Back to the basics.


I was in an Apple store not too long ago in Nashville, Tennessee, with my wife. We were purchasing an Apple Watch for myself; this was my anniversary/Father’s Day gift – my wife is really kind as she knows how I “geek out” about technology.

While we awaited my iPhone to update software so that I could sync the Apple Watch to the iPhone, we struck up a conversation with a younger guy who worked at the Apple Store as a “Genius.” This update took forever, so we were able to have a long conversation with this individual.

This “Genius” had recently graduated from a college in Boston where he studied music business – he also was a musician. He moved to Nashville seeking to put his skills and education to use by entering into the music industry. Specifically, he wanted to pursue a career in the business side of the music industry.

I will not bore you with many of the details of this conversation, but our conversation soon turned to him explaining how he discovered, through experience, that the music industry was not as glamorous as he would have hoped. Essentially, he felt that “finding a break” could take too long or never happen at all. Ultimately, this was a risk he was unwilling to take.

He explained that working in the Apple Store was a way to pay the bills while he transitioned into a new career path. At this point, he had just been hired onto a business start-up that has developed a phone app that allows users to “drop” themselves into their favorite music videos via mobile phone. In this new role, he manages social media platforms and serves as a social media data analyst for this new business start-up.

This conversation led he and I to share ideas and the opportunity for me to share my experience since I do similar work at the university that I am currently employed. My wife then exited the conversation because, in her words, “it got boring.”

I explained that on a broader scale, I recruited students to the university and used a variety of marketing strategies to tell the story of the university and convey important information to prospective students. He was intrigued by my work.

I then proceeded to explain that such work has become important in the field of higher education due to the increased competition for enrollment among institutions of higher education. The idea of competition among colleges and universities, in this regard, seemed to confound him. His response was: Who do colleges have to compete with? This was a very honest and simple question, but it was also profound.

For the sake of brevity, I gave him a terse and specific answer about the current climate of higher education and how student enrollment has become so vital for colleges and universities (I could have also explained that competition in higher education is not just about student enrollment, it is also about faculty, research, and resources).

Once the iPhone updated and the Apple Watch synced, I concluded the conversation and we went on our separate ways. A month later, after having plenty of time to digest the question from the “Genius” at the Apple Store, I came to better answer to his question.

Yes, in terms of student enrollment our leadership at institutions should be cognizant of the practices and promises of other institutions and how that may impact student enrollment at their own institution;  but, I think the appropriate answer to his question should have been ourselves.

Institutions are complex. That complexity is comprised of many stakeholders, state/federal policies, and resources. At the core of each institution’s mission should be the goal of developing of each student into thoughtful and productive citizens so that our local and global societies are better off. Therefore, each institution should strive to mobilize each stakeholder and utilize all resources within the confines of state/federal policies to support students to our best ability and achieve such a mission.

With that in mind, competition between institutions does not really matter since all institutions are fundamentally striving to achieve the same outcome for students. The only competition that should exist is internally; did your institution serve students to it’s best ability this year as compared to last year? In the end, if an institution is surpassing itself in terms of serving students year after year, the student enrollment piece will most likely solve itself.

But, to do that, the stakeholders of an institution have to act in unity moving towards the same goal. And, most importantly, stakeholders of an institution must listen to the needs of our students to help guide and direct resources, initiatives, and support. Of course, this is where the difficulties lie due to the complexity of colleges and universities.

Student enrollment will continue to be a linchpin for colleges and universities across our nation. However, solving the student enrollment challenges at each college and university might best be solved by simply “getting back to the basics.”

So, what does “getting back to the basics” looks like? Simply put, it is revisiting the mission of the institution and determining (through data collection) where, when, and how the mission is not being achieved and who is or should be involved. From there, a team may then begin the process of constructing the mechanisms, guided by data, to assuage the challenges (planning, measuring, assessment, and accountability).

This is all easier said than done; but, it is not so complex that it cannot be accomplished. Through thoughtful examination of practices and procedures in terms of achieving the institution’s mission, a team can begin getting to the root of the challenges. Thereby, helping the institution position itself to best serve students which will most likely have a positive impact on student enrollment.

I have heard before that, “You should examine yourself daily. If you find faults, you should correct them. When you find none, you should try even harder.” This is particularly applicable in the field of higher education; especially in the current climate. By doing this within the parameters of an institution’s mission, our institutions of higher education might find themselves doing a better job of serving students, and thus, keeping up with the competition – themselves.

by: John Roberts


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