Five Dysfunctions of an Admissions Office

How many times have you found yourself wondering what went wrong with your recruitment campaign when it’s already too late to do anything about it? In my 20 years’ experience as a higher ed enrollment marketing professional, I’ve learned a lot about the blind spots and best practices of our industry. Below are five common mistakes that are made in college admissions offices, along with five steps you can take to be successful and avoid the “what happened?”

1. Winging It

This one may sound like a no-brainer, but many admissions offices base decisions on gut feelings and past experiences. This often leads to missed enrollment targets and admissions officers being fired.

“But Scott, this is how we’ve always done it!”

If I had a nickel for every time I heard this at one of the universities I worked at, I’d be a millionaire. Over the course of my career, I coined a saying: If it’s not broken, break it. In fact, one school I used to work at even gave me a plaque engraved with that very motto.

When I arrived there, the school’s admissions numbers had been enjoying a strong 15-year run, but had recently plateaued. This was followed by a couple years of flat enrollments. The school’s admissions team thought they had been doing everything right, but the data told me something different.

In the most recent three years, the university had only converted 43% of their students to decision. The national average for small private institutions is 77%, so I knew something was wrong. I took a deep dive into the data and quickly figured out that the school’s prospective student search partner leads were the issue. I immediately made the required change and transitioned the student search process in-house. The end result? That year, they enrolled the largest, most selective class they had ever had.

Thrilled with the outcome, the president asked for more. He wanted to know what it would take to fill a new dorm, as the university had newly constructed freshmen housing due to open soon. I crunched the numbers for a few weeks and finally gave him a number: $600,000 in new enrollment marketing efforts.

In a not-so-customary move, he agreed to spend the money and was ecstatic with his ROI when the new housing option sold out before May 1, shattering the previous year’s deposit record by more than 200 students.

2. Silver Bullet Syndrome

Today’s admissions offices are faced with a seemingly endless string of pitches for new, quick-fix enrollment marketing tactics. Don’t fall for these kinds of “silver bullet” solutions! You should always introduce new ideas on a small scale so you can test their ability to affect enrollment.

Paying for things that don’t work is a waste of your department’s time and money, so keeping track of the ROI on everything you do is imperative to your school’s success. One college president I worked for would always have the school’s admissions team report what they were going to do new, and what they were going to stop doing, at the end of every year. This is an outstanding way to make sure your department is always thinking in new and creative ways.

3. Underutilizing Your CRM

One of the biggest purchases an admissions office can make is a CRM. And do they ever spend big on these systems! Cost can range from $50,000 to $500,000 a year, depending on the size of the school. Most admissions teams don’t re-evaluate their staffing plans when purchasing such a pricey new tool, and quite often find themselves with a CRM they don’t fully understand and that their internal staffing model isn’t designed to support.

In my experience, it’s best for every admissions office to budget and plan for the hiring and training of its own CRM administrator. This person is an admissions staff member who directly reports to the person overseeing the CRM. I can’t overstate how critical this role is to ensuring the proper set-up and consistent implementation of CRM systems. Many times, I have even made it a condition of my employment when starting a new gig.

4. Neglecting Your Staff

Not providing ongoing training and development opportunities for your staff will leave you with a high rate of turnover. This, in turn, will have a negative impact on the continuous improvement and growth of your admissions team. One thing I always made sure to have in my budget was staff development, along with the requirement and expectation that everyone on staff participate. For Chief Enrollment Officers, it’s also important to schedule regular trainings so your department can keep pace with the ever-changing landscape of college admissions.

5. Avoiding the Academic Side of the House

As an enrollment marketing consultant, I spend much of my time working to bridge the gap between a school’s admissions and academics departments. My best advice for engaging the academic side of the house in your recruitment efforts is to spend time learning what makes them excited about their disciplines.

Don’t ask them questions like, “What makes your program unique?” They’ll just say something generic like “small classes.” Instead, take the time to find out what it is about their role that gets them excited to come to campus and teach everyday.

Share your Story

Do these five issues hit home for your school, or is there something else you would add to this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo of author

Scott is a data-driven enrollment professional with two decades of experience directing the marketing and enrollment efforts of major universities. In his role as Senior Strategist, Scott serves as a knowledgeable consultant to our clients, providing them with expert guidance in the areas of on-site and remote enrollment, student searches, CRMs and higher education marketing.