Is the SEM Process useful in a time of seismic change?

September 21, 2020
  • AACRAO Consulting
  • Enrollment Management
  • Enrollment Mix
  • SEM Plan Development
seismograph showing significant activity

by Christine Kerlin, Senior Consultant, AACRAO Consulting

As higher education professionals, our chief mission is to provide an optimal educational environment. We are enabled to do that if our institution is healthy, a state usually reached when our enrollment meets our expectations. Thanks to the pandemic, our status and our expectations are now a matter of new and uneasy speculation. 

If you already have a Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) Plan,1 or what is sometimes called a Student Success Plan, you may be wondering about its usefulness when it feels like it was developed in a different century. You may be grappling with the need to pull together a new or revised SEM Plan instead of continually putting out daily fires and/or lurching from one scenario to another. Quite likely, you are facing quite different financial options than twelve months ago and possibly loss of staff. Students, faculty, staff and your surrounding communities may be presenting concerns about operations going forward. I am not suggesting that our institutional leaders are not doing their best - I think many are - but it is indeed difficult at this time to have a clear view of our near and far enrollment future.

This article offers two possible pathways for your consideration:

1. The SEM Process offers exceptional capacity and tools for moving forward. 

SEM is based on a foundation of intentional data collection and analysis of internal and external factors, often exemplified by a data team. If you have adopted a SEM Process, your data team could be front and center right now in supporting your decision-making process. Further, in its best application, SEM stimulates (and demands) an enterprise-wide coordinated and collaborative approach to identifying enrollment goals and the services and programs that nourish those goals. Additionally, SEM offers a process for identifying critical strategies and action plans, and continuous assessment to help stay on track. If you have been engaged in a SEM Process and Plan, you have the tools.  

I have observed that though most existing SEM Plans did not anticipate the dramatic effects of this pandemic on our operations, their goals and strategies for recruitment, access, equity, retention, student success, and program mix (for example) may still be relevant, but need adjustment. As stated in one institution’s recent online panel discussion, “COVID-19 has taken an increasingly competitive college-enrollment landscape to new heights … forcing [administrators] to re-imagine strategies for recruiting and retaining students, and pose innovative solutions.”2 Your SEM Team, Process, and Plan tools are already in your hands for that purpose. At its best, SEM is adaptable.

And speaking of adaptability, let’s put some meat on the bones of the word “strategies.” While a strategic framework such as SEM provides us with a way to move ahead, our specific strategies and tactics within it are not meant to be engraved in stone.  SEM asks us to constantly review and monitor our progress and implement adjustments if needed.  The pace of change is too fast to allow us to think that what we think works this year will be as precisely relevant next year.  Let us acknowledge that “Strategic Dexterity”3 comes into play here. We start with a compelling vision; one of the first stages of SEM is clarifying overall direction for enrollment goals for the institution – a compass. We utilize external knowledge - an environmental scan - to assess opportunities, challenges, and impacts, and to consider multiple scenarios. And we do this in real time; we are nimble and responsive. SEM provides a framework for the data analysis, collaboration and coordination that underlies this strategic dexterity.

2. SEM can be a way to Link, Integrate, and Extend (LinkEx) current efforts, thus mitigating a feeling of pivoting in twenty different directions with mixed effectiveness. 

Many of us are surrounded by (and serving on!) a wide variety of committees and initiatives, some of them still active, others being revamped, and others on pause.  New ad-hoc committees may be functioning during this pandemic period to address new strategies, policies, and procedures. Colleges and universities engaged in Achieving the Dream, Guided Pathways, Complete College America, Intrusive Advising, Quality Matters, QEP, Academic Master Plan, and other institutional efforts, as well as their own institutional strategic plan initiatives and current ad-hoc efforts, can use the SEM Process and Plan to pull together those efforts that impact enrollment, establish linkages, integrate those efforts into a coordinated set of strategies, and then extend them into more coherent overall enrollment scenarios, contingency plans, and goals.  

Key to this concept is extending the vision, which SEM is well-suited to do.  Too often we have various initiatives and committees with fine goals, but we do not often look at how these goals and tactics relate to each other, and how they add up to a desired enterprise-wide enrollment vision, or target, if you will. That is, what does “+5% here” and “-2% there” add up to for our desired student mix?  As we bring them together, and determine possible overlaps and gaps, we are extending our efforts toward a more coherent path toward our enrollment goals. 

Thus, SEM does not become “one other thing,” but a way to deftly coordinate our work toward an enrollment vision, a vision that may take on some challenges during these change-ful times. In this new environment, then, we can use the SEM Process and a SEM Plan to optimize the steps we take forward as we meet our present and future challenges. 


1 The SEM Process Framework and SEM Planning Framework are well described in: Bontrager, B., Green, T. (2015). Strategic enrollment planning. In Hossler, D., Bontrager, B. & Associates (Eds). Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management (pp 531-564). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. In Sigler, W. (2017). SEM core concepts. Washington DC: AACRAO.  

 2 Q and A Session Focused on Recruitment and Retention, May 21, 2020, University of Mary Washington.

3 Q and A Session Focused on Recruitment and Retention, May 21, 2020, University of Mary Washington.



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