SEM as a Connector

April 2, 2021
  • AACRAO Annual Meeting
  • SEM Leadership
  • Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM)
  • am2021
  • Strategic Enrollment Management
SEM as a Connector

AACRAO Annual Meeting 2021 Session:

SEM as a Connector - Building Relationships in a New Normal

Stanley Henderson, Senior Consultant at AACRAO, and Dr. Kevin Pollock, President Central Carolina Technical College, explored the challenges traditional and non-traditional higher education institutions face in building connections with students in the “new normal”. 

This session began with a key point of advice for attendees reminding them that many of the issues discussed were designed to raise questions and put them on the table, but not necessarily answer them.

College can be a daunting experience. In one of the first surveys presented during the session, it was shown that 40% of students transferring away from one school to another stated that “feeling socially alone” was a major factor in their decision. Mr. Henderson emphasized that even small interactions between students, faculty, and staff can help build connections.

SEM and Data

Data collection and analysis have long been a bedrock of Strategic Enrollment Management, but as the presenters noted, this data is “merely a vehicle for building connections with students”. Data should be used to empathize, understand, and serve student needs throughout their experience with higher education. If data is used to connect students to services, faculty and staff can transition those connections into relationships.

Approaches to Building Connections

Dr. Pollock brought some interesting insights to the session when discussing the disconnect between parent and student expectations and goals. A few of the points he raised included:

  • 96% of parents said the development of moral character was paramount

  • 67% of students said parents would want academic success to come first

When discussing the Faculty-Student relationship, especially in the “new normal”, Dr. Pollock quoted surveys that found only 19% of students were confident in building quality rapport in an online environment.

A few of the suggestions for developing faculty-student relationships included:

  • Faculty should be a part of recruitment efforts and attend open houses

  • Building connections with students before they arrive on campus

  • Increased feedback and clear expectation setting (especially for nontraditional students)

  • Proactive involvement from faculty to overcome student reluctance to ask for help

  • Following up with students who are struggling or having difficulty

Many of these approaches would require increased effort from faculty and rely on accurate, and timely, data.

Looking Forward

In closing the session one of the points brought up is that many of these approaches have been used by colleges and universities for a long time. Were these the only answers to building relationships with students? Are they relevant to this period of change? Were nontraditional students being served as well as traditional students? Are the roles of traditional vs. nontraditional changing?

Exploring these questions and ensuring that they are being asked is a crucial responsibility for SEM professionals. As we move away from the traditional “sage on the stage” approach to education it is increasingly necessary to reevaluate current modalities and ensure that they are the best fit to meeting the needs of students.

In writing this article, we reached out to the session presenters for their thoughts on the subject, session, and going forward, these are included below.

“Our session came from an article we co-wrote regarding the need to connect students to campuses and the use of SEM to do so. The idea was to raise the subject and provide several examples of how to do so. It has evolved now to our session and the opportunity for others to join the conversation. We plan to have a book on the topic available for the AACRAO SEM Conference this fall.”

-Dr. Kevin Pollock


Kevin and I saw this session, based on our SEM Quarterly article, as a statement about how essential human connections are in disconnected times.  We agree that SEM's greatest value is helping students to be successful by engaging them in their collegiate experience.  The pandemic has made that even more important.  We wanted to emphasize examples of how colleges and universities have helped make connections and build relationships and raise the question: How do we continue to do that in the New Normal?  Part of the answer is to include students' voices in the decision-making.

The virtual Annual Meeting format gave an opportunity to emphasize that listen-to-their-voices approach with participants in the session.  Since the video is running in the background, we were focused on the ongoing discussion more than the presentation.  The participants directed us with their questions and topics.  The "sages on the stage" became colleagues in a chat, and participants most likely got more out of it than just listening to us.

I hope that when the Annual Meeting goes back to in-person, we can maintain this experience by reimagining how we do in-person presentations as vehicles to make connections and build relationships more effectively.  It will strengthen the AACRAO Community if we do.

-Stanley E. Henderson

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