10 Keys to Enrollment Management Success

How well do student-related systems serve your institution's enrollment management needs? The answer may have everything to do with the relationship between your IT staff and the offices served by the systems.

10 Keys to Enrollment Management SuccessAS ENROLLMENT MANAGEMENT consultants, we have worked with over 200 institutions over the last 11 years and seen just about every possible student-related system in action, from homegrown, single-office databases, to enterprise resource planning systems. One common factor in how well these systems serve the institution's enrollment management needs (from both an operational and strategic perspective) has nothing to do with the technology itself, but everything to do with the relationship between the IT staff and the offices served by the system. Those institutions where a true partnership exists between technical and user staffs typically have found a way to make their student-related systems hum. On the other hand, poor communication, confused priorities, and tension between user offices and IT typically result in ineffective systems-regardless of the products being used. Clearly, solid partnerships are imperative when it comes to the success of technology tools like enrollment-managementrelated systems. In fact, as we see it, there are 10 keys to the partnerships that effectively support the use of such student-related systems.

Those institutions where a true partnership exists between technical and user staffs typically have found a way to make their student-related systems work.

1) Develop Leadership

There's no underestimating the importance of solid leadership. Leadership that sets expectations and incentives to encourage effective IT/user office partnerships is fundamental. Likewise, in successful enrollmentmanagement- related technology initiatives, this kind of leadership sets the tone. Specifically, expectations regarding precisely how IT staff and users will work together need to be clear, and performance appraisals need to include feedback from the "partners" as well as from supervisors.

2) Find or Create Super Users

It's essential that a "super user" be housed in each enrollment management unit. Simply put, the days when user offices could rely on IT staff for every technical support issue are gone. Whether the office is Admissions, Financial Aid, Student Accounts, or the Registrar, it is critical that at least one person on each of those staffs understands how to pull data from the system and has an appreciation for all of the system's functionality.

In the most effective Financial Aid offices, for example, there typically is an associate or assistant director assigned responsibility for setting up the system for each new awarding cycle, running routine data transfer and reporting functions, and creating ad-hoc reports and selections for processing. This person frequently serves as the office liaison with the IT staff, explaining office needs and priorities to technical staff, and interpreting technical matters for users and office decision-makers. It may even be helpful to have the super user work directly in the IT department for a time, in an internship role focused around a critical project-especially early in this person's tenure in the position.

According to Mary Healy, senior solutions analyst at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (NY), "Having power users in the office has greatly increased productivity and has allowed for the speedier implementation of newly released system features and enhancements. The power user, with a deep understanding of her system, can articulate areas of need as well as review firsthand [any] projected releases and enhancements. In the relationship with a focused IT support person for enrollment systems, the power user and the IT support person develop a common language which removes a good many of the barriers sometimes seen in office/IT communication."

3) Dedicate IT Staff to Work With Specific User Offices

Depending on staff size, it is ideal to have dedicated IT staff working with specific user offices, rather than floating everywhere as needed. With IT staff designated to specific office coverage, an IT staffer could be assigned to work regularly with the Financial Aid and Student Billing offices, or with Admissions and the Registrar. (Importantly, this arrangement provides an ideal opportunity for IT and user offices to be involved in interviewing each others' candidates for relevant positions. For example, if the user office is hiring a position that will serve as an IT liaison, the dedicated IT staff member who works with the office should be included in the interview process, and vice versa.) This dedicated model enables IT people to better understand particular office functions and even anticipate the needs of the user offices they serve.

Of course, many IT staffs are simply too small to accommodate dedicating staff, and even those that are larger are sometimes concerned about this approach leaving service vulnerable in the event of staff turnover. However, the benefits to the partnership cannot be overstated.

4) Set Institutional Technology Priorities With Teams

We highly recommend the creation of a joint IT/user office team, to help set institutional priorities for technological enhancements. Frankly, an effective way to damage the user/IT partnership is to keep user offices guessing about when their technology needs will be addressed. Yet, having a clear and open process for setting priorities not only clarifies timelines, but also helps users understand why other offices may be receiving priority attention. User offices will be less tempted to call every technical issue a crisis or create their own standalone solutions, when they have a forum in which they balance their needs against those of other users.

This priority-setting team should be made up of the directors of key user offices and appropriate leadership from IT. The involvement of senior management can help ensure that projects receive sufficient resources and support. In addition, there may be a need for a users group comprised of the super users from each office and the associated dedicated IT staff. This group would be responsible for coordinating key system events and processing, for planning the implementation of new functionality, and for bringing suggested items/projects to the prioritysetting group.

5) Help Users Know Their Data and Ops

We are frequently surprised to find significant errors in data files provided by clients, or discrepancies between the data files and "off the shelf" reports provided by the institution. We suspect this happens either because the user offices fail to check data files that are pulled by IT staff, or because users do not know their data well enough to recognize errors. Clearly, if users are not trained (or do not take the time) to understand their own office's procedures for entering data, do not understand system-created fields, or misuse fields, they cannot effectively partner with IT to ensure accurate reporting.

Lack of system knowledge also makes it difficult for user offices to clearly communicate system problems to IT. The best communication between IT staff and operational offices occurs when knowledgeable users clearly identify a problem, IT staffers respond with probing questions, and a solution is arrived at jointly.

6) Benchmark Toward Enhancement

User office personnel should constantly be asking themselves how they can improve service to students and streamline their operations. When user offices fall prey to technological stagnation, it generally is because the office has been content with the status quo and has not pushed for change. But benchmarking with other institutions can generate ideas for enhancements and shake up even the most moribund offices. The most effective benchmarking, however, involves both IT and user office staff members. That way, both operational and technical aspects of the desired functionality can be explored.

7) Form Joint Project Implementation Teams

This mandate should be ingrained in all campus technology administrators by now: Any significant systems projects need to be owned by both user offices and IT staff. Shared responsibility for project definition and project management simply produces the best results.

8) Market Your Successes

Success with small- to medium-sized projects can build momentum for larger projects that require more time, cooperation, and consideration. What's more, picking the "low-hanging fruit" inspires confidence and mutual trust between user offices and IT staff. And never underestimate the power of promotion: Marketing your success stories can more broadly impact the level of confidence in IT across the campus. In fact, at the Rochester Institute of Technology (NY), IT staffers put out an electronic newsletter that clearly communicates to the campus the status of major projects-and then celebrates their completion.

Create a joint IT/user office team to help set institutional priorities for technological enhancements. Frankly, an effective way to damage the user/IT partnership is to keep user offices guessing about when their technology needs will be addressed.

9) No 'Technodonnas' or 'Technophobes' Allowed

At some institutions, we've noted technical staff members who display little respect or tolerance for users with limited technical skills. Worse, they sometimes take advantage of the dependency or technological illiteracy of those users by failing to provide the best service they can. Yet, without mutual respect, there can be no partnership.

At the same time, staff in user offices need to take responsibility for their data and systems. It is not acceptable to term everything that is "technical" as IT's responsibility. Encourage system users to become techno-literate and technologically empowered, wherever possible. Institute quick lunchtime training and troubleshooting sessions, or offer guides and push out handy web links so that users can comfortably help themselves where possible and free IT staffers for the larger challenges.

10) Celebrate Excellence at All Levels

Often, junior-level programmers and junior staff in user offices carry the brunt of the work during an enhancement project. These staffers need to be recognized and rewarded for their cooperation and innovation. If the IT office has a newsletter (see number 8), the individuals involved can be recognized there. Some institutions even hold celebration lunches at the completion of a major project, at which the staff members most involved can be publicly acknowledged. Finally, performance appraisals should make note of such accomplishments so that they become part of the individual's permanent record.

Endnote: Partner for Institutional Mission

According to RIT Registrar Joe Loffredo, "In today's student service offices, nearly any strategic goal is dependent on data and systems support, and therefore the development of the IT/user relationship is not just useful; it's mission-critical." Given the technology investment your institution has made and continues to make, it is imperative that you make the best possible use of your enrollment-managementrelated tools. That cannot be ensured by IT or user staffs alone. Make the time now to build effective partnerships; you'll be amazed at how those efforts will help your institution get closer to its enrollment goals and priorities.

-Jim Scannell and Kathy Kurz are president and VP, respectively, of Scannell & Kurz, a consultancy specializing in financial aid, recruitment, retention, and enrollment management strategies for higher ed.

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