A Q&A with Stephen Burd, enrollment management critic

May 14, 2024
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Comb through the administrative ranks of any major university and chances are you’ll see a job title containing the words “enrollment management,” usually attached to a vice president or vice provost or director.

But the term itself—which describes the intertwining of revenue and recruitment goals with admissions and financial aid strategy—is relatively new. It was invented in the 1980s and only became widespread in the 2000s, around the same time a cottage industry of educational consulting firms transformed into a multi-billion dollar market and made enrollment management an organizing principle of American higher education.

Stephen Burd, a senior writer and editor at the progressive think tank New America, believes it’s also destroying higher ed. That’s the argument he lays out in the new book he edited, Lifting the Veil on Enrollment Management: How a Powerful Industry is Limiting Social Mobility in American Higher Education (Harvard Education Press).

The book is a collection of essays from writers, critics and higher ed leaders, including journalists Neil Swidey and Jon Marcus, who chronicle the sector’s rapid ascension and subsequent marketization, and early enrollment management guru Don Hossler, who offers a repentant tale of reckoning with the outcomes.

The story that emerges is of the gradual takeover of college admissions by the quants (quantitative analysts) and corporate suits of the Reagan era, who transformed an outdated but humanistic field into a pure, cold numbers game.

Burd blames enrollment management for a litany of higher ed woes: the student-debt crisis, skyrocketing sticker prices, diminishing financial aid for needy students, the outsized influence of rankings and small college closures. His list of grievances goes on, and may, to a casual observer, seem overblown. But he insists that his thesis is not hyperbolic.

“My goal with this book is to raise awareness of this industry that’s done so much harm,” he said. “They’ve operated in the shadows for so long, and now it’s time to lift the veil.”

He spoke on Zoom with Inside Higher Ed. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Q: Can you tell me, in a few words, what is enrollment management?

A: It is essentially the practice of taking a management and marketplace approach to college admissions, and breaking down the firewalls between the financial aid office, the admissions office, the development office and recruitment, among others.

Q: How exactly has this made college less affordable?

A: The student is treated as a customer—particularly the ones colleges are trying to attract, the best applicants and the wealthiest. As a result, colleges compete fiercely with each other for the most desirable student, creating fierce arms races in which colleges try to outmaneuver and outcompete each other by providing better merit scholarships. It also leads to more investment in amenities and experiences. There’s a real catering to wealthy students that makes everything more expensive and leads the colleges to be more exclusive and expensive. Meanwhile, low-income students are left with fewer seats and larger funding gaps that require them and their parents to take on substantial debt.

Q: How did we get here? What happened to make this the guiding principle in college admissions and enrollment planning?

A: Before, we had the more traditional college admissions office—where there were guardrails between admissions and the financial aid office, development office, and colleges were at least attempting to use their financial aid to meet need. There was a huge change in the late 70s, early 80s.

It all starts at Boston College, which in the 1970s was losing lots of students, struggling with terrible economic inflation. And Jack Maguire—a scientist, very much an outsider—comes in to run admissions and looks at how they’re giving out financial aid and he thinks, “This doesn’t make any sense.” He’s the one who coins the term enrollment management, which at first is about breaking down the walls between offices and having all these different units working together to achieve two goals: raising revenue and raising prestige.

Suddenly there are all these directors of enrollment management at campuses, and that’s what I focused on in the beginning. But what I came to see was that there’s this entire industry, a very lucrative industry, that has played a pivotal role in making higher education less affordable and accessible for low-income students and even middle-income students. Those firms are really what I’m focused on in the book, and their influence, which has only grown with time.

Q: A lot of enrollment management seems, on a surface level, to be about using data to optimize classes and budgets. But you talk about how there’s something more sinister going on there; when did that transition occur?

A: Well, at first it really was about the quants just looking at the numbers and finding a better way to make everything run. But it really became about capitalism coming to colleges and completely taking over.

That starts to happen in the early 2000s, when the smaller enrollment consulting firms like Maguire’s [he left Boston College to start his own firm in 1983] are making a ton of money and growing in valuation, and you have a wave of mergers and acquisitions, some of them nearing the billion-dollar range. That’s when the big money and big business really get going, and enrollment management spreads like wildfire because you have college leaders saying, “I have to adopt this or I’ll be at a competitive disadvantage.” The enrollment-management industry really plays on those insecurities.

That’s also when the practice starts to get adopted by public universities. The 2008 recession really accelerated that because that’s when states started disinvesting and they had to look for other revenue sources, and tuition became more important.

Q: How has it changed colleges’ philosophy around financial aid?

A: What financial aid becomes, especially as the consulting firms grow and capitalize on the enrollment-management boom, is a strategy to meet institutional revenue goals. One of the most amazing things I’ve seen is when an EAB [an educational consulting company] executive basically said the purpose of financial aid is to raise revenue for the institution. I’ve covered financial aid since the early 1990s, and that was never the definition of financial aid that I had. It’s a whole sea change.

What they’re trying to do is find the right discount to give: just enough so the most desirable students choose them. The biggest discounts tend to go to the “best applicants,” and to the wealthiest students. The best applicants help them rise in the rankings; the wealthiest help them increase their revenue. Discounts do go to financially needy students, but it’ll never be enough to meet their full need. In fact, to put it bluntly, leaving low-income students with large funding gaps is part of the game plan. So these low-income families have little choice if they want to attend these schools than to take out large amounts of debt.

Q: You tie enrollment management’s boom to the rise of U.S. News and World Report rankings, which are taking off at around the same time. How are the two related?

A: They’re pretty much inextricable. At the same time that enrollment managers were saying we should be recruiting and using financial aid and admitted classes according to certain measurable metrics, U.S. News was coming in and defining those metrics. Once that happens, the data nerds who started the movement are kind of disempowered and the big consulting firms become much more important.

Q: You also make the argument that enrollment management has hurt colleges financially more than it’s helped them, a conclusion that seems to contradict your explanation of their motivations for adopting it. Can you explain that?

A: Originally, the industry was helping small, private colleges that were less well-endowed to survive in a tough market. The problem with tuition discounting is that the discount rates have gone so far up to stay competitive that the schools were no longer getting enough surplus revenue to invest in other things, and now we’re seeing a lot of those smaller private colleges shutting down.

There are some exceptions: Washington University [in] St. Louis did really have a big comeback in the late 80s, early 90s, that turned it from a streetcar college [another term for commuter school] to the research powerhouse they are now. Boston College, of course, was a major case study. But those were early adopters. Now that everybody’s doing it, you don’t get the same results, and it’s a net minus.

It’s especially been bad for public institutions. For generations, they didn’t have to worry about enrollment because they were the reliable gateway to the middle class: universally low-cost, democratizing institutions. They’d been getting more expensive, but once they started to adopt enrollment-management strategies and become more like private colleges, it meant hiking up tuition prices and recruiting out-of-state students, and losing that powerful selling point to some degree.

Q: Are there any positive applications for enrollment management?

A: I think it has been used positively in some cases to boost retention, which of course is also a revenue issue. But it helped give rise to the student success and support apparatuses which really help low-income and first-gen students. The flip side to that is that colleges see that the best way to increase their retention rates is to stop enrolling low-income students, since they’re most likely to stop out.

Q: You pin a lot of blame for the state of higher ed on enrollment management. Is it really the apocalyptic force your book makes it out to be?

A: I believe it is. There is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation, where in the Reagan era, there’s so much state disinvestment, and enrollment management comes in to fill revenue gaps for institutions. But I put a ton of burden for the student-debt crisis on it, for instance. Which makes it even crazier that policy makers don’t really address it, or don’t even know about it. We have so many hearings on Capitol Hill about higher education and affordability and student debt, but never once are they calling up the heads of any of these firms to explain their algorithms. They really have been able to hide in the shadows.

But if we’re going to really understand why all these crises are happening in higher ed and address them head-on, we need to be able to understand the enrollment-management industry.



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