Is there a “right” place and reporting structure for admissions marketing?
Recently I received a message from a colleague at another institution asking for resources “illustrating the benefits and drawbacks of a dedicated admissions marketing position within a university’s organizational structure.” This colleague, who currently works within a marketing division that reports to advancement and serves a whole host of campus constituents, was seeking advice about how to make a case that the university needs a recruitment marketing position that devotes full-time energy, thought and creativity to recruitment marketing.
This question struck a nerve with me. Given the contemporary challenges faced by recruitment operations nationwide, I have strong feelings about this.
In an article I wrote for AACRAO a few years ago, I presented the case for marketing and communications to report to the vice president for enrollment.
Today, I think the same case applies and may indeed be even stronger, especially for tuition-driven colleges.
I want to make it absolutely clear that there are plenty of institutions where it works very effectively for admissions marketing to be coordinated and directed by a VP for Communications and Marketing or through advancement or sometimes even the president’s office. There are institutions with excellent marketing and communications leadership and organizations that operate within a wide range of configurations and they work. No matter who is in charge of marketing, collaboration is critical, and the best results for enrollment and an institution are achieved when the marketing effort has the buy-in resulting from collaboration.
I simply think there’s a very strong and compelling case for admissions marketing—and even institutional marketing—to be coordinated through the enrollment operation.
To present this case, I offer the following points:
Almost all of us are tuition-driven
This summer I heard a colleague describe his institution as “tuition-urgent,” which was a term I’d never heard before.
It sure made me think about the need to equip today’s enrollment managers with the tools they need to attract desperately needed tuition dollars. As state and federal appropriations slow and family income struggle to return the pre-recession levels, the pressure to generate tuition revenue is greater than ever before. This is true for public and private universities, and the responsibility often lands in the lap of the enrollment manager or chief enrollment officer.
To compete effectively for tuition dollars, messages around admissions and enrollment marketing need to be focused on deciding students and their parents, first and foremost. There is no one better on a campus to understand the deciding student than the vice president of enrollment, particularly when she or he is plugged into messages that create a strong value proposition or worth claim.
If colleges are going to compete for the limited pot of tuition dollars that are needed to “feed the beast,” the vice president for enrollment must be positioned to craft messages that matter and that create value for eighteen-year-olds and their parents.
Demographics are destiny – and understanding value and values is critical
The only thing that’s worse than being tuition-driven or tuition-urgent is being so in an environment with a shrinking and changing population! Everyone knows that demographic shifts are wreaking havoc within all of higher education. Historic markets are drying up, new populations are emerging, and values about traditional markers of quality are changing significantly. Because of the demographic trends and the changing values of emerging college-bound populations, going with what’s worked in the past is unlikely to be successful moving forward.
Today’s colleges need to shape their marketing, messages, and programs according to what is of interest to today’s population of available students, many of whom have little familiarity with the jargon that we’ve come to rely on in higher education over the course of the past few decades.
I learned this the hard way when I invited the director of diversity services to provide feedback on a presentation I’d done for a group of first-generation, Latino students. My colleagues graciously replied and told me I used terms and described offices and processes during my talk that most of the students had never heard of (i.e., core curriculum, outcomes, general education program, registrar, secondary school report, co-curricular transcript, etc.). It was a wake up call for me.
Since then we’ve developed a different set of filters to make sure our message is clear to our changing audience. This is challenging for a higher education community because we place a value on describing what it is we do with a degree of elegance that sometimes gets in the way of communicating with our changing audience.
Again, the vice president of enrollment is often best positioned to listen and learn and then craft messages that enable a college to reach changing demographics.
A natural instinct to promote and sell
Enrollment leaders have a natural instinct to promote and sell. While we’ve been describing admissions work as “counseling” for decades, it is really persuasion. And, in these challenging times, tuition-driven institutions should put the chief persuader in the position to influence the positioning, marketing, and promotion of the institution.
Many colleges appear to have come to this same understanding. Here is a list of just a few who have recently searched or are searching for a Vice President of Enrollment and Marketing (or for a Vice President of Enrollment and Marketing and Communication):
North Park University
The Sage Colleges
Valdosta State University
St. Peter’s University
Warren Wilson College
If your institution has a history of limited real collaboration between the admissions and marketing functions, it may be time to rethink that relationship — and possibly even who the marketing office reports to.
No market, no mission
Bob Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania once said that colleges needed to be “mission-driven and market-smart.” Because of the challenges higher education has faced in the last decade, I think an increasing number of colleges have evolved to be just that.
But I think those colleges that have the keenest understanding of the challenges ahead, the potential impact of demographic change, and the need to compete more effectively for tuition dollars, have empowered and equipped the vice president of enrollment to take charge of institutional and admissions marketing — with an awareness that if institutions are not proactive in “selling” their value proposition, tomorrow may well be defined as “no market, no mission.”
MORE ARTICLES FROM W. KENT BARNDS
W. Kent Barnds is a frequent contributor at Academic Impressions. You can read more of his editorials and advice on practical strategies here: