When I started my career in 2003, I would have been hard-pressed to think that bias existed in the enrollment management profession. After all, doesn’t every college talk about how much they want to diversify their student body? Or how they want to be a more inclusive and accepting community? Campuses seek out students from a spectrum of backgrounds—low socioeconomic status, full-pay, LGBTQ, rural, urban, suburban, international, athletes, residents of certain states…the list is quite exhaustive. And it stands to reason that hiring practices within the profession would follow the same philosophy, right?
Unfortunately, since my last position on a college campus, which ended April 2019, I have witnessed a deep and disturbing pattern whereby hiring managers rarely view the marketing, recruiting, enrollment, and retention skills cultivated by individuals in the community college sector as on par with skills cultivated at four-year institutions.
I view this as an incidence of classism in higher education. Ultimately, it hurts qualified candidates and harms institutions that could benefit from the skills, experiences, and unique perspectives that community college professionals bring to the table.
Ten of my 17 years in this industry have been in the community college sector. Since the United States rebounded from the Great Recession of 2008, community college enrollment has suffered exponentially, starting mostly in 2011. Until that time, most community colleges employed little to no strategic measures in order to attract and enroll students. However, in the last decade, enrollments at two-year colleges have drastically declined, compelling community college enrollment leaders to implement strategic efforts to market to, enroll, and retain students in ways that four-year schools have always practiced.
Before 2011 there was no reason for a community college to contract with a third-party company to purchase names to build their inquiry, prospective student, and applicant pools. It was not necessary to incorporate a communication plan in order to personally engage with students. Establishing territory management was a foreign concept. That is no longer the case. Creating and maintaining cross-campus relationships with non-enrollment constituents has become paramount as the realization has set in that there needs to be a “village” mentality in order to turn enrollment around and increase retention and graduation rates at community colleges. Targeted marketing to marginalized populations and for programs that are struggling has become the norm as well. Does this sound like something that can be done anywhere, no matter what college one works for?
Yet in interview after interview with leaders at four-year colleges, I’ve witnessed great reluctance to view those experiences as transferable. Community colleges have made great strides in recent years shedding the stigma that once labeled them as inferior. Unfortunately, four-year school administrators have not yet shed their bias about experienced veterans like myself who are seeking opportunities to work on their campuses.
Over the last 18 months I have interviewed with a number of four-year colleges and universities from across the country (via Zoom of course). A question that I commonly get is, “How do you expect to make the leap from a community college to a four-year school.” This is where I get offended. Before asking a question like that, it is worth educating oneself on the strategic measures that are taking place at the 1,000+ community colleges across the country. As someone applying to be an enrollment leader, isn’t there the belief that I am going to be well-versed about trends, strategic measures, selectivity, communication, team camaraderie, and the host of other matters that go into crafting a quality class? If that is what is being expected of professionals, then the same standards should be in place for those who are on search committees and making hiring decisions.
There are some professionals who are beginning to get it. In an interview with an admission dean at a highly selective school this past summer, something was said that made me want to break social distancing protocols and hug this person. This enrollment leader said words that so many before him and since have yet to utter: It does not matter what kind of school you work for; we are all essentially doing the same work in regard to recruitment and student success.
I hope sharing my story will help more enrollment management leaders view their applicant pool in a new light. To put it into a non-enrollment perspective, it is like driving different types of vehicles. I may have driven a Honda Civic or Mini Cooper for the majority of my life, but now I want to become a school bus driver or truck driver. Are there disparities among these methods of transportation? Yes. Does it mean that there is absolutely no way for me to ever be considered for a truck driver job? No. Driving, no matter what kind of vehicle, has basics to it that include the brake and gas pedals, mirrors, blind spots, signaling, steering, and putting $50 on pump 3. The one difference here is that there will be some additional training and understanding of the additional factors that come with driving an 18-wheeler.
It does not matter if one gained their experience working at a community college; a small, liberal arts four-year college; a state university; or a highly selective college—the basic premise of enrollment management is to enroll the students who will be the best fit for each community and be successful in all facets of their college life. Overlooking an enrollment professional for a position at a four-year college on the presumption that he/she will not be successful because they have driven the small sedan so frequently goes against the mission and values espoused on so many college websites.
I will illuminate this point even brighter. Let’s review an applicant who is a person of color, comes from a under-resourced school and community, has taken and aced the four AP courses that the school offers, has a 3.98 GPA, scored in the middle 50th percentile on the SAT of the students you have accepted over the past three years, and is in the top 10 percent of her class. Because this student is not coming from an affluent town, did not attend a well-to-do private school, and is first-generation, does that mean she is automatically not going to be considered for admission? Does that mean that the student will not be successful or be a good fit on your campus? Think about these kinds of students that we have all encountered. Now, think about the professionals who are coming from the schools that you may think are “less than,” but they have proven success, are knowledgeable of the national enrollment landscape, have an advanced degree, are established and respected leaders, and can bring a unique set of skills to your campus.
Just as you would take a holistic view of a student’s application and experience, I urge you to extend that same kind of consideration to seasoned leaders in the field. And I suggest strongly considering changing your verbiage from “leap” to “transition” or “acclimate.” Or how about everyone’s favorite word in 2020—pivot! I challenge all four-year college and university leaders to broaden the scope of your expectations, limit your biases, and become fully aware that we’re all driving in the same direction, no matter what vehicle we operate.
NACAC member Andre Richburg is an enrollment management professional based in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.