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Strategic Enrollment Management's Ambassadors: The Changing Role of Admissions Counselors

By Daniel Mathis

Who is the admissions counselor?

Road runner. File jockey. Advisor. Public speaker. Recruiter. At any given time, an admissions counselor fits one, some, or all of these descriptors. And while all of these descriptors indicate an important function within a college or university, none reflects the increasingly complex nature of the role of an admissions counselor in strategic enrollment management (SEM). SEM is a comprehensive process for helping an institution achieve and maintain optimum recruitment, retention, and graduation rates (Bontrager 2004). In a SEM-centered environment, an admissions office has more responsibility to educate various audiences about the nature of recruitment in relation to retention and, ultimately, graduation. Existing literature connects this task to the work of senior enrollment managers and director-level administrators. But what about admissions counselors (Kalsbeek 2006, Bontrager 2004)? The role of the admissions counselor must evolve from front-line recruiter and application decision maker to SEM ambassador: an individual who intentionally positions herself to inform multiple constituencies about the academic context of the institution.

The admissions office and Strategic Enrollment Management

Discussing the evolving role of the admissions office, Stanley Henderson (1998) traces its historical journey from "gate-keeper to strategic partner." Notably, he writes, increasingly complex higher education environment would dictate a new role for the admissions office in enrollment issues, a role at once more comprehensive, more collaborative, and more strategic.

For admissions, this means increasing attention to the recruitment of students whom the college or university can support and graduate. In addition, it requires the admissions office to collaborate with institutional stakeholders through new, meaningful, and SEM-centered activities.

Enrollment management theorists and practitioners articulate the importance of enrollment managers and the efforts of the institution. With the institution as the focus, Adams (2009) writes, "Institutions accomplish these objectives [enrollment management goals] by providing students with focused, frequent, and content-specific information that maintains and enhances the student's connection to--and impression of--the institution." The term 'institution' reflects the complex array of individuals in the admissions office and across campus who communicate with prospective students. While many stakeholders contact prospective students, the admissions counselor is central to any attempt to provide "focused, frequent, and content-specific information" (Adams 2009). On the road, responding to e-mails, and counseling walk-ins, an admissions counselor serves as a clearinghouse of information regarding the admissions process, financial aid, and academic programs. Referring to the work of the 'institution' in recruiting students does not provide sufficient guidance to the admissions counselor as she attempts to frame her work in the context of strategic enrollment management.

Re-framing the 'road-runner/file-jockey' mentality

There is a noteworthy lack of literature that speaks to the role of the admissions counselor in SEM. Wihle this may be due to the recent emergence of SEM literature in general, it also may be a result of the 'road-runner/file jockey' mentality. The daily grind of being an admissions counselor--visiting three high schools in the morning, eating McDonald's for lunch, reviewing applications in the afternoon, and trekking to a college fair in the evening-- essentially drains away any time for sharing new ideas with co-workers, let alone engaging in scholarly inquiry. An admissions counselor must simultaneously develop and leverage his evolving knowledge of SEM principles and the academic context of the institution (Henderson 2005). To develop an academic orientation, an admissions counselor must understand both the institution's academic values and, thus, how to inform students about those values.

Connecting to an institution's academic values

The higher education community values research, teaching, integrity, and academic freedom. The policies and practices created by faculty members and academic administrators reflect these values. Thus, an admissions counselor simply reciting an academic program's requirements to prospective students does not fully represent the institution's academic core. The admissions counselor should think beyond the courses: What is the rationale that underlies a program's curriculum? Why are certain classes required? How does a major prepare a student for practice and/or research in the field?

On the other side of the proverbial coin, what value do faculty members find in the recruitment process? At a SEM-centered college or university, responsibility for recruiting, retaining, and graduating students is implicit in every stakeholder's job description. An admissions counselor interacting both formally and informally with faculty members can gauge whether a recruitment mindset is viewed as a priority or a burden. If academic value is not placed on recruitment, then an admissions counselor facilitates connections between the academic context and SEM--elements inextricably linked through inquiry, assessment, and budgetary concerns, recruitment and academic units.

To engage faculty members in conversations about recruitment and to speak to prospective students about the academic enterprise, an admissions counselor must understand the inquiry process. The opportunity to create and advance knowledge is not limited to academic units. The nuts and bolts of inquiry--reflection, research, data collection, and analysis--are important, but they are not nearly as important as the intentionality behind such efforts. Speaking to the rationale for research and data synthesis raises the level of discourse in an admissions office and legitimizes an admissions counselor's ability to communicate about the academic context--a context of which he is a part through the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

The tendency to create solutions without regard for actual problems is a significant barrier to engaging faculty members in the academic context. "Pet" solutions threaten the integrity of an admissions office and shape a perception among faculty members and administrators that the admissions office is unaware of the college's challenges. For example, an admissions counselor decides to develop a campus visit program for kindergarteners. Ideas are generated, and plans are put in place. Though the program may serve a worthwhile cause, why does it exist? Are elementary school students unaware of the college? Do the region's youths have low educational aspirations? Is K-8 outreach truly an institutional priority? In this scenario, the admissions counselor searches for current problems to attach to his pet solution. Instead, the process must be reversed: thoroughly identify problems and then create programs and policies that solve them. Without a rationale supported by intentional research and inquiry, admissions professionals flounder in the academic context.

Communicating with prospective students about the academic context

By engaging in the academic context, admissions counselors can provide valuable information to prospective students about the nature of the institution's programs of study, research endeavors, and academic values. This perspective aids prospective students in determining how an institution's unique academic core "fits" their professional and personal goals. Perceptions of "fit" may shift from general identification with a university, perhaps based on a sports program or brand, to a more specific match with an institution's unique academic core. An adaptation of organizational socialization literature provides a framework for clarifying the information students require to determine their "fit" with a college or university's academic context. The information can be divided into three categories: referent, appraisal, and relational ( Miller & Jablin 1991).

Admissions counselors are well versed in referent information— that is, requirements. What are the requirements for admission, scholarships, and financial aid? What are the requirements for completing a major and graduating? These requirements are important to prospective students and their parents. Referent information about the admissions process facilitates access to the academic context of the institution. Academic values can be inferred on the basis of these requirements, such as an institution's commitment to providing access to students from a lower socioeconomic background, or the level of competitiveness within the student body. For example, a minimum GPA and test score, typically established by faculty members, reflect the caliber of students expected to fill the college's classrooms. Although it is important to consider these inferences, they represent an incomplete picture of the academic context and so compel an admissions counselor in SEM to grasp appraisal and relational information through inquiry in the academic context.

In the academic core of the college or university, what validates performance and determines success? Which experience receives the most praise: receiving an "A" in a course, obtaining a valuable internship, or completing a study abroad program? Appraisal information varies from institution to institution and offers a lens into the unique values of the academic contexts of different colleges. An admissions counselor who can provide appraisal information to prospective students offers them an opportunity to determine whether the institution's measures of success are compatible with their own. Success in the academic context is constructed by faculty members, academic administrators, and current students, adding extra weight to new students' relationships with these groups. Thus, relational information is a necessary companion to appraisal information. Relational information centers on the question, "What is the nature of relationships with others?" (Miller & Jablin 1991). For instance, the nature of students' relationships with faculty members is predicated upon the size of classes and the number of course sections faculty members teach. Students may enjoy a peer-to-peer relationship with faculty, a strict superior-subordinate relationship, or some variation of these. Understanding these dynamics empowers an admissions counselor to communicate to prospective students how to build and maintain relationships with faculty members; prospective students thus may gain additional insight that can aid them in determining the "fit" of a particular institution.

An admissions counselor in SEM forges relationships with prospective students based on communication of appraisal and relational information even as she guides students through the admissions process and into the college via referent information. The intersection of these three categories of information provides prospective students with a window into the academic context of the institution. By classifying information for prospective students into these three categories, an admissions counselor discharges two responsibilities: (1) to educate students about the type of information they should compare and contrast during the college search process; and (2) to provide referent, appraisal, and relational information for her specific college.

Becoming a SEM ambassador

Some would compare an admissions counselor to an account manager who sells a product and closes a deal. While a reasonable (if depressing) analogy, it disregards all connection to the academic context of the college or university. It is better to view the admissions counselor in a nonprofit environment rooted in a traditional discipline in academia: political science. If the enrollment manager is the president of the United States, the admissions counselor is an ambassador. She communicates with diplomats from various countries (some more hostile than others) who possess a variety of differences, preferences, and interests. Developing common ground is central to successful negotiation and shared meaning.

An admissions counselor strives to communicate with students about the academic context--how it is unique, distinctive, and desirable. An admissions counselor exchanges information with faculty members in the academic context by sharing research efforts as well as engaging on issues of curriculum and the student experience. In their interactions with one another, admissions counselors strengthen their connection to the academic context by positioning learning and inquiry at the heart of their work. Admissions counselors have an opportunity to be SEM ambassadors who connect the human elements of learning and experience to the management of college and university enrollments, making strategic enrollment management more than a numbers game.


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About the Author

Daniel Mathis is the Assistant Director of Constituent Relations in the Office for Alumni Relations at Eastern Michigan University. He was previously employed as an admissions counselor at the University of Michigan - Dearborn and as a graduate assistant in the Office of Admissions at Michigan State University. Mathis earned his bachelor's degree at Eastern Michigan University and master's degree from Michigan State University in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education.