6 min read

My Short List of Enrollment Management’s Rising Superstars



It’s the time of year when enrollment leadership moves are made on campuses across the country. I’m not sure if it’s the May 1 deposit deadline, or if it’s that summer is just around the corner; but this is when people start to move to new roles and start all over. It’s probably largely because it’s the beginning of a new cycle, and most know the best time to start with a new person to quarterback the chief enrollment officer position is before the season begins.

This is also the time of year when enrollmentFUEL gets a lot of calls asking us who out there is really good. And who we think would be a good fit on a campus as the next Chief Enrollment Officer.

We’ve recently decided to dedicate a space on our website to help our clients and friends advertise career opportunities on their campuses. All of these things together moved my colleague, Jacqui Elliott, to suggest we give some thought to who the best of the best are in the world of enrollment management. She even encouraged me to prepare a short list of my top 5 rising superstars in the field.

So, I set out to create a list of people I’m running into that do special things and have caught our eye. Some are on the campuses of our clients. Many, I would like to be our clients—because I could learn some great things from them. (Good companies want to get great clients on the bus!)

As I’ve shared recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time visiting colleges and universities all over the U.S. I love driving across our great country and meeting new people who are doing inspirational things. So, it wasn’t hard for me to put together a list to have on standby for the next call we received from an inquiring college president.

Jacqui challenged me to make a list of five. I had no problem getting to 10 names, very quickly. I’m impressed with my list; it’s a dream team of sorts. It includes some great people. You may even be on this list.

But, here’s my dilemma. I want to share the list—but I can’t. Many are superstars on the campus of some of our best clients. And, while I’m sure their bosses want what’s best for them, there are just too many phone calls I’d have to take explaining why I was telling the world about their admissions operations person and how she is going be the next great Vice President of Enrollment at some other school one day.

Instead, I decided to look at the list and come up with the common characteristics I see. I’m going to make some observations of the list that I think you might find helpful. Some are generalizations. Most people on the list have many of the attributes that I’m going to explain below.

So, here goes…

  1. Almost none are from brand schools. It’s easy to be a good enrollment leader when you are able to stand behind the strength of your brand. I’ve worked with some Ivy League clients—mostly what we term “potted Ivys,” and while there are some good people there, they often aren’t the best enrollment leaders or managers.Instead, the best enrollment stars are those who have to get more creative because they are in the middle of Nebraska. Sorry Nebraska! Or they are in the middle of unpopulated areas of our country. Or they have no money. Or they have facilities that are less than impressive. Or they are from a school with very little name recognition.I’m impressed every week by how these areas are where some of the best ideas incubate. The best enrollment leaders are often like some of best players being drafted into the NFL right now. (Day two of NFL draft is being talked about in the background as I type this blog.) Some of the people being drafted could be the next Tony Romo or Jerry Rice. And can you tell me where they went to school?
  2. Most played team sports. I’m amazed at how many former college baseball, basketball, field hockey, and soccer players are in the world of enrollment management. Most played sports in college, or they played a team sport in high school. They were the captain, point guard, quarterback, or the team leader. These rising stars are simply very competitive in everything, even if it’s checkers…or something like saying they’ve had the most campus visits on campus in the last 25 years.They want to win, and they usually have a lot of experience rallying a team to peak in the playoffs to give that extra needed effort to win championships. They usually have great stories, like one great enrollment leader I know who recognized that the locker room numbers corresponded with most player’s jerseys number. Not yet receiving a number, he realized that since his locker number was above 100, the team probably had little intention of allowing him to be on the field on Saturdays. He decided to take the message and find other interests where he could be the very best.
  3. They were mentored by great enrollment leaders. In his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell called it the Law of Legacy. Many of the best enrollment leaders can be traced back to the great enrollment leaders who developed them. There are hardly any self-made people in enrollment management. Most had a great mentor who taught them things you can’t learn in the classroom. Today’s great enrollment leaders have left a legacy that will outlive them. When I’m talking to successful enrollment leaders at many schools, they share…”I remember when I was taught these essentials as a student ambassador leading campus tours.”
  4. They had unique experiences. Many worked outside of higher education for large portions of their careers, or had neat experiences growing up that have shaped them into who they are today. Sometimes, that meant they spent a large amount of time in the formative years on a shrimp boat or maybe even after earning the position of tractor driver after spending time on every seat of the tobacco harvester.
  5. Gritty. Their grit outweighs their education. No one on my list has a Ph.D. One person has an Ed. D. Most don’t yet have a graduate degree. I know some will eventually earn them because of their tenacity to get it done. But, all have gumption and other intangibles that are much more important than their education.
  6. They are great cheerleaders! They love cheering people on and are purposeful at helping their team to self-actualize—the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They generally are very positive people who look at the glass as half full. Some of these rising stars are even what I call “inversely paranoid.” They enter into many days knowing that, out of nowhere, something great is probably going to happen to them today.Most of these leaders are fun people to be around. I’ve seen a high correlation between jerks and those who generally do not last long in their enrollment leadership job. My wife is a former researcher, and she often reminds me that correlation does not imply causation. I simply answer with a grin that according to my sampling—it does! Mean people are usually poor leaders, and enrollment management is largely about leading a team with a positive vision to victory.I’ve hardly seen a successful enrollment leader who complained a lot about their situation or made excuses.
  7. Most are good planners. They develop a plan and they stick to the plan. I started working with a new enrollment VP this year who very quickly let me read his 3, 5, and 10 year plan for tackling new markets in new geographies. I was very impressed. We referred back to the documents often to ensure we were still sticking to the plan. It beats winging it in real time.What most impresses me with this kind of enrollment leader is that they are neither a micro-manager, nor a complete laissez-faire leader. I see a lot of enrollment leaders who have the budget to just make Student Search go away entirely by completely outsourcing it. They outsource the name purchase strategy, the Student Search strategy, the follow up—the everything. They simply aren’t engaged in the very fuel of enrollment management—the recruiting effort. The best enrollment leaders are those who work closely with vendor partners to develop a plan. They work the plan, complete milestones along the way, measure against their plan, and make adjustments when necessary.

And finally, if you really want to know who’s on my short list—just send me a note, or give me a call. We’d even love to help you find your next enrollment superstar if you’re looking for someone who we’ve noticed along the way. I’m so excited about the people that I’ve not yet met who are going to be on my future lists. There are some smart people on the horizon. They are going to be the stars of the future and be on my next short list of rising enrollment superstars. They are going to fuel some amazing new classes for some schools that really need them.