The value of relationships in SEM planning

July 25, 2019
  • AACRAO Consulting
  • Enrollment Management
  • SEM Leadership
  • Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) Readiness Review & Planning
background of a cityscape with images of people working together arranged in a web pattern on top

by Stanley E. Henderson, Vice Chancellor (Ret.), University of Michigan-Dearborn, and AACRAO Senior Consultant

Bontrager and Green (2012) have delineated a structure for Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) planning that has been used successfully on hundreds of campuses.  The importance of tying the SEM plan to the institutional strategic plan, building the plan’s foundation on data, focusing on the strategic rather than the shiny are all carefully explained.  There is also a strong statement for broad participation in the planning: “The plan is grown from the top and the institution’s grass roots, its staff and faculty, so that the implementation of the plan has the greatest possible chance of being successful.” (p. 276)

Two areas of participation often need some additional emphasis.  The reliance on data and technology in higher education today can sometimes blur the fact that these are tools for building relationships with prospective and current students to help them be successful.  To ensure that SEM remains focused on core issues of student fit and student success, two relationship strategies need discussion: faculty participation in driving the process and engagement of the larger campus community as the process unfolds.   

Faculty participation

Unfortunately, many campuses make the mistake of treating SEM planning as an administrative affair: The plan will be developed by staff and presented when it is finished. Faculty are seen as uninterested and tangential to the planning process.  Some institutions still see SEM as more focused on recruitment (in itself a mistake), which (campus administrators think) makes it even less germane for faculty.

This ignores one of the seminal definitions of SEM as “a comprehensive process designed to help an institution achieve and maintain the optimum recruitment, retention, and graduation rates, where ‘optimum’ is defined within the academic context of the institution.” (Dolence, 1993, emphasis added)  Any aspect of Strategic Enrollment Management requires deep connections (read relationships) to academics, including faculty participation and support.

One of the first meetings about SEM planning should be with the executive leadership of Faculty Senate.  These academic opinion shapers need to see the value of SEM, hear what it can do for the institution, and understand how faculty will be involved—whether they embrace the initiative initially or not.  These conversations can be difficult, depending on the faculty culture. A skeptical Faculty Senate chair expressed his skepticism this way, “Well, I suppose every faculty member will now be expected to be in high schools recruiting.”  That remark gave the campus’s enrollment leadership the chance to say, “You know, everyone on campus will have a role in the success of this plan, and yours won’t be taking on new assignments—you’ll be where you’ve always been: in the classroom in front of your students.  The SEM plan will give you new tactics to connect students to resources that will help them meet your standards and be successful.” The chair eventually became one of the champions of the process and the final SEM plan.

SEM planning committees—steering, recruitment, retention—are invariably stronger and more effective with an operational staff leader and a faculty member serving as co-chairs.  Every committee should also have additional faculty representation. This may be more important and natural where retention strategies and tactics are under discussion, but it would be a mistake not to have faculty on a SEM recruitment committee.  Every campus has “friendly folk” in the faculty that relish interacting with prospective students and can bring expertise and experience to SEM planning for recruitment.

Faculty members of SEM planning committees (as well as their operational staff members) should understand that they have a responsibility to go back to their departments and “sow the seeds” of SEM, to let colleagues know what is going on with SEM planning, and encourage further engagement in the process from the wider campus community.

Engagement of the larger campus community

One of the key indicators of a SEM plan’s ultimate success is campus buy-in.  If no one on campus outside the executive suite and enrollment management offices knows about the plan’s development, who outside those areas will champion it and work to implement it when it is unveiled?  Buy-in begins when the SEM planning project starts. As discussed, Faculty participation on planning committees is essential. However, by involving the entire campus—faculty, staff, and students—in the process, the plan acquires early ownership and ongoing appreciation of the goals, strategies, and tactics necessary for its success.

Unfortunately, on too many campuses people know little or nothing about the SEM plan as it develops.  “I hear they’re trying to fix recruitment; somebody needs to.” “I have no idea what they’re doing.” “What’s a SEM plan?” are comments often heard in the Food Court or at faculty meetings.  Some campuses are so focused on goals, strategies, and tactics that they fail to seek input to the shaping of those essential plan elements. Others may have a culture that does not seek broad participation and discussion of new initiatives.  Some are concerned that goals around improving yield, retention, and graduation rates will be trumpeted by the media as a sign the university is in trouble. Whether by benign neglect, culture, or active suppression, SEM planning is kept in the background and away from the light of communication.

In fact, those campuses that want to ensure success for their SEM plans should make engagement of the campus community a first priority in the SEM planning process.  Many campuses rely on the marketing and strategic communication office to assist in developing an engagement plan. Engagement should use multiple channels to reach different campus community audiences: face-to-face, virtual, and print.  The outreach should be comprehensive enough so that no campus community members could credibly claim they knew nothing about the SEM planning process.  Elements to consider include:

  • A kick-off event.  Targeted to faculty and staff (and at least student leaders), this event serves as the introduction of the SEM planning process.  An excellent technique is a Core Concepts of Strategic Enrollment Management presentation given by an outside presenter or campus enrollment management leaders.  Free tip: Food helps drive attendance.

  • A news story.  A feature story in both the campus communication vehicle and the student newspaper would introduce the process, identify planning committee members, lay out the timeline, and announce opportunities for campus input.

  • Email blast.  An announcement of the planning process—preferably coming from the president—to every faculty and staff member would give a planning process overview and links to additional resources.

  • SEM plan web site.  A web site for the SEM planning process is a key element of communication and engagement.  It becomes a repository for all things SEM—the charge from university leadership, timeline, names of committee members, minutes of committee meetings, SEM readings, draft goals, announcements of events for input, posting of survey results, overview of SEM data and environmental scan.  Some campuses also create blogs about the process.

  • Town hall meetings.  This technique is especially helpful when draft SEM goals are being created.  Faculty and staff attending the town halls can break into small groups to discuss specific goals where they have interest.  Feedback on how goals are shaped by the input is then communicated back through the SEM web site and/or emails to attendees.  Free engagement tip: at the end of the town hall, ask one assessment question: Are we on the right track? Participants invariably answer, “Yes,” and they leave having committed support with their “Yes.”

  • Ongoing news stories or email blasts.  These can be regular updates or publicity for SEM plan milestones such as approval of SEM goals, identification of Key Enrollment Indicators, unveiling of the environmental scan, or final SEM strategies.

  • Launch event.  When the SEM plan is finished, it should be presented with appropriate fanfare to the campus community.  Poster sessions could showcase each SEM goal with its strategies and tactics. Goals might be grouped under different topics with appropriate tag lines.  Free buy-in tip: Some kind of bling—pins at least—that people can use to publicize the SEM plan is important.

  • Ongoing updates on implementation of the SEM plan.  At least one campus held a series of workshops during the first year of their SEM plan to talk about implementation issues.

Campus engagement appropriate for campus culture can make the difference between a great SEM plan never effectively implemented and one that is embraced as a living roadmap for the campus’s future.


Bontrager, B. and T. Green (2012).  A Structure for SEM Planning. In B. Bontrager, D. Ingersoll, and R. Ingersoll, Strategic Enrollment Management: Transforming Higher Education.  Washington, DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Dolence, M. (1993). Strategic Enrollment Management: A Primer for Campus Administrators.  Washington, DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

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