Back in #HigherEd

Mid-First Year Learnings

It has been a while since I last posted and much of that has to do with the new job. I have now been working as the director of admissions for a small private, non-profit college that primarily serves adult-learners for just over seven months and this seemed like a good time to step back and reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned in that short time.

If you hate your job, a five minute commute is horrible. But, if you love what you do…

My commute is, on good days, two hours door-to-door to get to work and another two hours to get home. Four hours a day. I spend time driving to a train station, commuting on the Long Island Rail Road, taking various subway lines and then walking a block or two to the office. Eight hour days turn into 12 hours, and those of you who work in admissions, how many eight hour days do you work? The commute is long, sometimes extremely frustrating but manageable because I love what I do and where I am going — both directions.

What’s helped?

* Use your train time. If you can sleep, sleep. If you can answer email, develop your day’s to-do list, get some work done or do anything that will help you get your day started, do it. Candy Crush is also fun.

* If allowed, work from home a couple days a month. This will help you keep your sanity, minimize interruptions and help you check off a number of things on your to-do list. Working from home can mean your living room, Starbucks, your local library or, my favorite, your local book store. If I were still in Worcester, MA, it would mean Annie’s Clark Brunch.

* I worked with IT and they helped secure me a Wi-Fi hot spot, which I use to stay connected and get an extra one to two hours work done a day from the commuter train. It’s a life saver for days I have to leave early or I decide to work from home but find my house too distracting.

Don’t just do something because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or it’s tradition…

According to the internet, Albert Einstein defined insanity by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I’m sure he said it because the internet doesn’t lie, but even if he didn’t, the thought has a lot of merit. In admissions, we are not judged by the status quo, we are judged by growth and improvement; more quality inquiries, more applications, improved academic credentials of those applicants, more enrolled students, improved retention and on and on and on.

How to break with tradition?

* Data, data and more data. If you feel that something that has always been happening is not working, consult the numbers. If the data suggests that the results of your efforts does not justify the resources used to drive those results, then it is time for a change — Ask yourself what is your return on investment (ROI) for the money you are spending, but also for the resources you are expending?

* Change is hard, especially for people who have been with the school/company for a long time. Make them part of the change, get buy-in and give them ownership over the what’s happening and the success. Nothing helps people get over the trauma caused by change like being recognized for success.

* Don’t change too much too quickly. Pick your battles and look for places where you can score some early victories. In my six months I have observed a lot of events and things we’ve done from a procedures POV and am only now making some larger changes. I spent my first six months picking low-hanging fruit and finding ways to make processes more efficient.

Speaking of low hanging fruit, pick some…

No matter what you do or where you end up, there are going to be things that can be fixed quickly that will make a positive impact on what you do. Some of those things can be cutting red tape for applicants/customers, standardizing staff procedures, improving reporting methods or any of million other things that can improve performance, results and morale. Do these first. Get some wins under your belt, build trust and respect. Once you do that, you’ll have also built your credibility making buy-in easier when you see the need for bigger changes.


* Customer service is always something that can be improved. Evaluate the student journey and how your office impacts their experience. Odds are, there is room for improvement. A little focus goes a long way in making students feel better about the process, thus helping to improve conversion rates.

* Ask three questions of your staff (no, not Rick’s three questions from The Walking Dead): 1- Who are you (why do you work in admissions and what are your ultimate career goals?) 2- What is it that you love about your job? 3- What frustrates you about working here? These three questions will help you challenge your staff, give them opportunity to grow and show them that you take an interest in fixing issues around the office and in helping them achieve their goals.

* Build relationships, not walls. Silos have no place in Higher Education. Even if they existed before you got there, be a change agent. Listen to what has been happening in the past, but work to build something new. Everyone wants to be part of something good, so help grow those opportunities and the fruit will pick itself.


I know what you are thinking, “this sounds great, but Steve, put your money where your mouth is and tell us if any of this works… with data!” Fair enough. Here is what we have seen, keeping in mind that it is way too early to fully quantify the total impact of our efforts in the past seven months:

* We have had two straight semesters of nearly flat or increased year-over-year new student enrollment (Fall was down 1% and Spring up 9%) after a number of semesters of decreasing enrollment.

* In digital marketing, our total cost per action (CPA) has decreased by nearly 42% in the past few months while conversions have increased by about 51%.

* We have established an interdepartmental working group helping to plan Open Houses for the first time.

* On average, event attendance is up 233% at Open House.

* We have also seen an increase of approximately 900% in attendance at our Graduate Info Sessions.

I know these percentages seem large, and we are not playing with extremely large numbers, but the gains have been big for our school and I am looking at these as wins… but I am far from satisfied. I will keep looking to make improvements to our policies, procedures and events, I will keep building relationships around campus, encourage my staff to pursue professional development opportunities, keep working to help more students make the right decision about their academic futures, and find time for myself and my family.