“A time machine.”

“A crystal ball.”

“A vaccine…now.”

If you were to gather a group of chief enrollment officers from around the country and grant them each one wish they can make on behalf of their institutions…well, let’s just say those wishes reflect this strange moment in which we all find ourselves.

Earlier this month, in my first engagement as RHB’s inaugural Dan Saracino Chair of Enrollment Management, I hosted a series of small group conversations among enrollment VPs, deans, and directors from all over the country, thanks to the geography-bending capability of Zoom. They represented institutions ranging from 1,000 to more than 10,000 students and included those you might describe as “class shapers” as well as “class builders.”

These meetings—Group Therapy Roundtables, as one of the attendees called them (the name stuck)—were an opportunity for senior leaders to discuss openly and honestly with each other how they were navigating these increasingly turbulent enrollment seas.

Remember back in The Before Times when we were worried about the 2020 yield season after key components of NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices were rendered unenforceable by the U.S. Department of Justice?

(Neither do I.)

In a normal cycle, that change alone would have been enough to threaten an already fragile higher ed ecosystem.

But, as we all know by now, 2020 had other ideas.

Back in May, when I first started scheduling the meetings, we were well into our third month of adjusting (or attempting to adjust) to the pandemic. But when we finally gathered for our meetings in June, we had all just witnessed the killing of George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and… and…), and we were just beginning to see the cultural movement that erupted afterward—a movement that many of us, along with our colleagues and students, have come out of quarantine to support.

It. Is. A. Lot.

And yet, in each of these conversations I was reminded so clearly of one of the beautiful things about this profession: that enrollment professionals whose institutions are often in direct competition with each other can be so collegial and supportive with each other. Against the backdrop of an environment that prompted one leader to observe, “We are getting by day by day. Hour by hour sometimes,” I saw people who, despite challenges none of us could have foreseen, were countering uncertainty with hope, anxiety with care, loss with opportunity.

Unusual pairings. But these are unusual times.

Over the course of this and subsequent articles, I will share highlights and observations about these conversations with you.

I will also invite you to join the conversation yourself, if you are so moved.

Let’s go back to the wishes I mentioned at the beginning.

In each of the group conversations, I made it a point to ask my colleagues, “If you had three wishes you could spend on behalf of your institution, what would you wish for?”

In nearly every case, instead of three wishes, each offered one. In fact, after the first two meetings, I dialed the wish-granting down to one.

(Note to self: Even if you know many enrollment leaders are facing budget cuts due to revenue strains, don’t let a deficit mindset short-circuit the daydreaming process. Even the wildest idea has a kernel of truth worth exploring.)

What were the wishes?

Indeed, crystal balls and time travel dominated the wish list. One VP took the time travel theme a step further:

“I know that how we do business is never going to go back to the way it was. I want to know what it’s going to be like two years from now so I can come back to now and plan for it.”

Others spoke of more “practical” things that looked like pretty close relatives to the more “magical” things: the ability for all non-US students to get the visas they need to come to the States; better technology and more reliable data to track and predict how students will behave; a tool that helps colleges more deeply understand the financial need of a student, rather than the more blunt instrument of a financial aid matrix.

One, in a gesture of great magnanimity, extended his wish beyond his own institution, and wished that all colleges could be need-blind and meet the full need of every student.

Against all of these wishes stand questions in relief:

In a time of uncertainty—especially in a time where there is no history for a historically-based model to draw from—how can we gain enough insight into student behavior that we can either rest easier or know where to most effectively and efficiently deploy our limited resources?

How has our business changed…and how will it change in the future? What opportunities may be hidden from view right now?

How can admission and awarding policies and practices ensure socioeconomically and racially equitable higher education opportunities for students. And how can colleges do this while ensuring they generate the revenue they need to provide that education?

What silver linings are hiding in these dark clouds?

Wishes can lead to good questions.

And good questions can lead to real, even surprising solutions.

Speaking of wishes…

How about you—what do you wish for on behalf of your institution?

Whether it’s one wish or three wishes, I invite you to join the conversation and share your wish here.*

And if you, too would like to participate in one of our Group Therapy Roundtables, please let me know by raising your hand here.

Stay tuned for the next article inspired by Group Therapy Roundtables:

For Good. The pandemic forced our institutions to change in an instant, and in the midst of yield season, it required us to build new recruitment plans on the fly. Have we been changed for good? (Posed with proper citation and apologies to the musical Wicked.)

Let us know your wish
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Ken Anselment

Ken is the Vice President for Enrollment Management at RHB.