New Book Aims to Bring the Enrollment Management Industry Out of the Shadows

The edited volume shows how the powerful and lucrative industry is limiting social mobility in American Higher Education
Blog Post
May 14, 2024

This blog post has been adapted from the introduction and conclusion of the book Lifting the Veil on Enrollment Management.

Today Harvard Education Press is publishing a book I edited entitled Lifting the Veil on Enrollment Management: How a Powerful Industry is Limiting Social Mobility in American Higher Education. The book focuses on the multibillion-dollar enrollment management industry, which markets admissions and financial aid strategies and algorithms to colleges to improve their revenue and rankings. Remarkably, very few people know about this industry despite the crucial role it has played in transforming how both public and private four-year colleges recruit students and award financial aid, often at the expense of low-income students and many students of color.

Those who have heard of enrollment management typically think of the college officials who run enrollment management offices at their institutions. These officials often complain that they are portrayed as “the evil ones” for limiting racial and socioeconomic diversity on their campuses. The longtime higher education journalist Eric Hoover echoed those concerns in a 2016 Chronicle of Higher Education article “The Enrollment Manager as Bogeyman”:

It’s also worth remembering that though enrollment managers are prominent players with great sway on many campuses, they have bosses, too. They take orders from presidents, answer to trustees, and explain themselves to faculty members. All of these people have great expectations, for more and better applicants, more super-duper young scholars who can fill all the traditional majors and that brand-new one too.

The critiques in Lifting the Veil on Enrollment Management are not directed at any individual campus enrollment manager. It’s certainly true that many people involved in college admissions and financial aid on college campuses are well motivated and genuinely would like to make their campuses more socioeconomically and racially diverse. And it is also true that these officials take their marching orders from those who sign off on their paychecks.

But it is also worth remembering, as Peter Schmidt writes in Chapter 7, that “College leaders, boards, and even professors at selective colleges operate in a higher-education environment that has been steep in an enrollment management mindset for decades where an institution’s success is measured by how well it is ranked by U.S. News & World Report.” The truth is that the companies that make up this industry, such as EAB and Ruffalo Noel Levitz, have played a pivotal role in helping define the goals that colleges pursue and providing the strategies to achieve them. These companies’ very existence depends on convincing campus enrollment managers, college presidents, and the institutional boards that the schools’ fortunes and even survival depend on using their products, which often disadvantage low- and even middle-class students.

Private colleges first adopted enrollment management policies and practices in the late 1970s and 1980s. In the previous three decades, these colleges had opened their doors wider to low-income students and students of color than ever before. Selective private college leaders had pledged to admit students regardless of financial need and to fully meet the need of students whose families could not afford to send them to college without the help. Meanwhile, rapidly growing public universities kept their prices low enough that they were generally accessible for students, regardless of family income.

But those had been more prosperous times. With the economy in turmoil and the college-age population plummeting, many private colleges were struggling, and their commitment to meeting student need was wavering. In the 1980s, the newly elected Reagan administration emphasized the private returns of higher education over public ones as it pushed Congress to slash student aid spending. And U.S. News began ranking colleges, at first based solely on the reputational surveys that college presidents filled out, and, by the end of the decade, a simple set of metrics that could be easily gamed.

All these forces led to the emergence of an enrollment management industry that pushed colleges to operate more like businesses, focused on building their brands and bottom lines. Firms such as Maguire Associates, Noel-Levitz, Royall & Co., and RuffaloCODY entered the market, promising to help colleges become more competitive in recruiting the students that they wanted the most. As Neil Swidey wrote in the book’s first chapter, “Rein and Ruin: The Rise of Enrollment Management and the U.S. News College Rankings,” U.S. News provided a playbook that enrollment management firms could help colleges execute to rise up the rankings and gain greater prestige. “Instead of passively accepting their fate, these colleges—with the right guidance from their consultants and their econometric modeling, data analysis, and behavioral science—could actively shape their futures,” wrote Swidey. “After all, there was no quicker way to increase a college’s perceived prestige than to move up the rankings.”

To accomplish these goals, the enrollment management companies encouraged colleges to break down the firewalls that had been built between the institutions’ admissions and financial aid offices and to use non-need-based aid, which they called “merit aid,” to compete for high-quality and more-affluent students. And once some private colleges started using their financial aid competitively, it became difficult for others to resist for fear of being put at a competitive disadvantage.

Initially private colleges tried to outbid their competitors by providing larger and larger merit-based scholarships. But over the years, they have adopted far more sophisticated strategies. Working with consulting firms, many engage in financial aid leveraging, an enrollment management practice in which they determine the precise points they need to enroll different groups of students without spending dollar more than is needed. The biggest tuition discounts go to the highest-achieving students they have admitted and to the wealthiest students to help them boost their rankings and revenue. Low-income students are often left with large funding gaps that could stymie their educational progress or force them and their families to take on substantial debt loads. Instead of removing barriers, these colleges are adding hurdles, making it more difficult for these students to go to college and earn a degree.

All of this would be bad enough if it were limited to private colleges. However, in the face of state disinvestment and the prospect of rising up the rankings, many public universities have embraced the enrollment management strategies of their private college counterparts. At the urging of consultants, these once-low-cost universities, which for decades served a gateway to the middle class, are increasingly employing their aid to lure affluent out-of-state students with good grades and standardized test scores to their campuses. Public universities now spend billions of dollars annually on non-need-based aid, and many require low-income students and their families to take on heavy debt burdens to attend.

Higher education is at a crisis point. But policy makers are not going to be able head off this crisis unless they have a better idea of what the real problems are and who is responsible for them. Written by higher-education journalists, researchers, a former college president, and former enrollment managers, this book aims to provide answers to those questions by lifting the veil on the enrollment management industry. The book provides a history of how the industry came to be, identifies the major players, and shows how it has fundamentally changed the way that colleges recruit students and award financial aid, while operating mostly out of public view. The volume also offers a wide range of policy solutions that aim to rein in the industry and change the incentive structure in higher education so that colleges once again will serve as engines of opportunity rather than as perpetuators of inequality.

The book is a good start in bringing the enrollment management industry out of the shadows. But much more work needs to be done by journalists, researchers, and policy makers to understand how enrollment management and its many firms operate. For progress to occur, and for colleges to be refocused away from their incessant drive for greater revenues and prestige, policy makers are going to need to curb the industry’s influence, or at least repurpose it, and put representative government rather than private, for-profit consulting companies back in the driver’s seat in setting the incentives by which our four-year colleges operate.

On Thursday, New America will help launch the book with a public event that will run from 10 am to noon. Register here to attend in-person or online: