The rise of the “enrollment manager” and the cutthroat quest for competitive advantage. The secret weapon: financial-aid leveraging
I asked Bob Bontrager what he thought about eating other people’s lunches.
“I personally prefer kicking their ass,” he replied. “It’s a zero-sum game. There’s a finite number of prospective students out there. Are you going to get them, or is your competitor going to get them? You face the pressure and say, ‘That feels burdensome to me; I don’t want to deal with that.’ Or you say, ‘That’s a pretty interesting challenge; I’m going to go out there and try to eat their lunch. I’m going to try to kick their ass.’ That defines people who are more or less successful and those who stay in the position.”
Bontrager, who works at Oregon State University, is the school’s head of enrollment management—a relatively new but increasingly essential post in higher education. Three quarters of four-year colleges and universities employ an enrollment manager to oversee admissions and financial aid. The position is standard at private schools, and is spreading quickly across public institutions.
Eating the other guy’s lunch is one of several turns of phrase (most involving some sort of predatory snacking) used to evoke the competition for prestige and revenue that has led to the rise of the enrollment manager. If you’ve snatched up another school’s top prospects or leapfrogged it in the U.S. News rankings, you’ve eaten its lunch.
Over the past twenty years, often under cover of the euphemisms with which the industry abounds, enrollment management has transformed admissions and financial aid, and in some cases the entire mission of a college or a university. At its most advanced it has a hand in every interaction between a student and a school, from the crafting of a school’s image all the way through to the student’s successful graduation. Any aspect of university life that bears on a school’s place in the collegiate pecking order is fair game: academic advising, student services, even the curriculum itself. Borrowing the most sophisticated techniques of business strategy, enrollment managers have installed market-driven competition at the heart of the university.
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