The Future of SEM is Digital

August 8, 2022
  • Enrollment Management
  • corporate
Simulated image of digitally connected globe.

Sponsored Salesforce, Written by Tom Green, Ph.D. 

Note: This is the first of a series of three articles by Dr. Green on Digital Transformation and SEM. The following two articles will appear in Connect in Fall 2022.

If you have ever read Jack Maguire’s article in the Boston College Bridge magazine in 1976, “To the organized, go the students,” you are likely stunned at how well it describes the underlying principles of Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) that we employ today. While there have been some changes since then, it is striking to see how much has not! This speaks to the constancy of our work in SEM: the need to align institutional mission, vision, and strengths with those we seek to recruit and enroll; the critical role of pricing and aid in both initial and ongoing enrollment; the centrality of data and information flow to SEM; and the attention to transfer and retention (persistence and completion) that extends SEM beyond merely improved marketing and recruitment initiatives.

These principles have continued to evolve over the past decades as more colleges and universities have turned to SEM to address their enrollment needs and pressures. While the initial focus is almost exclusively on how to market to and recruit more new students as new institutions poke their noses under the SEM tent, their understanding of what SEM is - a concept and process that addresses the entire student lifecycle - is entirely logical. What started as a practice among private, independent colleges and universities in the 1970s (very early visionaries) and 1980s (based on sharp drops in high school graduates and reliance upon the traditional in-person model) expanded to other institutional types in the 1990s. As Canadian and public American universities took up an interest in SEM, the application of these principles had to shift to match the nuances and sometimes significant differences in funding mechanisms, marketing needs, geographic foci, etc. In addition, this century has seen an explosion of interest among other institutional types - two-year, graduate and professional, minority-serving - and from countries around the globe. As each has applied SEM principles to their unique needs and educational contexts, SEM has evolved and shifted to meet them. The principles remain solid, but the “how” of SEM planning, implementation, and execution has been as varied as the types, sizes, and locations of those applying them.

What's Next

So, where is SEM headed next? We are seeing clear signals that SEM is headed for an intersection with digital transformation initiatives. A 2022 research report on digital transformation in higher education cited the results of interviews with over 500 American college and university presidents, chancellors, and provosts. Top findings included 90% of the respondents noting that digital transformation was important or very important to the institution's future. Nearly as many, 88%, noted that the pandemic had accelerated their needs for digital transformation. This same report cites a “gap” (p.10) between student expectations and colleges offering “strong digital programs” and that institutions have failed to grasp “the full power and range of technology.”  Faculty and students are ready, awaiting institutional capability and willingness to take on digital transformation initiatives.

The pandemic also created a new reality in student recruitment. The United States enjoyed the unique position of having access to names from testing services, often years before applications were accepted. Much of the marketing and recruitment communications were based upon this availability. However, as testing became impossible in most areas, institutions considered whether or not they would require or even use test scores in the future. This jeopardizes the availability of testing names to start the conversation with prospective students, especially for those institutions that are less familiar to students and their families but may be excellent matches for their educational needs. There has been some movement toward greater digital marketing in recruitment, especially for adult learners, but this will become more central to recruiting all students, regardless of age, as colleges and universities are less able to rely upon a steady stream of contact names, years ahead of application season.

These two factors alone are likely enough to push SEM practice to consider how it will adapt and evolve to meet the digital environment. Added to them are the myriad processes exposed as overly manual and non-digital when the pandemic pushed all staff, faculty, and students online. Colleges and universities reacted swiftly and were able to “band-aid” many of these processes. That helped, but a complete business process redesign will be needed to place a permanent fix onto those outdated, cumbersome, manual processes.

There are likely other factors that we haven’t included here that will impact your college or university. However, what is clear is that these pressures will create urgency for enrollment managers to respond to or stay ahead of expectations created internally by institutional leadership and colleagues and externally created by our constituents. To ensure that this response is strategic and not tactical, enrollment managers need to gain a firm understanding of the issues.

What is the role of the enrollment manager in digital transformation? How can one respond to an initiative from the president, provost, or CIO? What are reasonable expectations for making transitions? Enrollment managers must lead digital transformation in recruitment, enrollment marketing, financial aid, registration, academic support, orientation, advising, and other areas in their purview or areas that they impact/intersect. In the following article in this series, we’ll explore what digital transformation means and how to assess and understand digital maturity as it relates to SEM. These will provide additional skills, knowledge, and a model for digital maturity that can help enrollment managers understand and lead transformation in their scope of influence.

For additional information on free SEM Digital Maturity workshops, contact Dr. Green at


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