Enrolment throws up issues to be balanced, not problems to be solved

Enrolment managers must realise an increasingly complex landscape doesn’t need a quick fix to a short-term challenge but rather a reasonable strategy for managing long-term tensions

Steve Taylor's avatar
Liaison International
2 Mar 2022
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Higher education is continuing to grapple with the enrolment challenges triggered by the pandemic. A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that college enrolment by the high school class of 2020 exhibited unprecedented declines – and that the class of 2021 followed in their footsteps. Beyond the pandemic, another dilemma looms on the horizon: the demographic cliff. Declining birth rates during the 2008 financial crisis mean that first-year college enrolment is expected to decline by up to 15 per cent beginning in 2025.

In many ways, these rolling crises are an extreme extension of long-running challenges higher education has faced for years. As a former enrolment manager at Harvard University and Arizona State University, I have seen first-hand how the three R’s of rankings, revenue and reputation sometimes seem to stand in diametric opposition to other important and strategic focus areas and values, such as diversity and inclusion, faculty research expertise and financial aid.

Enrolment management leaders are given the Herculean task of then somehow solving these often-conflicting enrolment “problems”. But what if we are approaching such challenges from the wrong perspective?

Issues that seem to manifest as enrolment problems may, in fact, be better viewed as “tensions” to be managed. HEIs are complex organisations. Every day, enrolment managers and other college leaders are confronted with paradoxical choices and decision-making. This is an underappreciated component of the art and science of building and shaping classes in ways that enable the institution to achieve its goals and mission. Reframing these challenges as ongoing tensions instead of problems may create new opportunities for leaders in the field to at last make progress on some of our most enduring challenges.

The concept itself is nothing new. Peter Senge, a social systems and management theorist and MIT Sloan School of Management lecturer, made the point more than three decades ago. In his pre-eminent book on systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, Senge argues that while there are business problems that must be solved to move an enterprise forward, these stand in contrast to tensions that should be managed. “Mastery of creative tension brings out the capacity for perseverance and patience,” Senge writes. “Time is an ally.”

While Senge was originally writing with a corporate audience in mind, learning to master tensions is a leadership ethos with many powerful lessons applicable to today’s world of HE management. We tend to dichotomise the relationships between internal and external forces. This has led to the creation of false dichotomies, between, for example, maintaining academic quality and standards and responding to the imperative of advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education.

The dialogue around international student enrolment likewise falls victim to this same trap of transactional, zero-sum thinking: these students are too often sought after for the differential revenue they generate rather than for their potential to enrich classroom discussion and the academic experience.

Fully recognising that revenue concerns are going to be a persistent – and likely permanent – tension for the future of HE forces us to consider the broader role of universities as institutions. How can we best support the generation of new knowledge, the training of large numbers of people and the improvement of the world through education?

The persistence and sustainability of the institution is a natural response to that question. But viewing this challenge only as a problem that can and must be solved does little to support the long-term viability of higher education. Instead, it must be viewed as one of many tensions that can be balanced to accomplish the myriad goals of an institution.

Through this lens, it becomes clear that higher education must find ways to lengthen the tail of engagement of students through lifelong learning while also developing new tuition and instruction models that support both the operation of the university and the facilitation of research.

Take the “problem” of international enrolments. Many US universities heavily rely on funding stemming from international students because of the much higher tuition rates they pay. During the pandemic and the related disruption of global travel, many schools struggled with Covid’s impact on international enrolments. Evidence suggests that this trend may be here to stay, with sentiment growing that international students might prefer to stay in their home countries, where university quality and access have been improving rapidly. Many webinars, white papers and conferences have been devoted to finding the most practical and effective practices for recruiting, enrolling and graduating international students.

Reframing the issue as a tension to be managed instead of a problem to eliminate makes it clear that the solution lies in finding ways to establish permanent support services and resources that create a welcoming and effective learning environment for international students. Building a campus culture of inclusion and support – in this case, for international students – is something that takes place over a long period of time and requires regular observation and research to determine outcomes and student satisfaction. This is not a quick fix to a short-term challenge but rather a reasonable strategy for managing a long-term tension.

In an increasingly complex landscape for higher education, enrolment managers must embrace the jarring but ultimately healthy approach of reframing common issues and complaints as tensions to be managed rather than problems to be solved. Such a shift in mindset can open the door to important new perspectives.

Meeting the challenges of the current and future disruptions facing higher education requires new ways of thinking about our most persistent issues. We must give ourselves licence to reframe our day-to-day work with the freedom to design and implement more sustainable solutions to the urgent problems facing higher education here and now.

Steve Taylor is research director at Liaison International and former associate dean of graduate programmes at Arizona State University.

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