Making SEM personal

December 12, 2017
  • AACRAO Connect
  • AACRAO Consulting
Diverse crowd of people looking up at the camera.


by Howard E. Shanken, AACRAO Senior Consultant

It was the summer of 1978, and I was preparing to teach my first semester. I was just hired as a full-time psychology faculty member at Jordan College, a small Wesleyan Methodist, private college in Cedar Springs, Michigan. The main campus at that time included earth-brimmed buildings operating off of wind power, solar energy.  It was so far ahead of its time! Ready to launch my own career, I was filled with excitement! My lecture notes flowed like anything, as I typed away on my new Tandy 1000 home computer. Just to think, no longer would I have to use onion skin typing paper to easily erase any typing errors.

Indeed, this was the dawning of the digital age, which I fully embraced at that time. I dreamed of how the new technology could impact the curriculum and the learning of my students.

Technology = Impersonalization?

In the 1970’s, punch cards were starting to be used by registrars across the nation to assist with registration processes. By the 1980’s, colleges and universities were hiring programmers or reaching out to emerging companies, who saw an opportunity to provide tools to help manage enrollment processes and planning initiatives. Terms like enrollment management were beginning to surface. (Bontrager, Ingersoll, Ingersoll pg.4). In retrospect, it all moved very quickly.

Flash forward twenty years, I was registrar at Grand Rapids Community College in Grand Rapids, Michigan,where the enrollment was around 10,000 students and would triple in size over the next twenty years. At the time, the excitement for me was seeing how technology could change the landscape of business processes. Certainly, I thought touch-tone registration would be embraced by all and they (staff, faculty and students) would cheer with me, as we further expanded to utilize the internet and its online solutions. What a wonderful world it be!

However, this time a counter-force challenged my own enthusiasm for such improvements. Some staff, faculty and administrative colleagues were expressing genuine concern about the student experience. It was becoming clear to me change, let alone real transformation of systems, was a much longer road than I anticipated. Inclusive conversations at all levels of the institution were going to be necessary. I learned quickly that “college and university faculty, staff, and students value and expect to be consulted about important issues. The wise adage that people support what they help create reflects one of the key expected outcomes of the SEM organizational framework.” (Sigler, pg. 35)

Indeed, I too propose those that feel vested and connected, will help inspire the change being sought. The frontline staff in particular often see what may be needed and may have ideas, which is currency of its own accord. The broad vision of an institution is most often provided from a governing board, the president, and academic leadership; but the crux of the work falls up those in the field.  It is there on the front lines, where individuals have an opportunity to emerge as leaders.

SEM from the ground up

Today Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) is being applied in various forms and stages across the nation. Regardless of how it may be applied, there are underlying principles that will continue to be a part of the discussion. Additionally, there are a number of traits successful SEM leaders need to possess. Wayne Sigler, ED.D in the AACRAO publication SEM Core Concepts: Building Blocks for Institutional And Student Success highlights a number of those:

  • A clear understanding of what the SEM program’s stakeholders value and expert from the organization and focus on consistently meeting those expectations

  • The ability to enlist and maintain the confidence, support, and involvement of key stakeholders in the EM effort

  • A strong commitment to working effectively and respectfully with an increasingly diverse student body, work force and community

  • The ability to identify and develop current and emerging talent

  • Respect for the unique culture of higher education

  • Outstanding communication and political skills

  • Strong integrity, ethics, values, and empathy

  • The ability to plan at both the strategic and tactical levels

  • Emotional intelligence

  • The ability to be an effective change agent and to lead the EM unit to continually evolve to effectively carry out its mission

  • The ability to develop and lead a SEM program that provides the institution with optimum chance to consistently meet its enrollment objectives.

Building a quality SEM model means having a strong foundation. That means being open and flexible to those involved in developing the framework from which the institution will operate. Defining the key indicators to measure is not just the work of institutional research, but a departmental conversation(s) around what defines the organization. This inclusiveness fosters the dreaming and shaping of the future institution. The collective dream or envisioning is essential to build for a SEM plan to truly resonate throughout.

A personal stake

SEM is not a mission statement on the wall, but rather each member of the institution recognizing the vital role they play in the recruitment and/or retention and success of the student.  Together we are all shaping the future. Whether it is an article we read, a suggestion made by a colleague, or idea gleaned from a conference; there are many ways move forward in unison.  Education, in many ways as a community dialogue in action; it is not just lofty thoughts but supports long-term sustainability. The ever-changing market place can have dramatic impacts on individuals and their communities. Rather than the institution becoming subject to external events by happenstance, comprehensive environmental scanning is essential.

Engaging the university or college community will help inspire staff who tend to be most vested. Their families and friends live and work in the community. They are the ones who do more with less or innovate with thoughtful or creative ideas. Having open and transparent SEM planning conversations can go a long way in defusing resistance and actually developing future leaders instead. Where is your dream and community conversations taking you?



Bontrager, Bob, Ingersoll, Doris, Ingersoll Ronald, Strategic Enrollment Management: Transforming Higher Education, AACRAO Publications, 2012.

Sigler, Wayne, SEM Core Concepts: Building Blocks for Institutional and Student Success, AACRAO publications, 2017.

Hossler, Don, Bontrager, Bob, Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management, Jossey-Bass Publication, 2015.




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