Fostering Inclusive Leadership for Higher Education's Future

March 4, 2024
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
  • ascend
Photograph of an individual with their arm extended for a handshake.

By Johnika Dreher, ASCEND Program Coordinator

It is no secret that higher education faces major challenges from public perceptions, budget constraints, free speech, and race relations crises, student debt, regulatory and governance concerns, and the student enrollment cliff. Every facet of academia has a pivotal opportunity to connect and consider the intent and impact of the learner experience of the present and the future. The learner experience encompasses strategic enrollment management. Furthermore, in today’s climate, enrollment is everyone’s responsibility. It’s imperative we make sure it’s strategic. 

Recruiting and retaining talented and diverse campus leaders who mirror the unique experiences of current and prospective learners will be a crucial factor for institutional business continuity and success. Recognizing the need to cultivate a deep bench of diverse leaders for academia, AACRAO launched the ASCEND Leadership Development Program to provide purposeful support for high-potential mid-career professionals from historically excluded groups to chart paths toward chief enrollment officer roles.

By offering critical career development encompassing coaching, cohort engagement, and competency building through a group SEM-based capstone project, ASCEND aims to 

  • Accelerate the careers of program participants, 

  • Assist AACRAO and affiliates in developing talented SEM-minded leaders from diverse backgrounds, and 

  • Equip traditionally underrepresented mid-career professionals with relevant knowledge, access, and support to foster their leadership ascent.

Since its inception in 2019, 40 participants have matriculated through the program, focusing specifically on competency, coaching, and connecting networking gaps that mid-career professionals experience as barriers to malaise. Already, 44% have transitioned into Director, AVP, or executive-level admissions, recruitment, and registrar positions at diverse institutions within 12 months of completing the program. Expanding perspectives, applicants hail from across North America and the Caribbean, representing a breadth of institutional types and a multitude of roles and functional types. 

Investing in Professional Growth at Mid-Career

Mid-career marks a critical point for investing in one's professional growth. Individuals typically between mid-30s and 40s are in the middle of their careers–between the stages of establishment and maintenance (Super & Hall, 1987). With nearly a decade of work experience to avoid plateauing, some mid-career professionals seek new challenges or advancement after mastering their functional expertise. Nevertheless, as mid-career professionals gain new competencies and credentials, the desire to apply them continues with ease or frustration due to restrictions beyond one's control. 

Industry studies like AACRAO’s Chief Enrollment Officers 2023 Report and CUPA-HR quantitatively showcase higher education's lack of diversity in top institutional roles, particularly enrollment management. However, most reports fail to capture the personal toll and loss of talent potential stemming from systemic marginalization. Behind demographic charts lie countless professionals who find their ambitions curtailed by opaque pathways filled with countless forms of bias. For mid-career professionals from historically underrepresented groups, developing a critical awareness of systemic sociopolitical structures like racism and sexism is necessary to avoid internalizing a stalemate of career progression as solely a failure of individual merit or agency (Hunt & Rhodes, 2021). 

Higher education institutions should focus on increasing diversity and inclusivity at the senior leadership level. - Chief Enrollment Officers Report

As most ASCEND graduates recognize, dedicated opportunities to build specific competencies, visibility, and relationships are essential to manifest career goals and lead institutional change. The Economic Times advises mid-career professionals to "keep learning and upgrading your skills throughout your career" while seeking experiences allowing for successful senior leadership transition. With limited time and professional and personal responsibilities, what programs offer mid-career professionals a cohesive experience to both obtain these experiences and sustain them once they get to the next level?

ASCEND's Multifaceted Leadership Development Model

The ASCEND Leadership Development Program is an immersive 9-month cohort-based learning model combining a multifaceted approach to unlock the next level of participants' leadership potential, including:

  • CliftonStrengths Assessment identifying natural talents

  • 1:1 executive coaching from seasoned enrollment leaders

  • AACRAO Essentials badged course on Strategic Enrollment Management

  • Virtual workshops and micro-courses heightening SEM competencies

  • Complimentary 2024 SEM and 2025 AACRAO annual conference registrations

  • Access to an alumni network across higher education

This layered professional development model empowers higher education professionals to acquire specialized tools for systems-level strategic roles to drive transformational change. Alumni testimonials showcase ASCEND’s immense value for empowering equity-driven change agents. When asked about recommending the program to others, program participants cited “the mental stimulation of shared learning,” “space to assess higher education challenges with expert guidance,” and “an invaluable network for career progression.”

With an ambitious redesign, ASCEND is poised to continue its exponential network growth of empowered professionals working passionately to transform systems and ensure representative voices help chart a more inclusive strategic vision across higher education’s enrollment landscape.

Equipping Change Agents to ASCEND

AACRAO welcomes mid-career higher education professionals to learn more about the ASCEND program firsthand and consider applying for the 2024 cohort.

An upcoming informational webinar on March 6th at 2 pm EST provides an overview of the ASCEND curriculum and participant experiences. Explore how this unique leadership accelerator can help you refine, define, and apply your strategic skills to recalibrate your mid-career experience to the next level. 

The 2024 application is now open. We invite you to visit for additional details. The time is right for empowered professionals and higher education institutions to actualize more representative, inclusive environments that help all learners flourish. Are you ready to ASCEND?


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