Admissions & Recruitment Publications

Back from the Brink: Bringing Graduate Admissions into the 21st Century

sem_logo-2007.gifThe traditional work of strategic enrollment management (SEM) has long focused on undergraduate recruitment, admission, enrollment, retention and graduation. A strategic approach to the recruitment and enrollment of graduate students is the exception, not the rule. Most enrollment managers are responsible only for undergraduate enrollment. And happily so—undergraduate enrollment management is exciting. It gives us the opportunity to forge relationships with high school counselors, travel to interesting places, demonstrate our commitment to access, create programs to enhance the diversity of our institutions and more. Graduate programs have traditionally been the purview of the faculty. Whether students are sought for professional masters programs or for Ph.D. programs, it is the faculty who typically recruits and admits graduate students. So what can SEM offer in the area of graduate programs? Plenty!

Universities have strong incentives to target graduate education for SEM. First and foremost, university reputations are built (and enhanced) in large measure on the strength and quality of graduate programs. The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies, which also includes the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, assesses doctorate-granting and research institutions on a periodic basis. Operating under a congressional charter, the NRC and the National Academies bring together experts in all areas of science and technology to serve pro bono, addressing critical national issues and advising the federal government and the public. Placing highly in the NRC rankings brings an institution attention from both peers and funding agencies. For many universities, federal funding provides financial resources to support both scholarly research and entrepreneurship.

Another important institutional incentive is that revenues from professional masters programs may account for a nontrivial amount of institutional budgets. Teacher training programs can support institutional objectives in the area of community outreach. Executive education can provide avenues for the development of corporate partnerships, providing new revenue streams, often in a cohort or negotiated fee structure model. And, executive or continuing education can be delivered in a variety of modes: on campus, off campus and via distance learning. Given the fact that most of us will have four to six different careers during our lifetimes, universities can provide both the skills support and intellectual challenge that focuses on a specific industry or profession.

However, the structure and execution of graduate enrollment activities varies widely from institution to institution. Graduate admissions may report to the dean of the graduate school, with recruitment centralized or decentralized. Graduate admissions may be the responsibility of the chief enrollment officer through the enrollment management structure. Individual departments and academic units may be responsible for all recruitment and admissions activities. Regardless of the structure, the admissions process at the graduate level is more complex than at the undergraduate level, in large part because of the number of institutional actors involved. Graduate admissions decisions are typically (but not always) made by faculty. In virtually all cases they are important partners in the process. Effective SEM at the graduate level requires a partnership between academic units, faculty, the graduate school and the senior academic leadership of the institution. If there is a separate graduate admissions function, this area is a necessary partner as well.

Whether an institution offers a few or many graduate programs, there are organizations devoted to supporting graduate admissions, such as the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals and NAFSA: Association of International Educators, both of which provide excellent training and networking venues for graduate admissions professionals. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), through the Strategic Enrollment Management conference, also provides similar opportunities. Finally, although designed primarily to support graduate deans, the Council of Graduate Schools is the only national organization dedicated to the advancement of graduate education and research and is a great resource for graduate admissions professionals.

However, without a service-oriented enrollment management focus, graduate admissions activities can hurt, rather than help, an institution’s reputation both in the public arena and within the university community. We have applied SEM to graduate enrollment at the University of Southern California for the past two years. As a result, service to applicants and our academic departments has improved exponentially. And we have seen a more than 23 percent increase in graduate applications in the past year. This article uses the USC experience as a case study for SEM at the graduate level.

The University of Southern California is made up of 17 academic units, including the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as well as professional and arts schools. Throughout the 1990s, USC focused intently on improving the quality and reputation of undergraduate programs. Curricular innovation, SEM and brilliant marketing coalesced to increase average SAT score more than 300 points from 1991 to 2006.

Also an excellent graduate institution, USC looks to the academic units, and the faculty within those academic units, to attract high quality students to its many graduate programs. Within the university’s 17 academic units are 90 departments and 400 masters, doctoral and certificate programs. The University of Southern California enrolls more than 16,000 graduate students in professional masters programs and Ph.D. programs. More than 25,000 graduate applications are received annually. Eighty percent of those applications are for the fall term. One-third of the applicants are international students, from more than 100 countries. Admissions processing scans more than a total of 1.5 million documents each year for undergraduate and graduate applicants. Application deadlines range from mid-November to mid-July. Although the graduate school at USC is responsible for the administrative oversight of graduate education, the graduate school is not responsible for enrollment management or application processing.

In contrast with the undergraduate admissions process, graduate recruitment and admission is quite decentralized. Each academic unit employs staff to manage the admissions process for programs offered within the various schools and recruits directly for its own programs (if time and money permit). Often the same staff person acts as an adviser for currently enrolled students. There is limited central staff to support a complex program-by-program review process. Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) personnel are also housed in graduate admissions (a natural fit considering most of the international enrollment at USC is in the graduate programs).
In 2002, the Enrollment Services Division commissioned a graduate admissions process review. Key findings included:

  • Wide variation in application and admissions protocol across academic units and departments, with variable application deadlines, variable application fees and inconsistent application data
  • Lack of timely application processing by central graduate admissions
  • Inaccurate and untimely processing of I20 forms, used by international students to obtain a student visa
  • Poor communication between central graduate admissions and academic units and departments

Although the university was committed to a centralized application review process, the existing central graduate admissions function was so broken that some departments had created shadow systems and had told applicants not to send anything to central admissions! In 2005 the provost instructed the dean of admissions and financial aid to “get the train back on the tracks.”

The Challenge
Put simply, our challenge was to create an integrated graduate admissions and enrollment function that served the needs of the graduate programs and departments across the university more effectively and efficiently than they could serve themselves. At the most basic level, we needed to review applications in a timely manner and refer them to departments for final admissions decision.

To accomplish this, it was important to consider the following: Does SEM make sense at the graduate level? Whom would it most benefit? What do we need to do to apply SEM to our current graduate enrollment practices? How long would it take to make SEM a reality?

Phase I: Getting the Basics Right
Our first step was to focus on improving core activities. We began by rationalizing the number and type of staff in graduate admissions. Most importantly, USC created the position of associate dean and director of graduate admission. In addition, the budget for professional staff in graduate admissions was increased by 50 percent. Then we began thinking of our work as a unified system encompassing recruitment, admission, enrollment and advising. We collaborated with academic units and departments to set service expectations. We determined the best way to communicate with prospective students—moving from a totally paper-based system to virtually 100 percent electronic communication. And, importantly, we committed to the reality that we have many customers: prospective students, applicants, faculty and administrators. A systems focus required us to think holistically about the enrollment process. The decentralized nature of the university could have discouraged this line of thinking, but we had a champion in the provost, who set a very public expectation for the success of graduate admissions.

In the “old” graduate admissions structure there was no real “team leader,” nor did the staff have specific areas of responsibility. Staff turnover was high and morale was low. We hired and trained additional evaluators, and we hired an experienced SEVIS coordinator. (The work of the credential evaluator can be tedious but it must be precise.) We created a team leader and gave staff specific areas of responsibility. This has paid off in many ways. The evaluators have access to a robust resource library that is constantly updated to reflect the most current information on colleges and universities around the world. The admissions staff feel more in control of their work because they play a big part in training their colleagues in the schools and departments. Having a front line manager who is also an experienced evaluator gives everyone a sense of security—there’s always someone to go to for advice and someone to speak for them.

As experienced enrollment managers we assumed that this approach would work, and we were able to communicate with our colleagues in the schools and departments in language that they understood. USC is fortunate (in relative terms) to have a proprietary data management system that is fairly user-friendly, allowing both central and academic unit–based admissions staff to monitor activity with applicants. The sharing of data was essential to making the system work for everyone.

Because USC has the largest international enrollment of any university in the United States (more than 6,000 international students for fall 2006), we issued more than 3,500 I20s for spring, summer and fall terms for graduate and undergraduate students. The integration of the admissions function and I20 processing is essential to enrolling this number of students so that the evaluators can review financial documentation along with academic credentials. This allows students to be informed early in the process if their financial documentation is not adequate. Cross-training the staff supports better communication with students; it results in the SEVIS coordinator being easily able to relay information to applicants about missing credentials.

By reaching out to key influencers in the schools and departments, we are able to test anticipated changes in processing and get immediate feedback on workflow issues. We have established a graduate enrollment council (GEC), whose membership includes representatives from across the academic units. The GEC meets monthly to discuss issues and initiatives related to graduate admissions. As an example, they are currently serving as a resource to the university information services unit in the development of a new data warehouse.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome was the impression of graduate admissions as “gatekeepers.” We have overcome this perception by asking departments to provide us with information on their work processes. This has enabled us to provide support to departments when they need it. We charted application deadlines and faculty review cycles so that the file review would queue up based on what the departments needed to make admissions decisions.

Finally, we focused on service, service, service and more service. We redeployed one of the evaluators to manage all electronic communication, including e-mail and Web. He uses student staff to help answer the thousands of e-mails we receive annually, about 40 percent of which are from students checking on the status of their applications. We even stopped mailing missing credential letters to international students, because so often the letter either never arrived or arrived weeks after the credential was received, and started e-mailing them instead.

Phase II: Using Technology
The next step was to add value to the process by leveraging technology. This meant redesigning the graduate admissions Web site and implementing an online graduate admissions system. The Web site was redesigned to be more informative and add usable links to the schools and departments. Whether prospective students started at the graduate admissions site or in a department Web site, they would be pointed in the right direction when it was time to apply. When the graduate admissions Web site was updated, we reviewed the Web sites for all the departments and programs with whom we work to ensure that the links were working properly. We also wanted to eliminate any contradictory information and ensure that students had correct (and the same) information regarding the admissions process, regardless of the source. We are also committed to building strategic capabilities to enhance our work processes.

The biggest impact on the application process has come with the implementation of a new online application hosted by AY Solutions. In slightly more than 90 days we hired a project manager and brought the basic university graduate application online. Sixty days after that implementation we launched a unique version of the application for USC’s Marshall School of Business. In addition to providing a much more user-friendly application process for students, we provided the opportunity for the schools and departments to view applications as soon as they are submitted, rather than having them wait to view the applications in the student information system. Departments also receive supplemental materials immediately upon submission, as attachments to the application itself. Recommendations can be submitted electronically or uploaded as attachments. By implementing this process we have reduced the time it takes to input and scan an application from between two and three weeks to between two and three days, and we are now able to review files and electronically send them to departments for admission decisions within a few days. And the review process is based on when the departments want to see the files!

To keep everyone informed, we have quarterly meetings with graduate advisers from both campuses (the health- and medical-related programs are housed at the USC Health Sciences campus, about six miles from the University Park campus). Each meeting has a topical focus and provides an opportunity for staff to communicate about issues and concerns. Because many of the graduate advisers work within their home departments they don’t have an opportunity to network with the other graduate advisers, so these meetings have proven quite popular and are well attended. Recent discussion topics have included the impact of the Bologna Agreement on admissions review and also how to better coordinate admitted student programs across campus. Prompted by a speaker at an AACRAO SEM conference, we also had a faculty member in the Annenberg School of Communication discuss the impact of social networking Web sites on the admissions process. The next step is to create an extranet platform to support communication between graduate staff across all five Los Angles campuses and three extension offices, and we expect to have that in place by summer 2007.

Phase III: Developing New Strategic Capabilities
USC is a revenue center–managed institution. All graduate revenue generated within an academic unit stays within the unit, and this system encourages a strong entrepreneurial spirit in the schools and departments. That said, many of our colleagues on campus have welcomed the opportunity to work collaboratively on recruitment and outreach. We are supporting new initiatives for departments so they can extend their reach without overtaxing existing budgets. We have actively promoted a more coordinated approach to international recruitment and are also developing resources for improving minority recruitment. As an example, we will fund new Graduate Record Examinations search initiatives for departments that would like to “test the waters” in new markets. We are also working with the McNair Scholars Program on campus to develop outreach opportunities to McNair programs on other campuses. And in spring 2007 we will travel to Asia with colleagues from several of the professional schools as well as the alumni office—a first in terms of collaborative outreach on the graduate level.

In addition to providing ongoing training on the interface of the online application and the student information system, we are also phasing in two additional tools that support this system. The prospect and event management module will allow schools and departments to manage their inquiry flow at the desktop, including communication and event planning. We are also developing a status check system so that a student will know at any time what is missing from his or her file. Both of these tools will be available in spring 2007 for the 2008 recruitment cycle.

By serving both as systems support and as an expert resource for our colleagues in the schools and departments, we are creating a win-win situation for the university and the student. Students are served more quickly, and even if they don’t end up enrolling at USC, the positive experience they will have had will serve us well as an institution moving forward.

Report Card on Year 1
It’s always flattering to receive compliments when things go right. But the true measure of success in this endeavor has been in what is not said—graduate admissions is no longer viewed as dysfunctional, unfriendly or an impediment to enrollment.

We have accomplished a great deal since this plan was first implemented in December 2005. We implemented an electronic communication plan to facilitate speedier file completion and adjusted the file review process to meet departmental admissions review cycles. From the time the student is admitted, we guarantee a two-week delivery time for new I20s. We have many new friends on campus—being open and adaptable has made a huge difference in how we are received.

Looking Forward
So what’s next? We will continue to work with departments and programs to develop outreach and recruitment strategies that enable the enrollment of more talented students. We will also provide the departments and programs access to data to evaluate the success of these strategies. Because international enrollment is so important to USC, we will work with the graduate school to establish more uniform standards for accepting three-year degrees from countries and institutions that are part of the Bologna Agreement. We will also support international outreach by convening a university-wide work group on a regular basis for planning and assessment purposes. And we will continue focusing on SEM as a way of life for graduate admissions at USC!

By: Susan Grogan Ikerd and L. Katharine Harrington

Susan Grogan Ikerd is associate dean and director of graduate admission at the University of Southern California. Los Angeles.

L. Katharine Harrington is dean of admission and financial aid at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Building Student-Centric Processes – A Guide to Business Process Analysis and Reengineering


Providing efficient and effective student-centric services is a major challenge for most institutions. “Student learning, persistence, success and satisfaction are influenced by student’s experiences with critical processes. . .” (Balzer, 2010). In spite of best intentions, policies and procedures are often not adequately documented, reflect the past more than the future, and fail to take full advantage of existing and emerging technologies. In addition, process knowledge often resides in service and academic silos (financial aid, admissions, advising, registration, academic departments, etc.) or with individuals, rather than holistically across staff members and departments.

Engaging in a comprehensive business process analysis provides insight into how to improve processes from a student-centric perspective. By doing so, institutions often find that they can improve service levels with the same or fewer resources. Business process analysis and reengineering does not necessarily result in technology changes, acquisitions or further automation. It simply focuses on increasing efficiency, effectiveness and establishing goal oriented processing. “At the heart of reengineering is the notion of discontinuous thinking – of recognizing and breaking away from outdated rules and fundamental assumptions that underlie operations.” (Hammer, 1990)

Business process review and reengineering is ideally an on-going process. However, due to resource and time resource constraints, it is often something that is undertaken when change must occur to resolve a critical situation. Regardless of when the activity is undertaken, the focus should be on the following:

  • Aligning existing policies and procedures (formal and informal) with the process and in support of student success;
  • A holistic approach that involves all process stakeholders (including students) in constructive inquiry;
  • Gaining a complete understanding of the service area where the process resides;
  • Reviewing the technology that supports the process;
  • Identification of improvement opportunities, especially high-impact improvements yielding the greatest improvement in processes;
  • When improvement opportunities are identified; offering quick and tangible results; and making sure to communicate changes and results to all stakeholders.

The greatest challenges faced by an institution engaging in business process reengineering are a lack of sustained administrative commitment, the setting of an unrealistic scope and expectations, a culture that is resistant to change, inadequate resources dedicated to the process and an unpredictable external environment (Malhotra, 1998; Balzer, 2010). Included below are guidelines to help ensure the success of a business process reengineering initiative.

Getting Started

Business process analysis and reengineering begins with planning and activities that include the creation of a project team and project sponsorship. It is critical to have project participants from administration, operations, and information technology working as a team towards a common goal. While team composition can vary based on a best match for an institution’s culture and organizational structure, the team should include a person or people who fit the following roles (McDonald, 2010):

  • Process manager
  • Process owner
  • Process users
  • Skeptics
  • Facilitator
  • Technology expert

A starting point for all business process analyses is to ask why a specific process is being used. A key consideration is whether the process is tied to any state, federal or other regulation or internal policy that mandates the process to be performed in a particular way. Further analysis should map how that process moves through the institution. For example, with document retention practices, many institutions discover they have a difficult time parting with various forms, even though the data contained on the form has been processed in the student information system. Institutions often cite both external and internal requirements for retaining the documents. The reality is that few state regulations or professional association guidelines require institutions to keep many documents, and perhaps none at all, once they have been processed. Often internal practice is based on assumptions of requirements that are no longer are in effect.

Figure 1: Business Process Improvement Cycle

The following tenets should be the foundation for business process analysis and reengineering (adapted from Malhotra, 1998 and other sources):

  • Student Focus: Using the student lens to view an existing process for areas of improvement will lead to processes which support student success.
  • Aligning Process to Goals: An institution’s goals should be the foundation for any business process.
  • Technology: Measure if the technology employed to support the process is being used appropriately, effectively and from a competitive position (i.e., is the service level provided by current technology comparable to other institutions serving a similar student population or target market?).
  • Determine the Business Process Owner: The process owner must be in charge of the business process, be responsible for performance and manage changes.
  • Process Mapping: Document existing processes in order to completely understand the existing process and to identify opportunities for improvement.
  • Benchmarking: Compare the current process with best practice and where possible, institutional competitors.
  • Implement changes as soon as possible and measure the success of those changes: Once a solution has been identified, implement the change, establish measure of success and use those measures to further refine the process.


Finding both time and internal resources to support the initiatives described above for even one department can be challenging given ongoing operational needs. External consultants are regularly engaged to provide the needed manpower to support the process evaluation and to bring an external perspective of best practices at other institutions. This external perspective often turns out to be of great value to the institution because it is not just the experience of one consultant but rather access to the resources and experiences of a network of consultants. AACRAO Consulting is uniquely positioned to provide consultants with extensive experience with business process analysis and reengineering at different institutional types.


Balzer, W. K. (2010). Lean Higher Education: Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes. New York: Productivity Press.
Hammer, M. (1990, July-August). Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate. Harvard Business Review , pp. 104-112.
Malhotra, Y. (Fall 1998). Business Process Redesign: An Overview. IEEE Engineering Management Review, Vol 26, No. 3 .
McDonald, M. (2010). Improving Business Processes: Expert Solutions to Everyday Challenges. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Written by Wendy Kilgore, Director of Research and Managing Consultant for AACRAO Consulting.

Download the paper here: Building Student-Centric Processes – A Guide to Business Process Analysis and Reengineering

Changing Demographics: Why Nontraditional Students Should Matter to Enrollment Managers and What They Can Do to Attract Them

sem_logo-2007.gifThere have been numerous reports demonstrating the shifting trends in age among students beginning undergraduate and graduate programs in America. According a 2002 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, nontraditional students make up 73 percent of all students enrolled in undergraduate programs, and 39 percent of all undergraduate students are 25 years or older. Redd (2007) also indicated in a report for the Council of Graduate Schools that the number of nontraditional graduate students has risen dramatically and projected this trend to continue. Not only does this report indicate that nontraditional students already make up the majority of all postsecondary institutions, but a study conducted by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education indicated that after 2008, the number of high school graduates will decline until 2015, which means increased competition for undergraduate institutions seeking to maintain or increase the number of newly enrolled students. This expected decline in the number of prospective traditional college students may mean that institutions will make up for this decline by making a stronger effort to target nontraditional students.

Non-traditional students were defined in the 2002 NCES report as having at least one or more of the following characteristics: does not enter postsecondary enrollment in the same year that he or she completed high school, attends part-time for at least part of the academic year, works full time, is considered financially independent from a legal guardian, has dependents other than a spouse, is a single parent, does not have a high school diploma but a General Educational Development (GED) test. Defined in this way nontraditional students cannot be defined by age or any one characteristic but rather the term nontraditional seems to represent one’s life and educational experiences. This broad description makes it close to impossible to pin point one target nontraditional group for marketing and recruiting purposes; therefore, institutions must consider a more comprehensive view of who a potential student might be.

The 2002 NCES report also found that private, for-profit and non-profit postsecondary institutions experienced the highest percentage of growth among nontraditional students. The growth of nontraditional students within private universities can be seen by the rise of students enrolling in institutions, like the University of Phoenix, that offer online and face-to-face program options. In the 2008-2009 Almanac edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the University of Phoenix was reported to enroll more students than any other university in America. Other non-profit private institutions like the Union Institute and University, Cardinal Stritch University, Pace University, Villanova University and Loyola University of Chicago, to name just a few, all have both traditional college programs and programs that are geared toward working adults. My institution, Saint Mary University of Minnesota, also serves both traditional and nontraditional students. In the Twin Cities area, there are at least 15 other private colleges that compete for nontraditional student enrollments. The institutions listed here all offer some form of nontraditional programs, including distance learning options, evening and weekend courses, flexible schedules, and blended course options. While institutions like the University of Phoenix have critics and the academic world still places the majority of their resources on traditional academic programs, the growth achieved among nontraditional students at private institutions demonstrates that a large majority of people in the United States are choosing nontraditional program options to meet their academic goals.

The recent downturn in the economy has also provoked a dialogue in higher education about offering more distance learning courses and has charged higher education leaders to look for ways that institutions can cut costs and increase economic efficiency. The 2007 Chronicle of Higher Education’s For Profit Higher Education Index indicated that publicly traded education corporations such as Strayer Education Inc., and Laureate Education Inc., can be seen as long term investment opportunities and have proven to their investors that they can maintain enrollment, run efficiently and earn a profit. Kelly (2001) stated that “a growing number of traditional colleges and universities—under pressure to be more responsive to the needs of students, parents, employers and communities—are turning to some of the same entrepreneurial, customer-oriented approaches that have been used so successfully by for-profit institutions” (p. 2). Regardless of what strategies colleges use to meet enrollment goals, Kelly’s article revealed that for-profit institutions have been successful because people in our communities are demonstrating a need and a demand for education options outside of traditional daytime, face-to-face classes. If the number of high school graduates will be declining over the next few years, this is a perfect time for colleges and universities to take a look at how to attract and serve nontraditional students. The shifting demographics and the increase of distance learning course options also indicate that it may be time to rethink the traditional models of education delivery, and rather than focusing on traditional and nontraditional student populations, there may be some changes or services that are applicable to both groups, such as evening or distance learning classes.

The following is an overview of steps that colleges and universities can take to attract nontraditional students to their institution. This is not a comprehensive list of strategies but rather a high-level overview of several key factors admissions or enrollment professionals should be aware of when recruiting or developing services to support nontraditional students.

  • Discuss Cost Payment Plans at the Beginning: Nontraditional students vary in their methods of tuition payment. For example, some may pay out of pocket, some may use financial aid, and some may be grant and scholarship recipients. But these options are often limited for nontraditional students and especially for nontraditional graduate students. There are also many nontraditional students who participate in employer tuition reimbursement programs or who are military students seeking reimbursement through the programs set up through the G.I. bill. Given these different types of students, it is important for institutions to create a billing system that will allow for some flexibility. An example would be allowing students to set up a payment plan. Field (2008) discussed the education benefits now available to veterans, indicating that with the recent changes to the G.I. bill, veterans will now have enough aid to attend the most expensive public colleges in their states. However, Field found that veterans prefer community colleges and for-profit institutions because these institutions are convenient and cater to the needs of veterans. Kelly also indicated that veterans tend to be between the ages of 25 and 34, are often married, and are looking for education opportunities that will assist with building on the type of skills they learned while in the service. Many universities are competing for military students these days, and the trends outlined by Kelly indicate these students are looking for nontraditional programs that allow for online courses or evening and weekend class formats and will assist them with navigating their way through the tuition benefit process. Establishing more scholarship opportunities geared toward nontraditional students can also be a great marketing tool.
  • Ease Transfer Credit Process: According to the NCES 2004 report “Participation in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning,” a majority of nontraditional learners have some previously earned college credit. The 2004 NCES “Student Effort and Educational Progress Report” also indicated that approximately 30 percent of undergraduate students drop out before receiving a degree. Many colleges assume that applicants know about transfer credit and do not emphasize this option in their marketing materials or limit their recruiting of transfer students to attendance at community college transfer fairs. The college and university drop out rates however demonstrate that there is a large of population of adults who have some earned postsecondary credit and cannot be found on community college campuses. Given the concern about cost, transfer credit can provide an incentive to applicants because it will reduce the time and money it takes to complete a degree program; therefore, it is important that institutions make this process clear and easy to navigate by having this information available on their Web site and making sure this option is listed in their marketing materials.
  • Offer Credit for prior learning, CLEP, DANTES etc.: Many undergraduate completion programs geared towards nontraditional students also emphasis the different ways that students can earn course credit. If your institution does offer any type of credit for prior learning, accepts CLEP credit or military credits, this should be emphasized in all marketing materials for nontraditional students. It is important there is a clear indication of which courses cannot be fulfilled through transfer credit, CLEP, or some other method. This will help students up front as they prepare their program schedules. The following are Web sites that offer information on these different types of college credits:,, and
  • Offer Evening, Weekend and Online Courses: The NCES (2002) report found that of the adult student population, 57 percent are married, 53 percent support more than on dependent, 29 percent are single parents between the age of 30 and 40, 39 percent worked full time. Given these characteristics, it is important that institutions recognize that a large majority of nontraditional students have multiple responsibilities outside the classroom, so evening, weekend or distance learning course options are a necessity. It is also important to talk with students at the beginning of the program to set clear expectations regarding time management.
  • Connect Faculty and Curriculum to the Workplace: Kasworm (2003) discussed the idea that the changing perceptions of the workplace and world have increased the desire for people to attain higher education credentials. Kasworm indicated that having a bachelor’s degree is a basic requirement now for many entry level jobs. Scholars such as Malcolm Knowles (1977) and Stephen Brookfield (2005) have indicated that creating environments that allow adult learners to share their experiences and apply what they learn to their work or daily lives will help to drive the learning process. On the admissions end, applicants want to know that the courses they take will be applicable to their work and they want to know how the program they are enrolling in will assist them in meeting their career goals. Given what we know from the research on how adults learn, it is important the faculty understand how to integrate some of their class assignments into projects that students can apply to their area of interest or to their workplace. It is also important that admissions counselors have some career counseling skills and discuss with applicants how they can apply their classroom assignments to their workplace.
  • Offer Career Counseling Services: Kasworm (2003), also indicated that career advancement is one of the main reasons people go back to school or begin postsecondary degree programs. This is one area that for-profit institutions that serve nontraditional students tend to emphasis in their marketing materials. For example, National American University, Argosy University and Capella University all offer career services to their students and alumni. Providing resources that will assist students and graduates with resume writing, interviewing and strategies to assist with the job search is an important factor for nontraditional students; therefore, it is important to emphasize these resources to prospective students. Career counselors can also help make inroads with the local community by helping to organize job fairs, work with local businesses to develop internship opportunities. This can bring visibility to your institution. Many colleges and universities already offer this service to traditional students, so this would mean broadening the service to apply to students with different levels of experience and different types of career goals.
  • Offer Orientation and Community Building: McGivney (2004) found that many adult or nontraditional students have some apprehension about going back to school. For many, it may have been years since they have been in academic setting, or they may have had a negative experience the last time they were enrolled. Creating a sense of community is one way to combat the apprehension and let students know they are not alone and that there are other learners with similar backgrounds in the program. Vincent Tinto (1988) has led the research on the importance of social integration for undergraduate students in retention, and scholars like Ashar and Skenes (1993) and Kember (1994) have applied Tinto’s concepts to nontraditional settings and also found that integrating students into the programs at the beginning stages is an important part of retention. This means planning personalized points of contact with advisors, conducting a new student orientation and letting students exchange a dialogue between one another to build relationships and help support one another. While nontraditional students may not be as focused on the social aspect of higher education as traditional college students, they still want to feel that they belong and that they have a support network through the process.
  • Adopt Flexible Leave Policies: Institutions must adopt policies and procedures that address the special needs of nontraditional students. Nontraditional students represent a broad range of age groups; therefore, institutions need to be prepared to work with students who are having children, going through long-term illnesses, going on military leave, getting married, and experiencing other important life events. If students need to take a semester off, this process should be easy to understand and explained to students at the beginning of the program. While allowing students the ability to take time off without penalty is key, it also important to establish deadlines and regularly check-in with students who are on leave.
  • Schedule Regular Advising Sessions: Along with following up with students who are on leave, it is important to build in a contact schedule with nontraditional students. Establishing personal contact will help make students feel secure and welcome at your institution. Many nontraditional students do not have as many social opportunities with other students or staff outside of the classroom, so this personalized contact is important in establishing a sense of belonging. These ideas are all based on the information found by researchers like Vincent Tinto (1988), which emphasizes the importance of social and academic integration on retention.
  • Recruit in Businesses and Community: While high school visits make up the majority of recruiting efforts for many traditional college admissions counselors, visits with local business leaders and attendance at community events is essential to recruiting nontraditional students. As mentioned earlier, nontraditional students represent a broad range of characteristics and are difficult to locate in any one setting; therefore, to recruit nontraditional students, the key is to create diverse recruiting strategies. Career fairs, professional conferences, county fairs, chamber of commerce events and other community events such as art fairs and festivals are all forums for recruiting. Establishing contact with human resource departments at local businesses, locating those businesses that offer tuition reimbursement, and reaching out to business leaders to serve on program development teams or as speakers at on-campus events, and inviting business leaders to your institution for special community events are all activities that will help to bring visibility to your programs for nontraditional students. Alumni and current students also represent an audience for recruiting, so it is important to let your campus community know about your nontraditional course offerings so they can help spread the word among their families, co-workers and friends.
  • Include Nontraditionals in University Mission: In a 2005 report for the American Council on Education, Cook and King discussed practices that institutions can follow to improve the retention for low-income, nontraditional students who are pursuing postsecondary degrees. One concept that stood out in their report was making sure that institutions acknowledge nontraditional students within the organization’s mission or within the strategic plan. If attracting nontraditional students to your institution is a goal, the success of meeting this goal will depend on whether or not this student population is represented throughout the university and included within the overall mission of the institution.

Ashar H. & R. Skenes. (1993). Can Tinto’s student departure model be applied to nontraditional students? Adult Education Quarterly. 43(2): 90-100. Retreived July 18, 2007 from EBSO database.

Blumenstyke, G. (2007). The Chronicle index of for-profit higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(23): A25. Retreived November 10, 2008 from

Brookfield, S. & S. Preskill. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cook, B, & J. King (2005).Campus programs and policies for low in-come adults. American Council on Education. Retrieved November 10, 2008 from

Field, K. (2008). Cost, convenience drive veterans’ college choices. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(46): A1. Retrieved November 1, 2008 from

Kasworm, C. (2003). Setting the stage: adults in higher education. New Directions for Student Services, 102:3-10, Retrieved September 10, 2008 from EBSCO database.

Kelly, K. (2001). Meeting needs and making profits: the rise of for-profit degree granting institutions. Education Commission of the States, 1-32. Retrieved November 10, 2008 from

Kember, D., T. Lai, D. Murphy, et. al. (1994). Student progress in distance education courses: a replication study. Adult Education Quarterly, 45(1):286-301. Retrieved May 3, 2006 from EBSCO database.

Knowles, M. (1977). A History of the Adult Education Movement in the United States. Malabar: Krieger Publishing Company.

McGivney, V. (2004). Understanding persistence in adult learning. Open Learning, 19 (1): 33-45. Retrieved May 3, 2006 from EBSCO database.

Redd, K. (2007). Data sources: The rise of “older” graduate students. Council of Graduate Schools. Retrieved November 10, 2008 from

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2004). Participation in Adult Education and Life Long Learning 2000-01. Retrieved September 10, 2008 from

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2004). Student Effort and Educational Progress. Retrieved September 10, 2008 from

U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2002). The Condition of Education. Retrieved November 10, 2008 from

Tinto, V. (1988). Stages of student departure: reflections on the longitudinal character of students leaving. The Journal of Higher Education, 59 (4): 438-455. Retrieved April 5, 2006, from JSTOR database.

Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (2008). Knocking at the college door. Retrieved November 10, 2008 from

Becky Copper, M.A., is director of admissions at the Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. She is pursuing an Ed.D. degree at Saint Mary’s University, and she is focusing her research on topics related to student services for nontraditional students.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of SEM Source.

Employing Noncognitive Variables to Improve Admissions and Increase Student Retention


Today, a growing number of North American postsecondary institutions are incorporating the use of noncogntive variables into their admissions process. Why is there more and more interest in utilizing these non-academic variables? It’s all about success! The results at those colleges and universities that have added these measures to their admissions requirements are showing strong correlations to student’s academic success, persistence, and graduation. AACRAO Consulting has packaged these variables along with business processes to effectively manage them within the admission process. Our name for these services is FairSelect.

What are Noncognitive Variables?

Noncognitive variables are based on more than 30 years of research by William Sedlacek, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland College Park. According to Sedlacek, “The term noncognitive is used here to refer to variables relating to adjustment, motivation and perception,” and can be assessed efficiently in a variety of ways, and incorporated into any admissions process (Sedlacek, 2004, 2011). Noncognitive information complements “traditional verbal and quantitative (often called cognitive) areas typically measured by standardized tests. Noncognitive variables are useful for assessing all students, but they are particularly critical for assessing nontraditional students, since standardized tests and prior grades may afford only a limited view of their potential” (Sedlacek 2004; Lauren, 2008). The use of these variables in admission decisions has been tested within the US legal system and ruled to be viable.

Description of Noncognitive Variables

  • Positive Self-Concept: Demonstrates confidence, strength of character, determination, and independence.
  • Realistic Self-Appraisal: Recognizes and accepts any strengths and deficiencies, especially academic, and works hard at self-development. Recognizes need to broaden individuality.
  • Understands and Knows How to Handle the System: Exhibits a realistic view of the system based upon personal experiences and is committed to improving the existing system. Takes an assertive approach to dealing with existing wrongs, but is not hostile to society nor is a “cop-out.” Involves handling any “isms” (e.g., racism, sexism).
  • Prefers Long-Range to Short-Term or Immediate Needs: Able to respond to deferred gratification; plans ahead and sets goals.
  • Availability of Strong Support Person: Seeks and takes advantage of a strong support network or has someone to turn to in a crisis or for encouragement.
  • Successful Leadership Experience: Demonstrates strong leadership in any area: church, sports, non-educational groups, gang leader, etc.
  • Demonstrated Community Service: Identifies with a community, is involved in community work.
  • Nontraditional Knowledge Acquired: Acquires knowledge in a sustained and/or culturally related ways in any area, including social, personal, or interpersonal.

Institutions engaged in measuring these noncognitive variables are showing positive results in better predicting students’ success, regardless of their incoming GPA or test score. While high school curriculum, GPA, and SAT/ACT scores continue to be useful in measuring some aspects of students’ abilities, a more comprehensive assessment of an applicants’ potential can be made by assessing both academic and life skills. This approach is generally referred to as “holistic admissions” or in Canada as “broad-based admissions”.

Using Noncognitive Variables

Adding noncognitive variables to admissions requirements can provide better assessment of student ability and potential, while increasing diversity, and accounting for different learning styles and cultural backgrounds. Those institutions that have employed noncognitive variables find that they have learned more about a student much earlier, and that they can better serve the student once they have matriculated. This affords the institution an opportunity, and more importantly, a responsibility, to serve the student more comprehensively, and much earlier in the educational process. This is an important part of why students are more successful once they matriculate. Campus faculty and staff can learn to help students be better prepared and informed on how to access and use campus services before they have arrived on campus. This greatly aids a new student’s ability to be successful, and a more confident, self-assured student can result. In addition to admissions, noncognitive variables have been used to improve scholarship selections as well.


AACRAO’s FairSelect services help your campus understand and implement noncognitive variables. Michele Sandlin, foremost practitioner and a twelve year implementation veteran of holistic admissions/noncognitive variables, teams with William Sedlacek to work with institutions worldwide. They can assist your institution by providing information and training regarding theory, research, legal backing, question and scoring development, alignment with academics and student affairs, business processes, and staff training.


Jaschik, S. (January 18, 2013). What is Merit? Inside Higher Ed.

Lauren, B. (2008). The College Admissions Officer’s Guide. AACRAO. P. 99-108.

Sedlacek, W. E. (2004). Beyond the big test: Noncognitive assessment in higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sedlacek, W. E. (2011). Using noncognitive variables in assessing readiness for higher education. Readings on Equal Education. 25, 187-205.

This article was authored by AACRAO Senior Consultant William Sedlacek and Managing Consultant Michele Sandlin.

Download the paper here: Employing Noncognitive Variables to Improve Admissions and Increase Student Retention

Evaluating Staff Workload: The Need for a Standardized Tool for Institutional Planning


A current limitation of many institutions is the ability to determine what is the proper workload for staff. Because of the standardization of the credit hour, most institutions have a standard calculation for faculty workload. However, no such measure exists for evaluating staff load, which can be a significant hindrance to student service and staff morale.

One of the difficulties for administrators is that credit hours and full-time equivalency (FTE) calculations of student load used for financial projections are almost meaningless when it comes to assessing staff workload. One reason for this is that these units of measure (credit hours and FTE) do not directly correspond to the time required to serve students. For that, student headcount is a much more realistic measurement. Each student requires roughly the same amount of time and service regardless of the number of courses she takes or whether he is part-time or full-time. Each of these students must still be recruited and apply for a program, apply for and be awarded financial aid, be advised and register for classes, and be evaluated for progress toward program completion. All of these activities must occur whether a student in enrolled in one credit hour or 18 credits per term.

The disconnect happens since institutional planning and budgeting is most often based on credit hour enrollment rather than student headcount since few institutions bill students a flat rate per term (even those institutions with block tuition rates still are affected by service to students over multiple semesters depending on their time to completion). Also, planning and budgeting rarely consider student headcount in the assessment of staffing needs. Even those institutions that may take student enrollment into account do so more globally rather than segmenting programs and students based on unique service-level requirements. For example, transfer students require more time for evaluations and advising than do traditional students who follow an institution’s curriculum from start to finish.

Variables Involved in Staff Service Levels

So, what is the answer to this disconnect between student service and the planning needed to deliver that service? A solution must be developed that can account for the variables across institutions while, at the same time, providing a standard format that can be easily completed and understood for institutional planning and budgeting (and for integration with human resources).

sample staff workload 2

To develop such a standardized evaluation and planning tool, each institution must determine a baseline headcount for all programs against which each staff position will be evaluated, a program
complexity factor that compares the complexity of the program served to the baseline, and the actual student headcount for the program served.

Baseline Headcount: Each institution or department must establish a baseline against which to measure all other programs at the institution or within the department. The ideal is to select the most standard academic program at the institution (e.g., the traditional undergraduate program at a four year institution) and determine the number of students that a staff member can serve effectively. This should be determined through a variety of measures including turnaround time for communications and other student service tasks as well as broader student satisfaction regarding staff services. Once a baseline is established, that headcount can be used to assess service levels for each program at the institution or within the department.

Program Complexity Factor: Each academic program within the institution has unique service requirements that influence the tasks and staff time needed to serve students well. This factor should be determined in comparison with the program used to establish the baseline headcount for the institution or department. For example, an adult degree program that requires direct communication and advising, as well as routine re-evaluation of transfer credit, may require two to three times the amount of staff time as compared to another program at the institution. In contrast, a cohort-based program, with a standard program and little variation in advising may require less staff time than the baseline. In the actual tool, this factor will be multiplied by the actual headcount for the program to compare to the baseline.

Administrative Load: Many staff positions require responsibilities that are not focused on student service but on serving the operational needs of the institution or department. This might include management of other staff, committee representation, or technical support of institutional or department systems. Such administrative load should also be represented in a tool designed to assess staff workload and should be represented as a percentage of the overall position requirements.

% of Full-time Status: A comprehensive tool also needs to be scalable for all positions within the institution or department. For those positions that are less than full-time, a percentage should be entered into the tool to account for the staff FTE and the effective headcount served by the position should be modified appropriately by this factor as well.


All of the variables noted above must be combined to compare a staff member’s existing service level and workload to the benchmark. Once that comparison is completed, administrators can see at a
glance if each staff member has capacity to serve additional students or if he is over capacity and an additional staff member must be added to meet service expectations.

Long-Term Benefits

There are several benefits of a comprehensive tool for evaluating staff workload. One is that such a tool can be standardized to compare all positions within a department or for the entire institution if needed. The factors that comprise the tool can also be coded into an institution’s ERP system and built into standardized reports for regular evaluation by institutional decision makers. In addition, the tool can be customized for each institution to account for unique needs and variations (i.e., staff serving multiple programs). The benchmarks that are the basis of the tool can be evaluated regularly to insure that the base information is accurate (especially compared against service expectations and student satisfaction measures). Finally, the tool can be used to determine the capacity of each staff and can be charted against anticipated enrollment projections for budgetary planning purposes, thus demystifying the evaluation process of adding staff and promoting financial stability for the department and the institution.

Sample 2 Reid

This article was authored by AACRAO Senior Consultant Dr. Reid Kisling.

Download this paper here: Evaluating Staff Workload: The Need for a Standardized Tool for Institutional Planning

Finding the Academic Context: The SEM Role for Faculty


For institutions to have effective strategic enrollment management (SEM) operations, they must place SEM within the institutional academic context. From the beginning, SEM was seen as a comprehensive process designed to achieve the right mix of students for an institution, and to maximize the student’s chance for recruitment and acceptance to, retention in, and graduation from the right academic program.

Placing SEM within the academic context is a more difficult challenge than some might think. This is perhaps why enrollment managers focused on structure in the early years. Among the structures most commonly adopted is a separate enrollment management division that includes at least admissions, registration, and financial aid. The result, however, was often the creation of an enrollment management silo with limited interaction with faculty. In our zeal to create a new enrollment management profession, we distanced ourselves from the very heart of SEM – the academic context.

In recent years, some enrollment managers have changed the lens through which they view SEM; increasingly, they are focusing on academics. AACRAO Consulting Services (ACS) Senior consultant Stanley Henderson describes this as the emergence of an “enrollment management ethos.” By placing the focus back on the academic context of the institution and making structure the servant rather than the master of enrollment policy and strategy, SEM will touch every aspect of institutional function and culture and set the tone for a comprehensive approach (2005).*

Henderson identified six guiding principles:

  • Enrollment management is a shared responsibility. Each member of the institutional community must nurture the ethos as well as the enrollment planning.
  • Enrollment management is a major and essential part of institutional strategic planning.
  • The essence of SEM is service—to students, parents, faculty, staff, administration, and others. The very purpose of processes and procedures is to enhance student success.
  • Enrollment management requires the measurement and use of key performance indicators, indices of institutional and academic health.
  • SEM requires an effective research and evaluation plan.
  • SEM is by definition long-term, continuous, and never finished.

Involving Faculty
Successful enrollment management is impossible without strong and lasting relationships with faculty members; they are important to all aspects of enrollment management and essential at key points.

At some institutions, faculty members have long played a role in enrollment management. Enrollment managers with successful enrollment efforts involve faculty members in several key activities, including enrollment management planning, optimizing admission yield, and new student orientation. Faculty have been active in new program development, student recruitment and retention, academic advising, and support for co-curricular learning. Sometimes their involvement is attributable to deeply-felt beliefs about their role in faculty governance. In other cases it reflects the way teaching and learning is practiced at the college or university. Often, it is rooted in the self-interest of individual faculty members. Whatever their motivations may be, faculty members who participate in enrollment management influence the size, academic quality, diversity and values of the student body.

It is also important to note, however, that not all faculty members are interested or gifted in these activities. Finding those who are is critical to your success.

Enrollment Management Planning: For those faculty members with a bent toward research and how it impacts enrollment management, consider inviting them to join your enrollment management planning committee. Faculty members are frequently critical of the enrollment operation. They can often be heard to say that it is not informed by data, “but only by intuition.” Many are surprised when they learn how data driven SEM actually is, or is intended to be. Once engaged, these faculty members often become SEM ambassadors within the institution’s academic environment.

New Program Development: For institutions to remain vibrant and relevant to today’s “millennial student,” they must develop new academic programs and modify or discontinue existing academic programs. One of the outcomes of enrollment management planning is the identification of new academic fields that could be considered for new program development. New faculty members are often interested in new program development, as are those senior faculty members with a personal commitment to the future of the institution. Enrollment managers who work with faculty on program development will create important relationships that can lead to collaborative SEM efforts in the future.

Student Recruitment: Some faculty members are so passionate about their teaching and the subject matter they present that they seek out opportunities to become involved in selected student recruitment activities. These faculty members are the “keeners” and are often ideal to serve as presenters at open house programs or to meet with students individually as they visit campus. Always be on the lookout for these faculty members. Be aware, however, that some faculty members may be seeking to fulfill their service responsibilities without having to serve on institutional committees. Frequently, these faculty members are not effective recruiters for the college or university. It is important to work with their department heads or deans to ensure that the faculty members carry out their service responsibilities in an area of strength, rather than one of weakness.

Admission Yield:
Once students have been offered admission and sent the “thick package,” they have moved to a new decision point in the college choice process. Up to this point, general information about the institution and its academic programs is usually sufficient to keep them interested in your institution. Admissions counselors and financial aid staff are less effective in the post-admission cycle. Faculty, on the other hand, have the potential to be extremely effective in helping the student to choose your institution. Faculty members can make the “experience” more real by sharing their passion for their academic disciplines and the institution to which they have committed to working. They might be involved in critical admission yield events or participate in a faculty calling campaign.

New Student Orientation: New student orientation usually includes an academic component. Faculty are often called upon to provide an academic overview of their program and to provide the students’ first academic advisement. For this reason, faculty often see a clear role for themselves at orientation. Be aware, though, that some faculty view social events such as those held at orientation as outside their realm of responsibilities, and the purview of staff or student volunteers. For them, you may want to provide the linkage between social and academic integration, and student-faculty engagement.

Academic Advising: Most institutions expect faculty to participate in some form of academic advising. This can be part of their teaching load or considered a service duty. Some institutions assign faculty advisors to each incoming student. Others use a designated faculty advisor system that assigns academic advising responsibilities to one or more faculty members in each department. An increasing number of institutions have given some or all academic advising duties to professional staff advisors. Where academic advising is considered part of teaching, faculty members participate actively. However, where it is considered a service responsibility, faculty may resist the additional work since they receive little or no credit in the tenure and promotion process.

The challenge, then, is to either encourage those faculty with an interest in student advising to become designated faculty advisors or to investigate ways in which advising might be considered part of the teaching load. Both will require the enrollment manager to be actively involved in the academic context.

Co-curricular Activities: Those faculty with a holistic perspective of higher education will take the view that they should be involved in co-curricular activities. Many others see their role as limited to the classroom or the laboratory. Those who do involve themselves in such activities find it is one of the best ways to engage students and often results in some of their most high-impact moments with students.

Enrollment managers new to the profession might at first think that strategic enrollment management can be successful without support and/or participation by faculty. Programs based on acceptance of this premise will have limited impact on student choice, retention, and graduation. Those that reach out to faculty, engage them actively in their SEM efforts, and see faculty as partners will reach more of their enrollment goals and be more successful at change management and institutional effectiveness. AACRAO Consulting Services has found that successful enrollment management plans involve faculty from the very beginning as an integral part of the operation.

* Henderson, S.E. 2005. Refocusing enrollment management: Losing structure and finding the academic context.
College and University, 80(3), 3–8.

Written by Clayton Smith, Senior Consultant for AACRAO Consulting.

Download this paper here: Finding the Academic Context: The SEM Role for Faculty

Talk to Me: Communicating effectively with your prospects, applicants, students and alumni

logo2As higher education practitioners, a large part of our working lives revolves around communicating with people who want to be our students, who are our students and who were our students. There is a dizzying array of communication modes and technical platforms, from face-to-face to text messaging and everything in between. Prospective and current students are bombarded with messages from different service departments and faculty on a regular basis and through many communication channels. We are constantly challenged to determine how best to communicate with our prospects, students and alumni. It is infrequent that we have the time to take a step back and ask, “Are we communicating effectively?”

At its most basic, effective communication occurs when the message intent corresponds closely to how it is “perceived and responded by the receiver (Moss, 2007).” However, measuring that effectiveness and then implementing effective communication is not a simple matter. It involves the alignment of policy, practice and technology across the entire institution.

Selecting the appropriate communication platform is just part of the puzzle. We are aware of the decline in the regular use of email among the traditional aged student and young adults. According to a New York Times article, young people find that email “involves a boringly long process of signing into an account, typing out a subject line and then sending a message that might not be received or answered for hours” (Richtel, 2010). While texting is almost ubiquitous among young adults (63%), only a lowly 6% of 12-17 year olds use email (Lenhart, 2012); (Smith, 2012).

Although email remains a staple in the higher education communication portfolio, institutions have begun to engage in the process of finding new platforms to communicate with our traditional aged students: social media, text messaging, etc. Often the chosen solution involves a single communication platform for each type of message thus effectively implementing, a “one size fits all” model of student communication. By focusing on the communication trends for one part of our student population, we are likely not providing effective communication for other student demographics. Technology has evolved to support multiple communication platforms per message yet this often leaves out the question of student preference. Emerging technology allows the student to select which communication platform he/she wants based on “groups” such as student clubs, courses, messages from financial aid etc.

Not only is effective communication about picking the most appropriate platform or platforms, it also includes selecting the content, determining the intent and setting the proper tone which, in combination, will most likely achieve the desired result (e.g., applying for admission, paying bills, completing assignments on time, etc.). While it is easiest to think about aligning audience, content, intent, platform and tone in a linear manner, these variables are more accurately reflected in a communication matrix.

Communication Matrix

In an ideal setting with the resources to support it, a student communication matrix would outline how messages are delivered (platform) varying by the position of the student in the student lifecycle, the demographics of the student and the intent of the message (Figure 1).

Figure 1:


There are many message platforms to consider outside of the regular email, student portal and hardcopy and include, face-to-face, text messaging, social media, LMSs, phone calls, web pages, instant messaging/chat among others. Again based on the communication matrix the message platform or platforms vary. For example, a message to an undergraduate prospect with the intent of getting him to sign up for a campus tour may be sent hard copy, receive a telephone call and/or an electronic message via email or a prospective student portal. On the other hand a student life announcement to current students about a tailgate party may simply be posted to resident students through a portal or on digital information boards around campus and not posted to distance students who would not have the ability to attend the event. In the case of an emergency, the message should be broadcast to as many platforms as are appropriate for the nature of the emergency to help ensure that those who need the message will receive it.

Policy, Plans, Guidelines and Coordination

Development of a communication is only one aspect of creating a formal communication policy that sets the stage for student, faculty and staff expectations regarding how and who will communicate with students. All too often the lack of a clear communication policy or simply the lack of an understanding of the policy leads to “official” communications being delivered to students through a variety of platforms. Students are then confused about which platform they are required to monitor for official communications from the institution. Of equal concern is when policy is not clear about what can be communicated in accordance with FERPA and other regulations and across which platforms. For instance, if a communication policy is not specific enough or not widely understood; faculty and others may inadvertently communicate FERPA protected information to email accounts which are not issued by the institution without first confirming that the email account belongs to the intended student.

An institution’s communication policy should be reviewed every two years and the review should include the following important elements:

  • Involvement in the review from representatives of faculty and administration, including information technology personnel.
  • Current students should be consulted about their perceptions of communication practice/policy and surveyed on their communication preferences. This should include both content students find most valuable and preferred communication modalities.
  • An assessment of the regular and ongoing training made available to faculty and staff.
  • An assessment of the way new and continuing students are regularly and overtly made aware of the policy to avoid misunderstanding and violations of the policy. For example, if the policy is that official communication is only sent to the college issued student email, including billing information, students must be made aware that they may incur a late fee if they do not read their college issued email on a regular basis.

Communication plans are an important component of a comprehensive institutional communication policy. For example, admissions funnel communication plans are commonplace and well-understood. Less so are master communication plans for the remainder of the student lifecycle even though this type of plan is equally important. A comprehensive communication plan includes calendars, message frequency, templates and guidelines for developing message intent, new messages and revising existing communications.

The model where an institution maintains a single point of coordination (unit or person) for all student communication is not new. However the increasingly complex nature of a comprehensive student communication effort reinforces the need for this model. More often operationally this model only has responsibility for the co-curricular portion of student communication (e.g., recruiting, admissions, financial aid, etc.). Allowing a single unit or person to have the authority and responsibility the oversight of all student communication requires the agreement and trust across academic and co-curricular services. To be effective, this model does not include monitoring and “policing” all communication between the institution and students but rather the unit or person serves as a consultant and trainer to the various institutional constituents with some reviewing and approval authority based on the message intent, audience and source. The added value to an institution for this comprehensive oversight model is one where the overall level of effectiveness of student communication is increased which can positively impact recruitment and retention and provide a more positive experience for students.

Importance of Setting the Proper Tone

Guidelines may also include assistance with developing the proper message tone. The examples below from Betts (2009) indicate how much the tone of a simple communication can be impacted by the choice of words, word order and structure.

  • Do not include a cover page on your next paper :(
  • Do not include a cover page on your next paper.
  • Remember, do not include a cover page on your next paper :) (Betts, 2009)”

It is not an uncommon practice for student communications to use bold and capitalized lettering as an attempt to highlight important parts of the message. As these examples demonstrate, careful consideration must be given when constructing messages to ensure that the tone is as intended.

“Communication – simple, yet complex, easy to do and easy to blunder” (Cyr, Effective Communication , 2004)


Given the complex and time consuming nature of developing, implementing and maintaining all of the components of effective student communication there is often value to inviting an external expert to assist in that process. The best consultants are able to assist with everything from policy development/review to communication plan development and the optimization of supporting technology. AACRAO Consulting is uniquely positioned to provide consultants with extensive functional and technical experience to help your institution provide effective student communication is support of enrollment goals.

Works Cited

Betts, K. (2009, Summer). Lost in Translation: Importance of Effective Communication in Online Education. Retrieved September 26, 2012, from Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration:

Cyr, L. F. (2004). Effective Communication . Retrieved September 25, 2012, from The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Group Works Bulletin #6103:

Lenhart, A. (2012, March 19). Teens, Smartphones & Texting. Retrieved September 25, 2012, from Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project:

Moss, S. T. (2007). Human Communication: Principles and contexts. New York: McGraw Hill.

Richtel, M. (2010, December 20). E-mail Gets and Instance Makeover. Retrieved September 26, 2012, from The New York Times:

Smith, K. Z. (2012, April 13). Digital Differences. Retrieved September 26, 2012, from Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project:

Written by Wendy Kilgore, Director of Research and Managing Consultant for AACRAO Consulting.

Download the paper here: Talk to Me: Communicating effectively with your prospects, applicants, students and alumni