Institute for Higher Education

An Unprecedented Enrollment Environment Calls for Unprecedented Enrollment Leadership

Seven must-do’s to step up as an enrollment leader.

No other time in higher ed history has tested the Enrollment Management profession more than right now. Today, an unprecedented time, true enrollment management leaders will rise. Higher education relies on you, enrollment leaders, to meet the enrollment goals of your institution and today, achieving those goals is in question, as they were established long before the current environment. 

Pre-pandemic, the profession was already complex.  To meet your goals, you plan three years in advance, sometimes more. You are used to relying on historical metrics to predict enrollment.  In the spring, you typically share weekly updates with historical numbers and a somewhat-clear understanding of whether your numbers are on track. You meet with your financial aid consultant, enrollment advisor, or staff to understand your scholarship and financial aid impact on enrollment based on historical patterns. 

Your institutional leadership looks to you for two critical projections:

1) How many students will there be? 

2) How much tuition will they pay? 

Today, during the pandemic, everything you know and that is comfortable is null and void. 

How do you make predictions in this environment? 

How do you, the Enrollment Leader, effectively lead right now?

Consider the following steps to lead well in a time of tremendous uncertainty. 

1. Own the enrollment narrative. 

If you do not do this, someone else will. The media, the campus community, the campus neighbors, the students, institutional colleagues—all of them have an enrollment narrative about your institution. In a time of crisis, the narrative needs to be written and communicated each day: weekly updates will not suffice.


  1. Standardize an Enrollment Management daily written communication including what happened today, how the enrollment team is responding, and what the important metrics of the day are.
  2. Share a short anecdotal story to highlight how the enrollment team is operating at a peak level of attention. Assign this to your younger staff to get them involved. 
  3. Schedule live weekly updates to the appropriate leadership teams and the enrollment team. Include a process where others can submit questions to you in advance. 

2. Study up.

Your institution is relying on you to be the expert on the potential impact of this pandemic on enrollment, so be it. 


  1. Follow Twitter Higher Ed discussions on the #emchat handle. 
  2. Establish an open line of communication with your peers at other institutions.
  3. Read education news daily and share top points in your daily update to Cabinet.  

3. Build real-time, data-informed opinions immediately.

Planning based on historical data is out, real-time data models are in. Real-time data includes actions they take or do not take such as email engagement, web activity, participation in online events, mobile communication exchanges, and, most importantly, conversations with staff. It is up to you to provide new ways to look at the data and establish some narratives. 


  1. Create a real-time, data-informed worst-case and best-case informed opinion. 
  2. Develop and deploy a survey for admitted and deposited students to complete easily online via your website and their mobile. 
  3. Build a report that shows pre-pandemic YOY; then post-pandemic YOY. 

4. Realign your enrollment team and your plan.

Throw out the playbook. Take the time to talk with the enrollment team about the new paradigm of recruiting students and families. Shift to a new approach for a different reality. Realign how you engage and communicate with students and families (new and current). Their priorities have shifted, and lives are disrupted. Build a detailed comparison of what April, May, and June were like in 2019 to 2020 for your target audiences. Take the time to consider the differences (changes in timelines, finances, graduation, etc…) and develop a new summer plan. 


  1. Evaluate and then eliminate traditional barriers to students and families in all processes. Offer unprecedented flexibility. 
  2. Develop a communication campaign that shares reliable, relevant, and personalized content. 
  3. Create a resource center for new students that is accessible online (such as a microsite).

5. Don’t press the panic button.

What causes more panic? When leaders panic. Be a calming presence in disquieted times. Listen to others and be a light in the day for all of your team members. Take specific steps to communicate rationally, with empathy and sincerity. Pre-pandemic communication approaches will not suffice. You need to consciously remind yourself to be an example of calm, cool, and collected. 


  1. Have a daily “stand-up” online meeting at the start or end of the day. Keep it light. 
  2. Establish one day to all wear swag, or worst sweater, etc…. 
  3. Create a weekly surprise (send everyone an online gift card, have small gifts sent to their houses, etc…)

6. Be a new level of problem solver. 

High-level problem-solving skills have never been more needed. Far beyond how to move your events to virtual, you will confront never-before-seen issues. Pivot your focus to those you serve: students and families. What can you do to ensure that your institution is accessible to the students you want? Think outside your normal zone; dig deep into ideas that may at first seem impossible. Use a small team of the most passionate members of your campus community to run through this exercise.

The problem: “How do we ensure that the students we want, no matter the impact of this unprecedented event on their lives, can attend or continue to attend our institution?”


  1. Consider providing deposited students access to your support services now (tutoring, counseling, career advising, faculty advising, etc…)
  2. Be as creative as possible on Fall tuition and room/board. 
  3. Consider ways students can still enroll while physically transitioning to your institution later. 

7. Don’t forget 2021. 

Even in a pandemic the students looking to go to college in 2021 are still here, while you manage unprecedented enrollment challenges for 2020. And, the ‘21 cohort, along with their families, is experiencing life-altering events, too. They will be unique and your ability to meet next year’s goals will depend on how you can transition quickly to recruiting and marketing to this class.  


  1. Identify the “must-do’s” now. Do not put off any “must-do’s.”
  2. Develop a new marketing plan that addresses their new environment.
  3. Create tremendous flexibility in your 2021 cycle to accommodate their likely changes. 

Your roles and responsibilities were already complex. Now you are being asked to raise your level of expertise to new heights. It is okay to seek outside support to manage the complexity. These are unprecedented times. 

Patricia Maben is President of 3 Enrollment Marketing.