Higher Education Strategy Associates

The Problem With Strategic Enrolment Management (SEM)

There are two basic issues with the way strategic enrolment management is practiced in Canada. The first is that there is a widespread misunderstanding about what it means to “compete” for students. SEM, done properly, is about competition, and finding ways to appeal to niche segments of the market that your competitors are also after.

But few Canadian institutions have more than two genuine competitors, and even that’s being generous. Many are essentially local monopolies or duopolies. Only institutions in southern Ontario and Nova Scotia genuinely know anything like the kind of fierce competitive environment in the United States, where it’s not uncommon for markets to have 20 or 30 or more institutions battling for students’ attention. When 80% of your market is local, how much should you really be spending to “compete”?

In fact, the only market where Canadian institutions are in a dogfight is for foreign students, where the battle is literally against hundreds of institutions around the world. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, our institutions are currently labouring under the delusion that our current high foreign enrolment – largely the result of big missteps by Australia and the U.K. which are quickly being rectified – can be maintained without significant operational changes. But this is a challenge few SEM programs seem prepared to deal with.

The second big problem is that a lot of SEM practitioners are insufficiently focused on the “S.” Way too much of the advice out there that proclaims itself as “strategic” is actually tactical. A lot of the advice ends up being on messaging, tag lines, social media and the like – the bad end of marketing, basically. Institutions can royally screw up their brand by going too far down this road. Frankly, any university that allows its messaging to get driven by the whims of 18-year olds deserves everything it gets.

Truly strategic SEM isn’t about putting bums in seats. It’s about deciding what kind of university you want to have: what kinds of students and what kinds of programs. There are very serious financial issues at play, too; for institutions with ambitious agendas requiring a lot of money, SEM projects have to be about setting long-term revenue goals and finding the right mix of domestic and foreign students to deliver that amount of net income.

In a future where government support seems set to decline, SEM needs to be more strategic than ever. Making it just about tactics is a recipe for failure.

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2 Responses to The Problem With Strategic Enrolment Management (SEM)

  1. Clayton Sith says:

    Not sure if you have a “commentary” response blog going…but here’s some response to today’s “Thought for the Day”.

    We have no quarrel with the gist of your commentary today—and in fact are in agreement with you for the most part. A couple of points—strategic enrolment management has never been only about the “top” of the enrolment funnel or just about recruitment and marketing. Student success and meeting institutional strategic goals are the heart of what SEM is about. The SEM conversation needs to happen across the institution and must be driven by the academic mission. SEM planning certainly can’t ignore marketing and recruitment, but it also must take into account curriculum and pedagogy, student persistence, fiscal budgeting realities, capacity…in fact just about everything that goes on in the organization. And of course SEM needs to be data-driven and evidence-based. Otherwise it won’t be strategic..

    So…we take some exception to your catchy heading. There is no problem with strategic enrolment management (SEM) if it is conceptualized and implemented thoughtfully and properly. The problem is when SEM is approached as a “silver bullet”, when student success is not tied to recruitment and marketing, when institutions aspire to attract students who are not a good fit with their mission.

    Just our thought for the day!

    Susan Gottheil and Clayton Smith
    (editors of the recently published book SEM in Canada: Promoting Student and Institutional Success in Canadian Colleges and Universities)

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