“It’s the Curriculum Stupid”: Part 1


This is the first post in the series on Academic Strategic Enrollment Management.

One of the great quotes in contemporary American politics:

“It’s the Economy Stupid”
– James Carville (circa 1992 serving as chief campaign strategist) during the first Clinton campaign for President.

I often think back to that campaign and the impact those few words had on the outcome of the election. It brings to mind a nagging malaise among a number of client institutions who wish to energize their recruitment and retention success. An initial strategic enrollment management engagement often centers around any number of descriptive observations by client constituents: not enough students, too many students, too many here not enough there, students not the academic quality we want, the list continues with various emphasis and causal inference. Inevitably someone blames the economy, the web site, the enrollment management system, or admissions, or the president, or marketing. While any and all of these may be contributing to a problem the real heart of any educational, organizational success is the curriculum.

Before a hailstorm of negative reactions explodes in social media from anyone believing I am faculty bashing here, nothing can be further from the truth. I am well aware of hypersensitivity over control of curriculum by academic communities. I am painfully aware that nonacademics walk on eggs around the issue of the curriculum. An academic culture that lacks open, constructive dialog is not healthy for enrollment, or the curriculum or the institution’s future. I have conducted postmortems on more than 100 institutions who either closed or were forced into a merger because they drove themselves to financial inviability. Volatility and obstinacy were common characteristics among campus constituents found within the documents, and written interchanges reviewed in the postmortems. By the way, another common characteristic among the closed/merged postmortems was the board of trustees failing their fiduciary responsibility, is examined in a future series.

Academic Foundations of Strategic Enrollment Management

So where do we begin discussing the foundations of Academic Strategic Enrollment Management? Carvilleian logic guides us to “It’s the Curriculum Stupid,” and we would respond appropriately and say well of course it is, at least in an ideal world. We might follow with the question, “But what is it about the curriculum and the academic enterprise that frames the principles and practices of Strategic Enrollment Management?”

Academic Strategic Enrollment Management Principle 1: Primacy

Curriculum drives enrollment, enrollment drives revenue, revenues drive everything else.
– Michael G. Dolence

The curriculum drives enrollment, enrollment drives revenue, revenue drives everything else.

This statement, I have used for years, perfectly defines the reality of the relationship between the academic and enrollment management functions facing institutions today. Why does enrollment exist at all, because learners seek credentials via curriculum. That said, the implications are very serious for both the academic community and the enrollment management community. Let’s examine some of those implications.

Academic Strategic Enrollment Management Principle 2: Alignment

Curriculum must achieve a critical level of alignment with enrollment markets in order to secure a healthy recruitment and retention yield. Enrollments are driven by forces inherent in the learning marketplace. The forces such as affordability, real and perceived value, convenience, performance, placement after graduation, and academic reputation have significant influence in the pre-search phase of college search. The very dramatic paradigm shift to a global digital learning environment (covered in a parallel blog series “Prototype Strategic Plan”) portends disruptive future changes in the global learning marketplace.

There are deep academic issues that can be addressed immediately to strengthen enrollment management success. The following illustrative issues:

Commoditization of the Undergraduate Program

Over the past four decades there has been a perception developing among families looking for higher education opportunities for their children driven by marketing strategies used across higher education. Contributing vernacular includes statements like:
“Doesn’t matter where you get your undergraduate degree it is the graduate credential that matters”
“First two years are the same everywhere so pick the cheapest and save your dollars for a top notch (expensive) school to finish your undergraduate education.”
“Go where you get the biggest discount, best deal, most money…” there are hundred ways this is perpetuated.
I won’t belabor the point here but as these messages reverberate around families, advisers, and influencers they become ‘common knowledge’ even when untrue and that hurts the value equation of all of higher education.

A move from commoditization to differentiation strengthens the academic strategic enrollment management position.

Curriculum Cloning and À La Carte Menu Program Development

Academic management practices in higher education have fostered a practice of curriculum as a kit of parts. Find a trending program name, examine the course titles, select a similar set from your master course list, check them against academic policy, and launch. Such an approach is not prototyping a curriculum but rather cloning. It rapidly floods the market with seemingly equal curriculum diluting the market share and driving the quality of all to the level of a commodity.

Using outcomes, skills, and value based design to frame curriculum rather than selecting from a list of existing courses then writing marketing messages to link the course to the value equation strengthens the academic enrollment portfolio.

The Business of Higher Education versus Higher Education as a Business

Even though higher education is not a business in the classic sense the business of higher education has never been more important. Academic leaders and enrollment managers must deeply understand the principles of financially sustainable curriculum and enrollment management.

The Value Equation

It is paradoxical that we use individuals earning potential with a college degree to place value and therefore a claim on the investments made by the public and learners and then vilify the call to articulate the linkage between programs and economic opportunity for graduates. It makes no sense to policy makers, learners and their families or for the most part most professionals in higher education. We must make it clear that the liberal arts are also the earning arts playing an integral part in the development of a lifetime employability strategy.

Academic Strategic Enrollment Management opens a new pathway to institutional and curricular revitalization. It requires a new level of interaction, analysis, and openness. It requires a willingness to systematically examine, recalibrate and refine the foundations of curriculum and enrollment management and set them on a strategic course to the future. The very important lesson learned from examining the experience of closed and merged institutions is:

“The learning marketplace is a harsh teacher.”

Curriculum Architecture: Part 2

Academic SEM Series

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