Practicing SEM at a Four-Year University

September 6, 2022
  • AACRAO Consulting
  • Consulting
  • SEM
Group of students attending class.

By Dr. Lisa Harris, Senior Consultant, AACRAO Consulting

Creating SEM strategies and ultimately a plan for your university requires a few special considerations at a four-year institution. If tasked with that charge, this article can give you a start for that work.

The culture of the university and the way it operates is a basic sonnet in the melody that constructs the steps of planning for optimum enrollment in the various departments that work in concert to make this plan come to life. Alongside culture, one must have effective communication, an understanding of the functional workings of enrollment management, and an inclusive approach that advocates for the necessity of a SEM strategy with engagement from the entire campus community. These four ingredients ensure that political moves and financial hurdles are overcome to achieve the university’s desired results. 

Although every kind of institution, in and out of the academy, has a unique culture defined by the work it does, the way we enact this work, and the makeup of the group doing the work, there are other, more hidden parts of creating and maintaining culture in the academy. While Oxford defines culture as “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people or other social group,” for those involved in working in any culture it is necessary to also understand how to work within it. SEM represents the culmination of many minds working together to form a directional strategy, participating in teams and committees to perform the tasks it has been given. For some at four-year universities, maneuvering within the institutional culture is seamless because it is what has become customary after years of being there. For newer members of an institution, learning the culture takes time, patience, and understanding of the “whys” behind the culture. 


The "why" is where most change at an institution occurs, and is often more strategic and systematic than it appears when discussing concerns like enrollment or as many universities use, recruitment and retention. The why is often buried in the culture of a place and important to the change process a primary part of a successful SEM strategy. Change management theory is an integral but subtle piece of the SEM puzzle, as it takes this process from thoughtful strategy to implementation. Most SEM plans rely on some level of change to occur, so starting with a framework and adopting a theoretical approach can help structure a path to ensure change will occur. 

Change Management Theory is a framework of an approach to transitioning people, processes, and resources to achieve better outcomes. Change management theory helps people and organizations focus on the future and make the right decisions to get to that vision.

Also, according to Apty, 70 percent of all change management initiatives fail, usually because managers choose the wrong model or become overwhelmed by the process. Wallace-Hulecki and Seagren wrote about this process in their article, Managing Change with Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM). They state that: 

Backdating to the early 1990s, SEM was described as a process associated with strategic planning and performance measurement (Hossler & Bean, 1990; Dolence, 1993, 1997), and more recently as a sophisticated management function linked to resource management and accountability (Black, 2008b; Bontrager, 2004; Hossler, 2008; Norris, Baer, Leonard, Pugliese, & Lefrere, 2008; Kisling & Riggs, 2004). Throughout the literature, SEM has been referred to as a process of culture change (Kemer, Baldrige, and Green, 1982; Hossler and Bean, 1990; Henderson, 2001), and as a tool by which an organization of learning is transformed into a learning organization (Dolence, 1993, 1997; Senge, 1990).

While culture and change management is not exclusive to four-year universities, the intricacies of various departments and divisions within them require a specific and intentional strategy, one that is better served in a model format. So, select a model or find a hybrid version that matches the culture of your university and includes it as part of the communication and implementation plans.

Communication is critical to “get right” in a four-year institution than anywhere else. Listed as part of every change model, and so important that best practices in SEM suggest many ways to create a separate plan for this part of the process. Again, the complications of a four-year institution, particularly one of size, needs a solid communication flow more than other institutions to simply deliver clarity of vision for the project. Students traveling through the student life cycle must have a clear understanding of expectations for success; faculty must clearly articulate subject matter and deliver knowledge with clarity for students to be successful; consequently, a vision for enacting a plan needs a clear, repetitive, concise communication strategy for sharing the new direction an institution is taking due to the SEM plan. On an Ellucian blog about higher education, there is a discussion of the definition of effective communication. It states that,

Properly and effectively communicating change in higher education is critical. You’re not just dealing with employees—you’re dealing with people who are emotionally invested in their workplace and its culture. And an ineffective communication strategy in this environment can be disastrous.

The blog goes on to discuss the difference between change leadership in higher education when compared to the corporate world:

An important piece of that puzzle is that there is an intrinsic emotional component for higher ed employees. There’s an expectation that employees—as well as students and faculty—have a voice in what happens on campus, and that everyone shares a passion for one goal: education. When you work at a large corporation, you may not feel that same sense of emotional or shared connection.

In general, most change leadership and SEM best practices suggest a strategy like the one that Carol Turner outlines for ASQ. Although written for a change management plan, many of these specific ideas are also a part of most SEM planning suggestions:

  • Define the Change

  • Lay Out the Tactical Plan

  • Define Success

  • Clarify the Expected Benefits

  • Outline Dependencies and Risks

  • Report Outcomes

To implement SEM an understanding of the functional enrollment departments involved is imperative to ensuring change occurs. Frequently committees do not know enough about the implementation of these functional tasks: a data-rich approach; development of enrollment and student experience goals; creating the strategies and the tactics to bring those goals to life, and finally setting key performance indicators to measure the impact of the plan. So, part of the committee’s work is the educational process itself: an understanding of what is possible (future state or future aspirations) and what has been tried in the past (current state). Broad representation on the planning committee ensures consideration of the many lenses of the university when carrying out these important enrollment management planning tasks.

Finally, a willing and inclusive community is essential for success with any plan and SEM planning is no different. However, as important as this is, it is dependent on the other three tenants noted above: culture; communication; and the functional workings of enrollment management. Without clarity in presenting the vision to the university community, campus engagement will not happen. Four-year institutions have a more difficult time with this task as there are many silos and differences of opinion due to the size and number of departments. Simply put, it just takes more work. One of the best practices that many follow is putting ideas or concerns that may spark controversial discussions in a “parking lot” for continued monitoring and subsequent effort. Discussion around these topics can occur during implementation conversations about shorter-term tactics and strategies. An advantage of working in higher education is that a variety of opinions, and inclusive views, are a part of the way the business is conducted. The challenge of creating a SEM plan is finding ways to include diverse views without losing the coherent direction and ability to implement it. So, while this willing and inclusive approach takes time, it is imperative for achieving a holistic, representative, and relevant strategy for the future of the institution.

Using this guideline as a starting point for thinking through your goals of creating and enacting a SEM plan should be helpful for all involved in the process: doing the homework on understanding the culture of your university; effectively communicating at every step of the process; understanding the functional needs of the enrollment offices and the tenants of enrollment management; and taking an inclusive approach. These best practices not only ensure success in the planning process but also move your institution toward greater overall student success.

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