Building a SEM Organization, The Internal Consultant Approach

cuj_logotype_solid_med1This article was a preconference paper for the 2007 AACRAO Strategic Enrollment Management Conference.

There is little doubt about it: Colleges and universities are reluctant to change. They are large and diffuse organizations with few clear lines of control. Yet the external environment in which colleges and universities operate is changing quickly. The U. S. higher education community is experiencing the most dramatic shifts in student demographics since the post–World War II era (WICHE 2003). States and other organizations are conducting new external evaluations to justify lower amounts of public fiscal support. Public expectations for a wide variety of high-quality student services are rapidly increasing.

These changes make it essential for institutions to implement at least some aspects of strategic enrollment management (SEM) in order to develop greater institution-wide understanding of how to best respond to emerging student trends, needs, and markets. As a growing number of institutions encounter this reality, many find themselves grappling with a fundamental question: What is an effective, sustainable approach to implementing SEM that is likely to be embraced by the entire campus? The complexity of the current environment as well as most administrative structures has fostered an expectation that environmental scans, assessment of strategic needs, development of marketing plans, and other core planning activities are often best accomplished by outside professionals and consultants. Over the past two decades, many institutional leaders have come to highly value the professional SEM consulting field. Demand for help in responding to changing markets and in revising institutional expectations has driven the rapid growth of the support industry. A June 2007 compilation of higher education consultants listed approximately 200 consultants with focuses in 50 different categories (University Business 2007); more than 130 firms were noted for their abilities to assist universities with implementing SEM in terms of change management, marketing, diversity, financial aid, distance education, student market research, strategy, planning and/or communications. Why must institutions look externally for assistance with these critical institutional needs?

This white paper presents a performance concept of the “in-house consultant” model (IHC) as a means to better position the chief enrollment officer and SEM units as a campus-wide support team focused on helping most campus units achieve and sustain core institutional strategic initiatives. Fundamentally embracing the IHC conceptual metaphor would address the mind and skill sets required by enrollment management professionals to help their institutions operate in a more efficient and proactive manner.

The scope of an external consultant’s stature has significantly expanded in our era of high-tech, enterprise-planning workplaces. These temporary, expert employees are expected to provide a client with objective advice and assistance relating to the strategy, structure, management and operations of an organization in pursuit of its long-term purposes and objectives. Such assistance may include the identification of options with recommendations, the provision of an additional resource, and/or the implementation of solutions (Institute of Management Consultancy 2002).

Whereas an institution may find it exhilarating to utilize the resources and knowledge of a field expert, it also may feel frustrated by the loss of energy and competence when a consultant concludes his/her project. Many people are familiar with the scenario: a problem is identified; a consultant is hired; a plan is written; and then the institution is let to develop the structure to implement and sustain the new plan.

This is not to argue that external consultants are either superfluous or ineffective at addressing detailed problems. There is a time and place for colleges and universities to seek outside help. External perspectives are often needed to help institutions reorient or break through bureaucratic obstacles and bring valuable insights from a breadth of experiences. Many schools need a SEM “road map” that only an external agent can help construct. This is true particularly for schools with no prior SEM orientation as well as for institutions facing an emergency enrollment situation. A short-term contract with an experienced firm or individual can prove invaluable.

When a campus does employ the services of an external SEM consultant, the question may be asked, “Where do we go from here?” This scenario provides a “jumping-of point” that can be seized and embraced. By positioning a campus-based SEM professional as an in-house consultant, campus leaders can signal that they are serious about meeting the institution’s enrollment goals and they are willing to take the steps necessary to support a SEM-based organization.

Whether or not an institution starts with an external consultant, SEM professionals can be most effective if the campus community views them in a “consultant” or helping role rather than as just another administrator running a support unit.

There is no one-size-its-all, cookie-cutter approach to enrollment management, with higher education’s trademark of diversity of mission, purpose, size, and control (Kurz and Scannell 2006, p. 35).

The fundamentals of enrollment management focus on the use of research and cross-unit collaboration to drive student recruitment and retention activities. The best enrollment professionals use analytics and tactical skills to engage the entire campus community in knowledge and activities that spur student success and optimize institutional resources.

Many recent SEM papers provide tremendous insight into operational definitions, organizational models, assessment tools, functions, and tactics required of effective SEM organizations (e.g., Black 2003, Bontrager 2006, Henderson 2004, Hossler 2005, and Kalsbeek 2004). Because of the wide variety of colleges and universities and the environments in which they operate, these and many other authors have concluded that no standard model for SEM can exist, though standard expectations of SEM leaders do exist (Kurz and Scannell 2006).

The parallels between the desired qualifications of a SEM leader and a professional consultant are evident. A cursory content analysis of 200 recent job advertisements for enrollment executives further illustrates institutions’ desire to have enrollment management leaders with consultant-like skills and characteristics (Tuchtenhagen 2007). When aligning the desired qualifications and abilities of SEM leaders with Kibbe and Setterber’s (1992) primary skillsets of successful consultants in nonprofit organizations, the parallels in expectations of the positions are obvious (see Table C.1).

The IHC concept is not new, but seldom is publicly embraced by executive leaders, in spite of the previously noted similarities between consultants and SEM professionals. Michael Hovland’s (2006) “Experts Close to Home: How to Work Like a Consultant on Your Own Campus” presentation illustrated how many traditional consulting tactics can be applied systematically by SEM professionals. Jim Black’s SEM framework paper (2003) and SEM business practices workshop (2002) promote the use of such traditional consulting practices as using diagnostic tools, establishing staff technical competencies and training systems, and using key performance indicators (KPIs) for cross-campus data sharing and outcomes assessment.

Shifting a campus’s perception of SEM professional from “administrator” to “in-house consultant” can be a natural transition. Most SEM professionals already possess the expert knowledge expected of practitioners as well as the characteristics and skills common among successful consultants. The Institute of Management Consultancy’s model for professional managerial consultants further defines this professional role by outlining the professional behaviors of effective consultants (2002). Similar to the chief enrollment management officer advertisements, the Institute’s standard emphasizes that consultants must be individuals who regularly manage complexity and responsibility; seek personal growth; use analytical and proactive thinking; have strong interpersonal interactions; and have delivery effectiveness.

In fact, the number of professionals possessing the skills, knowledge, and leadership abilities to effectively create a SEM organization has increased; many of them now have full-time positions within institutions. These professionals draw on their extensive professional networks in order to aid their institutions. Yet many colleges and universities continue to believe that answers to their SEM problems are best found outside of the institution. The task of supporting the external consultant is often let to the very individuals who possess the training and capacity to write the plan but who are disregarded because of their position within the institution. Such a scenario can be changed.


Noting the similarities between external consultants and current expectations of SEM professionals is only one step in understanding the IHC approach. Creating the role of internal consultant is as much an understanding of needed knowledge and skills as it is an appreciation of how education systems operate and of the role of SEM within those systems. This section seeks to reframe how colleges and universities operate by recasting the way in which campus constituencies view SEM and its leaders.

Over the past two decades, several preeminent SEM thinkers have elaborated on the role and structure of SEM organizations. Hossler (1986), Dolence (1993), Henderson (2004), and Kalsbeek (2006) have discussed the appropriate administrative structures and the orientation of SEM. Both structure and orientation are important aspects of understanding and leading SEM units. The location of a unit in the overall structure can signify its importance and predetermine whose voice will be heard in institutional decision making. Further, philosophical orientation (e.g., administrative, student-focused, academic, or market-centered) can affect the ways in which SEM units operate and interact with other units in the organization (see Kalsbeek 2006). However, neither structure nor orientation fully optimizes the SEM units’ impact on the overall function of the university if the SEM processes and its leaders are not valued.

Universities are complex systems filled with multiple organizations and subsystems. To consider them single organizations that move with cohesion, grace, and unified vision would be inaccurate. In reality, departments and other entities operate as loosely coupled units: even though departments are interdependent, they retain a high level of independence due to their specialization (Weick 1976). When we recognize that universities operate as large systems comprising multiple organizations, the concept of an “internal” consultant who helps bind the institution together begins to make more sense.

Whether a consultant is viewed as “internal” or “external” is purely a matter of perspective. If we view the university as a collection of organizations and subsystems rather than as a singular organization, it quickly becomes apparent that the SEM professional can bring an “external” perspective to other units within the institution. Certainly, each interdependent unit possesses expertise that can be shared among all the units. But such sharing can prove difficult as one purpose of loosely coupled systems is to protect the core units (academic departments) and shield them from the influence of the environment as well as from the actions of other units. For example, changes in the math department typically have little impact on the biology department; similarly, adding student activities does not alter operations in the financial aid office. Simply stated, one unit’s ability to influence the rest of the units is structurally limited without collaboration (Birnbaum 1988). In contrast, management of student enrollments is one of the few functions that cuts across units at any college or university.

The academy has been highly successful in creating buffers to protect academic units from environmental forces. The problem is that the resulting isolation results in many units continuing to operate on outdated assumptions of past environmental conditions; the units have not kept pace with current realities, such as how to recruit and retain undergraduate students (Birnbaum 1988). Different ways of working within the existing structure can keep departments current in regard to changing student trends and can help them adjust their internal plans as needed.

Though it is commonly assumed that external consultants are more effective than internal personnel at fostering change, research into organizational operations suggests that this is not necessarily the case. Kurz’s and Scannell (2006) reflection on SEM’s third decade of existence in higher education illustrates the need for successful SEM professionals to act as internal consultants. Kurz and Scannell and (2006) outline three primary contemporary SEM functions:

  • Setting and establishing linkages, shared goals, improved communication, and synergy across all institutional units. Rather than functioning as stand-alone systems, unit objectives need to be tied directly to enterprise-wide goals.
  • Using an analytical, empirical, data-driven approach to problem solving and decision making. Intuition is important but not sufficient. The “culture of evidence” is a cornerstone of effective enrollment management.
  • Providing critical leadership. Enrollment management almost always means changes in structure, reporting lines, communication, goals, etc. The challenges and risks of change should never be underestimated. Effective enrollment leaders are willing to accept risks in areas where they see the need for change.

Lawrence and Lorsch (1967), who have produced several seminal works in the field of organizational theory, discussed similar success traits in their discovery that internal consultants (or “interdepartmental” liaisons) were the most effective mechanisms for coordinating departments and resolving conflict in the business arena. The most successful of these individuals possessed four primary characteristics:

  • Ability to bridge goals and build trust among different departments. SEM professionals need to understand and actively work to build relationships among administrative offices, academic units, student affairs departments, and so forth. These areas have different cultures. An effective internal consultant needs to be able to bring key stakeholders together.
  • Respect earned through demonstration of an expert knowledge base. One of the primary arguments for having SEM professionals serve as internal consultants is that they possess technical competence that needs to be supported at the executive level and communicated throughout the system.
  • Understanding and communicating institutional vision. Enrollments undergird the functions of the university. Without them, the institution would not exist. Those who work in SEM units are more attuned to campus-wide functions than those in other units and thus can more easily communicate the need to maximize the university’s overall performance.
  • A high profile throughout the organization. An internal consultant does not deserve a high profile; rather, someone with a high profile is more prone than someone without such a profile to help an organization foster change. Execution of this concept is more in the hands of the president than in the SEM professional, but it does emphasize the importance of having strong support from central administration.

The research suggests that individuals who are familiar to the organization, who have intimate knowledge of the organization, and who are trusted by the organization and its members possess great capacity for initiating and sustaining change.

Fundamentally, the expectations and stronger working relationships that can result from the IHC model strengthen institutions’ long-term efforts to optimize resources and focus on successful and repeatable business practices. These include:

  • Cost savings that result from acknowledging institutional competencies. External consultants can be expensive; depending on the complexity of the project, costs may range from $800 to $3,000 per day, not including travel expenses. Even the most narrowly defined consulting projects can cost in excess of $50,000.
  • Greater organizational unity and engagement with regard to core business practices. In order to succeed with SEM, a focus on fundamentals—core business functions—is essential (Black 2002). Organizational complexity and narrow developmental budget margins create an opportunity for SEM to link campus-wide functions and bridge student service gaps. If accepted, the SEM process and consultant-like activities help bond the various leaders and units around a more centralized vision and around business activities. Stronger linkages and working relationships can help highly specialized departments identify the significance of their role in the institution’s progress and financial standing.
  • Increased likelihood for sustainable change. External consultants have been criticized for not understanding the institutional culture — that is, the unique political and structural challenges that exist on any campus. The IHC model positions SEM professionals to use their institutional knowledge to better establish the linkages and trust needed to undergird a stronger and more coordinated strategic plan through regular communication and requests for unit input. In other words, the in-house consultant is expected to regularly “take the plan of the shelf ” and put it into action.


The IHC approach must be more than a rhetorical strategy for heightening the SEM organizational culture: It should be a values-based training philosophy; an institutional expectation for collaboration; a push for heightened professionalism.

Typically, a professional consultant will provide change management solutions to a client. The following five-step platform can help an institution develop the IHC paradigm while implementing SEM principles for planning, training, and reporting activities.

Step 1: Establish a Vision
The first step in developing the IHC model is to define the conceptual role of SEM within the organization. We refer to the core concepts of SEM, not the office or unit (Bontrager 2004). SEM needs to be viewed as a system of institutional responsibilities that transcends divisional boundaries and other administrative silos. In fact, institutions should adopt a SEM-oriented, thematic goal which is “a single, qualitative focus that is shared by the entire leadership team—and ultimately, by the entire organization—and that applies for only a specified time period” (Lencioni 2006, p. 178). (In this context a thematic goal could include “improving the reputation of the institution” or “becoming the college of choice for students in the region or state” [Lencioni 2006, p. 178].) The thematic goal can help reorient the institution and help other units better understand the importance of the SEM unit. Typically this goal is part of the strategic plan (e.g., increasing, stabilizing, or diversifying the student enrollment). Ideally it reflects a meeting of the school’s capacity to serve with a descriptive vision of the type of students it seeks to educate. Whatever the goal, and however it is expressed, the president and the executive board should ensure that everyone within their divisions understands the concepts of SEM as well as SEM’s overall importance to the institution in achieving the initiative.

Step 2: Align Systems
A critical component of the IHC model is to reorient the ways in which SEM is integrated into an institution’s organizational structure. First, for SEM to work, a clear organizational structure with a champion for all core SEM functions (e.g., research, recruitment, and retention) must be designated. The existence of a clear and comprehensive enrollment management structure or administrative designation continues to be a problem on many campuses. While almost all U. S. institutions have appointed a recruitment officer (Noel Levitz 2007), as of 2004, more than 45 percent of four-year colleges and universities in the United States had not designated a formal retention officer (Habley and McClanahan 2004). There needs to be a formal clustering of units that link the research, recruitment, and retention functions of the institution. Once this is achieved, the chief enrollment officer and the SEM units can offer support through market-based knowledge and technical resources to assist all campus units in setting and achieving their enrollment-related objectives.

Second, the IHC model argues for frequent, regular meetings of the service directors and unit leaders who interact most often with students. Like the cross-unit “sharing meetings” that are called when an external consultant is hired, these regular meetings should include the managers of units responsible for admissions, advising, financial aid, student billing and collections, registration, student housing, food services, student activities, orientation, camps and pre-college programs, alumni, and career services. Appropriate faculty and student representatives must be involved. The SEM team should be encouraged to share unit issues and events and, more important, to discuss campus initiatives that might have an impact on students’ ability to remain and succeed at the institution. The team’s concerns and suggestions should be documented and shared with the president and executive leaders.

Step 3: Create and Execute Plans
It is important to create enrollment management plans centrally as well as at the unit level. Objectives should focus on core SEM measurements, such as establishing the institution’s student service volume and the subsequent admissions, student profile, and retention benchmarks. While academic departments likely will know their enrollments and credit-hour generation, it is unlikely that they understand how their enrollments evolve over students’ tenure in their programs. Such information can be important at the undergraduate as well as graduate levels in regard to optimizing course offerings and advising workloads. Using unit audits, the in-house consultant should work with the academic and student service departments to generate benchmarks and determine how best to track unit progress. To begin, the in-house consultant should determine a department’s capacity to serve students by evaluating measures such as teaching loads, class sizes, and service needs. At this point, he/she can — as appropriate — create a profile of students the department wants to attract, retain, and serve. Then the consultant should work with the department to create benchmarks and desired, measurable outcomes. The same types of research and planning exercises can be performed with most campus support units, including food service, billing and cashiers, counseling, career services, and student activity offices.

Step 4: Integrate the Vision
Successful implementation of the IHC model depends on the ability and training of the people employed to execute it. It is important for new hires to have a solid understanding of SEM, to be able to move easily among and to relate to different types of departmental cultures, and to understand and communicate institutional goals. Objectives, deliverables, and reporting activities need to be emphasized in all job descriptions and performance goals. Annual training plans should ensure regular exposure to happenings in specific fields through the sharing of articles and journal readings and the provision of opportunities to attend relevant professional conferences. General training should be based on consulting competency topics, such as effective student learning, analytical and budget skills, market analysis, strategic goal setting, systems management and plan development, and execution methods.

Step 5: Review the Process
In addition to creating the objectives and performance indicators for instituting the SEM vision, it is important to create a mechanism through which the SEM professional can report back to the broader collegiate community about the implementation of SEM initiatives and the market changes that may affect it.

A key deliverable for any consultant is a report and assessment of key performance indicators. (A thorough explanation and definition of SEM KPIs is provided in Dolence, Lujan and Rowley 1997). The fundamentals are growth by program, student profile and diversity, student retention and graduation rates, and preferred discount rates. Whatever the objectives, they need to be determined and embraced by the institution’s executive team. Once established, performance on each objective must be communicated through dashboard indicator reports distributed widely across campus. Data and data interpretation must be widely shared if the information is to be used in cross-campus decision making.

The IHC model encourages the preparation and dissemination of annual reports that include updated environmental scans, comparisons of enrollment performance with strategic plan goals and competitors’ performance levels, and student market assessments. Regularly scheduled events that include all internal stakeholders — such as a state of the university address or a mid-year luncheon — are logical times to review data and discuss the strategies for continual SEM improvement.

Not an argument against using external consultants and gaining from their valuable input, the foregoing discussion of an in-house consulting model has to do with establishing an ideal organizational position and performance model for SEM professionals. The IHC model promotes the idea of letting internal, experienced SEM practitioners develop institution-wide partnerships and plans to better ensure that the university lives up to its promises to students, families, faculty, and alumni. Fully embraced, the IHC model can play a uniting role for the typically isolated, silo-focused units of most campuses. The model represents an ideal for strategic levels of performance and professionalism. It can be used to build an organizational culture that better motivates staff and faculty collaboration, demonstrates a dedication to intelligent planning and strategy execution, promotes a stronger passion for academic and student success through shared governance, and embraces the regular use of solid analytical and data-driven skill sets to move an institution in the direction it has chosen.


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About the Authors
Jay W. Goff is the Dean of Enrollment Management at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, formerly the University of Missouri – Rolla. With more than fifteen years experience in university enrollment and communication programs, Goff believes in building a team-oriented workplace and service driven success plans. His data-focused and student-centric approach has achieved record setting enrollments, retention and graduation rates.

Jason E. Lane is Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Administration and affiliate faculty member in the Rockefeller College’s Public Policy Program at the University at Albany, SUNY. Dr. Lane’s research agenda focuses on governance, politics, and organizational capacity building in the postsecondary sector.

This article originally appeared in College & University (Volume 83, No. 3 [2008]), and is being reproduced/distributed with the permission of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. © Copyright 2008.