools, despite major differences in resources that are available to them.

What challenges do they face? Admissions and enrollment management work is challenging in many ways.  One respondent’s quotation summarizes the competing demands and the resource limitations that many respondents confront:

"In the area of marketing and recruitment, there are never adequate resources - staff, time, money, etc. to do what needs to be done and to continue to add additional and most expensive electronic methods of interacting with prospective students and parents.  On the scholarship and financial aid side of the house, the balancing battle over competing priorities - discount rates, net tuition revenues, academic profile, diversity, etc.  Then, of course, there are always the issues of retention and graduation rates and lack of adequate programs to move us to the 90% markers."

How are Admissions Offices organized and what approaches do they use?  Admissions offices vary greatly in size, but over half have between five and 15 staff members.  While about half of our respondents reported that their office had a budget of $1M or more, some had to make do with considerably less. Increasingly, these professionals make use of electronic resources such as the Admissions Office website (almost all), virtual campus tours (over half), current student blogs (just under half).  About one-third each use online/web chats and instant messaging.  About one-fifth of our respondents report making frequent or ongoing use of enrollment/admissions consultants and of marketing/market research consultants.  A somewhat smaller proportion makes heavy use of alumni for undergraduate recruitment.  Current students are the most frequently used constituent group; over half of the offices use current students “quite a lot” or “very much.”

Discount rates vary across the types of institution: 19% for public, 37% for private-religious, and 35% for private non-religious.  About 60% of respondents overall have a favorable attitude toward the use of merit aid.  At the same time, the great majority report doing admissions on a need-blind basis.

What plans and policies do admissions officers have, and what do they think is important?  Much has been made in the news about upcoming demographic changes in the prospective student population, and it appears that admissions officers have taken notice.  We found that just under half of our respondents have a plan for addressing these changes; most of the rest say they are working on one.  In response to well-publicized financial aid initiatives at highly selective institutions, however, only about one-fifth of our respondents say that their school has already changed its policies or is considering a change.  As a group, respondents express a moderate degree of need to improve undergraduate enrollment along such dimensions as higher ability (average of 3.4 on a five-point scale), ethnic diversity (3.3) and economic diversity (2.9).

Admissions officers appear to be ambivalent about the use of standardized test scores in admissions.  While just under half report a “somewhat” or “very” positive attitude toward the use of tests, the great majority overall (and 76% at private non-religious schools) report that their offices require applicants to submit scores.  However, this percentage may be a moving target, as each week seems to bring news that another institution has reduced the role of the tests in their admissions process.
What are some current trends in the industry?  In addition to seeing great increases over the last 10 years in parental involvement in students’ assessment and choice of schools, respondents also reported considerable growth in “stealth” applications as well as prospective student stress and anxiety.  At the same time, they noted numerous public misconceptions about the admissions and financial aid processes: that getting in to college is harder (most for private institutions) – or easier (for some public institutions) – than it actually is; that college is totally unaffordable; and that all financial need will be met.   One third of the respondents identified tuition and other costs and financial aid as the “most important problem facing college admissions today,” and another 9% identified similar issues of access such as the gap between rich and poor students.

Other important problems included dealing with demographic shifts and changes in students’ preparation level and keeping up with the competition and market trends.  While a few mentioned ethical challenges such as “not making false promises” or “ensuring that we maintain ethical standards and stay focused on what’s good for students at a time when competition and pressure are fierce,” respondents gave generally low ratings to the degree of pressure to admit students for various non-academic reasons such as athletic ability or to the role that likelihood of attendance plays in admissions decisions.

Concluding Remarks.  The Chronicle’s report was published in the Admissions & Student Aid supplement to the May 2, 2008 edition of the newspaper.  We have presented here just the tip of the iceberg of our findings.  To see which of your intuitions about admissions are shared by a representative sample of senior professionals in the industry, we invite you to explore the survey findings further.  Click here to read our full report, which presents what we learned in much more detail. Clearly, these are dynamic and challenging times for all involved in college admissions, and Maguire Associates remains steadfast in its commitment to identifying and addressing the industry’s most important issues.   

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