SEM Principles: Keys to Successful SEM Planning

October 31, 2022
  • AACRAO Consulting
  • SEM Plan Development
  • SEM
Individual examining charts and graphs with laptop in hand.

By Alicia Moore, AACRAO Senior Consultant

The onset of the pandemic created a significant shift in higher education in the United States. Declines in undergraduate enrollment are hitting many students, including low-income students, students of color, and male students in particular. Coupled with this decline are efforts in trying to determine how students want to learn in this new era, among many other unknowns, which means that many institutions are struggling to chart their path forward. This is where Strategic Enrollment Management, or SEM, can help.

Comprehensive SEM planning provides a planning and organizational and process framework for advancing an institution’s enrollment goals, including both recruiting and student success goals. While far more detailed than this article can address, there are a few key elements to spur your thinking as to how SEM can help you chart your institution’s future enrollment.

Planning Framework: A Disciplined Approach to Enrollment Success

While there are certainly multiple frameworks to guide SEM planning, the following provides a structure and shared definitions to help guide initial SEM discussions, outlining the planning process in six key steps.

Institutional Strategic Plan: An institution’s strategic plan should serve as the foundation from which all other organizational plans are launched. With this, a strong and effective SEM plan needs to be grounded in its institutional strategic plan. 

Key Enrollment Indicators: Key Enrollment Indicators, or KEI's, should be derived from the institution’s mission and strategic plan and with this, focused on big picture, future-looking objectives for the types of students an institution wishes to serve. KEI's also recognize the entirety of the student’s lifecycle, from prospect to alumni, and should be well-known and well-supported throughout the institution. 

Data Collection and Analysis: When approaching the data collection phase, many institutions ask, “How do we start? What data do we need?” The answer is simple: Return to your KEI's. What do you know about these students? How do they move through the student lifecycle, including their progress from prospect to an admitted student, through orientation, financial aid, classroom experience, co-curricular involvement, and more? Pulling information about students at each of these phases will help an institution identify where it may be losing students and therefore, may be able to focus its SEM goals.

Goals: Goals bring KEI's to a more concrete level. They are forward-looking and grounded in your data analysis and findings. With this, goals quantify the KEI and set the timeline by which the goal is to be accomplished. Goals articulate the current and future state of the enrollment segment you wish to influence. 

Enrollment Infrastructure: This is the point in the process in which an institution pauses in its planning and evaluates whether it has the right structure in place to achieve the desired goals. There is no one “right” organizational model supporting SEM work. Instead, this phase reviews existing organizational units to make sure it has the right staffing, skills, and systems needed to be successful.

Strategies and Tactics: Just as the goals provide more direction on the KEI’s, strategies provide more direction on the goals. They are high-level initiatives and include topics such as high school outreach, financial aid leveraging, first-year retention, and completion. Tactics, then, provide specific details for each of the strategies. For example, tactics associated with a first-year retention strategy include activities such as early alerts, student success courses, embedded tutors, and the like.

Lessons from the Road

As I work with institutions that embark on a SEM journey, as well as from my own experience, I see how foundational the SEM Planning Framework is to successful SEM work. To really succeed, however, an institution must also partner the SEM Planning Framework with two other key components: An organizational and process framework. In brief, the first of these offers a potential organizational structure to ensure institution-wide support and engagement, including roles for executive leadership, a SEM steering committee, recruitment and retention councils, data teams, and more. The process framework provides just that – a process by which to develop a SEM plan, including specific steps done by each of the various SEM organizational teams. Together, these three elements form the foundation by which an institution can reach its enrollment goals and most importantly, help its students succeed.

Visit AACRAO Consulting to learn more about the various services offered in enrollment management, recruitment and marketing, transfer policy, and more.