A Higher Ed Industry that Works in the Shadows

Blog Post
May 18, 2021

This blog post is the second in a periodic series aimed at lifting the veil on the enrollment management industry. The introductory post can be found here.

Over the last several decades, an extremely lucrative industry has emerged that has transformed admissions and financial aid practices at both public and private four-year colleges and universities. Under the sway of the enrollment management industry — private consultants who develop strategies for student recruiting and college officials who put those strategies into place — many colleges are engaged in an arms race for the students they most desire: the “best and brightest” and the wealthiest. As a result of this fevered competition, many selective colleges are devoting a smaller share of institutional aid dollars and making fewer seats available to students from less privileged backgrounds than they otherwise could.

Despite the power and influence of this industry, few people outside of academe (and even many within it) are aware of it or know what it does. As a result, the enrollment management industry has received little attention in federal and state higher education policy discussions despite the pivotal role it has played in making college less accessible.

Case in point: At a recent hearing on the nomination of James Kvaal to be the Biden administration’s Under Secretary of Education, members of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee brought up issues surrounding college access and affordability, equity, and student indebtedness. However, the words “enrollment management” were never uttered, nor were there any mentions of “financial aid leveraging," “tuition discounting,” or even the “merit aid” arms race. Observers of the hearing can be forgiven if they have never heard of private enrollment management companies like EAB and Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL) that have grown prosperous by aggressively marketing admissions and financial aid strategies and algorithms to colleges to help them pursue the most desirable prospective students (the right students, as RNL suggestively states in its marketing materials), often at the expense of less privileged ones.

The enrollment management industry has long worked in the shadows — so much so that federal and state higher education policy discussions about college access and affordability have focused almost exclusively on changing the behaviors of students rather than colleges. Education journalist Paul Tough wrote about his phenomenon in his 2019 book The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks You:

Over the last two decades, two distinct conversations about college admissions and class have been taking place in the United States. The first one has been conducted in public, at College Board summits and White House conferences and meetings of philanthropists and nonprofit leaders…The premise of this conversation is that the problem of inequity in higher education is mostly a demand-side problem: Poor kids are making regrettable miscalculations as they apply to college. They are “betraying themselves.” Selective colleges would love to admit more low-income students – if only they could find enough highly qualified ones who could meet their academic standards.
The second conversation is the one going on in the exhibit hall at the NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) conference, among the enrollment professions who labor behind the scenes in the admissions-industrial complex. This conversation, held more often in private, starts from the premise that the biggest barriers to opportunity for low-income students in higher education are on the supply side – in the universities themselves, and specifically in the admissions office. Enrollment managers know there is no great shortage of deserving low-income students applying to good colleges; they know this because they regularly reject them.

In a recent paper, Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote that the policymakers’ lack of understanding of enrollment management has left them flailing in their efforts to level the playing field for low-income students and students of color:

Most college access policies focus on changing student behavior because policymakers typically know little about university enrollment priorities and therefore treat universities as passive recipients of applications. In reality, universities are very purposeful about which students they enroll and spend substantial resources identifying and pursuing desired prospects.

According to Jaquette, well-intentioned efforts to encourage more low-income students to enroll in selective colleges are doomed to fail unless the colleges actually want them. “If university enrollment priorities are biased, then improving student achievement and equipping students with better information alone will not overcome access inequality," he wrote in the paper, which was published by the non-profit organization Third Way.

Federal policymakers have not only been blind to the enrollment management industry’s role in transforming college admissions but also to how it has fundamentally changed colleges’ financial aid practices in ways that undermine the federal student aid programs.

The federal government annually spends nearly $30 billion on the Pell Grant program, which seeks to remove the financial barriers that prevent low-income students from enrolling in and completing college. But instead of complementing the government’s efforts, many colleges are now engaged in“financial aid leveraging,” an enrollment management practice in which they try to determine the precise price points they need to meet to enroll different groups of students, without spending a dollar more of their own money than is needed. The best financial aid packages go to the high-achieving students they want the most and those who can help boost the institutions’ bottom line. As a result, Pell Grant recipients are often left with large funding gaps that could stymie their educational progress. Instead of removing barriers, these schools are adding hurdles that could make it more difficult for financially needy students to go to college and earn a degree.

Despite the federal government’s huge investment in the federal student aid programs, neither U.S. Department of Education officials nor federal lawmakers have taken a serious look at how colleges’ institutional aid policies and practices are undermining those programs. Not a single Congressional hearing has focused on enrollment management, financial aid leveraging, or the outsized role that private firms are having on the admissions and financial aid practices of both public and private colleges and universities.

As Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrats who leads the Senate HELP Committee, said at Kvaal’s nomination hearing, higher education is at “a crisis point.” But policymakers are not going to be able to head off this crisis unless they have a better idea of what the real problems and who is responsible for them.

Stephen Burd is editing a forthcoming book with Harvard Education Press on the enrollment management industry.

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