5 trends to watch: Where SEM has been—and where it’s going

Your first AACRAO SEM Conference will change your life.

At least, that’s what happened for the current co-directors of the SEM Conference—Jay Goff, Vice President for Enrollment and Retention Management, St. Louis University; Susan Gottheil, Vice Provost (Students), University of Manitoba; and William Serrata, President, El Paso Community College. Each is in her or his last year as conference director.

“When I walked away from my first conference [in the early 90s], my ‘mind was blown,’ as people would say. It was a total paradigm shift,” said Gottheil.

Serrata’s first AACRAO SEM—Aspen in 1997—proved to be similarly revelatory.

“Aspen was so beautiful—but I went straight from the airport to the conference, and never saw any of it,” he said. “I never left the hotel, the conference was so engaging and enlightening. At that point, SEM became something very central to my career and how I saw higher education. It changed my paradigm.”

“Twenty years ago the SEM conference helped me find my professional career path,” Goff said.  ”It brings together a likeminded community whose first priority is to help students succeed. Having the opportunity to work with hundreds of enrollment professionals throughout the world who want their day-to-day work to make a meaningful difference has given me faith that higher education will continue to be one of the most important transformational institutions in our society. It is very fulfilling to know that the initiatives developed through SEM  will make a powerful and positive change in our communities and economies for decades to come.”

Diverse institutions, one goal

For the last eight years, Goff, Gottheil and Serrata have co-directed AACRAO SEM—first with AACRAO’s Bob Bontrager, and now with Tom Green, AACRAO Associate Director, Consulting and SEM. (Gottheil joined the team in 2010.) These three professionals work at distinctly different institutions and help curate the four-year, Canadian, and two-year programming for the conference, respectively.

Though they serve demographically diverse student populations, they all have the same ultimate goal: student success. The SEM Conference provides proven strategies for achieving that goal, as well as a forum for networking with seasoned professionals, building a sense of professional identity and recalibrating the means by which we engage today’s students.

AACRAO’s early SEM conferences focused on foundational principles like recruitment and marketing—issues that are still central to enrollment and retention goals. But since 1990, the profession has changed in significant ways—and one of the biggest shifts has been the focus on the meaningful student development activities that increase participation, affordability, persistence and degree completion.

“As we evolved SEM, we realized just bringing students in the door wasn’t going to be enough,” Gottheil said. “Recruitment, branding, marketing, and broadening access were critically important—but now we’ve seen the importance of serving students from ‘womb to tomb’—trying to reach out and broaden access to post-secondary institutions, admitting students, supporting them throughout their academic career and then maintaining contact even when they leave us.”

5 major trends in SEM

Some of the recent themes in SEM philosophy and best practices include the following, many of which have overlapping content:

1. K-20 perspective and the student lifecycle. “Some of the best SEM programs are truly looking at a Kindergarten-through-doctoral pipeline to meet institutional enrollment goals,” Goff said. “About six years ago, Bob [Bontrager] was pushing us to reexamine the scope of successful SEM programs and it was clear that the institutions meeting their diversity and access goals were ones that had stronger relationships with their student feeder programs and schools.”

In an effort to always be on the cutting-edge of SEM best practices, the Conference programming evolved to helping institutions see how multiple higher education access points are key to attaining the US’s national goal of  60 percent adult post-secondary completion by 2020.

“This perspective also encourages more universities to be actively involved in precollege and college readiness programs throughout their communities and regions,” Goff said.

“We really transitioned to focusing on the student lifecycle,” Serrata added. “For example, even prior to student debt becoming a national conversation, the SEM Conference was bringing Anya Kamenetz to discuss how to minimize debt. Now, look at this election—debt-free college is a major issue, and we were on the cutting edge of that.”

2. SEM for diverse  populations. “SEM is different for different groups, different types of students,” Gottheil said. “First generation, Indigenous, Hispanic, transfer students, and so on.” Bringing in programming to address the nuances of diversity and SEM has been a central goal of all of the directors.

But, Gottheil said, “There’s more to be done.”

New approaches to recruiting and retaining LGBTQ students, students with mental health issues, and other underserved populations are forcing SEM managers to rethink policies and planning yet again.

“That’s why it’s important that SEM is constantly evolving,” she added, “and we need to keep being ahead of that evolution.”

3. SEM in cultural context. “SEM plays out differently in different contexts, different countries,” said Gottheil. “It’s partly history, different cultures and values, and certainly different educational systems.”

Although Canadians have adopted and adapted SEM terminology and the SEM framework to suit their context, “We recognized that we can’t adopt what happens in the states without being mindful of the differences,” Gottheil said. “The conference has become a place where we can really learn from one another. In the last five years, we’ve seen that American colleagues are grateful to attend some of the sessions that we present at and learn how things can be done differently. It’s important to take a different lens to look at a problem or issue.

SEM also means different things at two-year and four-year institutions, public and private, and so on.

“After my first AACRAO SEM, I told Bob [Bontrager] I didn’t see any sessions for community colleges,” Serrata said. “He told me to submit one.” Later, Bontrager would invite Serrata to become the two-year coordinator and then co-director for the conference.

“Over that time, the community college track has become stronger and stronger within the conference,” Serrata said. “Some of these national movements focused on Achieving the Dream and pathways are so closely related to SEM. So now we have a definitive two-year track in the conference, several keynotes focused on this area, and panel discussions with experts in the field. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to build and kudos to Bob and Tom for seeing that development coming and pushing in that direction.”

4. Research, data and technology. Goff first took on the role of conference director when the conference was undergoing a major redesign.

“Based on feedback from the AACRAO members and conference attendees, it was clear that the higher education community  wanted more research-based strategies for student success,” Goff said. “So we introduced a three-hour mid-conference workshop focused on retention research and graduation rate improvement. Each year we invited a national expert to participate and provide their perspective, but also include a fundamentals workshop for institutions desiring to  start a formal retention plan.”

Research has always been important to SEM excellence, but in recent years, the focus on data has become even sharper—and the SEM programming has anticipated and reflected that. In addition, among the hottest of hot topics for the last decade has been the dramatic impact technology, the internet, and social media have had on almost every aspect of higher education. That’s why this year’s conference will include sessions on big data applications, student persistence modeling, the role of social media in student engagement and success, and much more.

5. SEM leadership. A true SEM leader is a “silo-buster,” Goff said. Student success requires collaboration across campus. In addition to recruitment, marketing and financial aid, everyone at the institution—from the board of trustees and administration to student services, academic services, faculty and alumni offices—needs to be committed for SEM to truly affect change. SEM leaders must be skilled at making sure everyone is part of the conversation.

Leadership panels at the conferences help professionals learn how to engage and excite necessary constituencies, and help them understand how to grow into chief  enrollment officers on their campuses.

“SEM facilitated my career,” said Serrata, who is offering a “Pathway to the Presidency” session at this year’s conference.

“The conference is just a great place to begin and continue your professional journey,” Gottheil agreed. “You have unparalleled session learning and also hallway networking to really support the work you’re doing and, in turn, support student success. That’s what SEM is about and why the conference is so good at helping us achieve both professional and personal goals.”

For your own life-changing experience—whether your first or fifteenth conference—learn more and register for the AACRAO SEM Conference. Join Serrata, Goff, Gottheil and many other SEM experts in San Antonio, Texas, Nov. 6-9, 2016. Register by the end of September for the early bird discount.

And keep an eye on upcoming issues of Connect for the announcement of the new AACRAO SEM Conference Director, who will work with AACRAO members, Board of Directors, and Washington, DC, staff to develop the 2017 Conference program and beyond!