Continuous Enrollment Growth – Success Strategies from a Small University:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 134 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. Nathan Long

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Continuous Enrollment Growth – Success Strategies for a Small University - Unlock Your Potential concept - The meeting at the white office table

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 134 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. Nathan Long

Continuous Enrollment Growth – Success Strategies from a Small University


Enrollment growth remains top of mind for most higher education leaders as the number of incoming students at the majority of colleges and universities has been steadily declining ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit two years ago. Although enrollment continues to drop across the board, smaller institutions are especially struggling in this area and have been even before COVID.

But Saybrook University in Pasadena, California, has managed to make enrollment gains in spite of this negative trend by more than doubling its enrollment numbers over the last eight years, from around 450 to over 1,000 students in that time frame. The online-exclusive graduate school even predicts this number will rise to approximately 1,100 by the end of the next fiscal year.

Saybrook’s success stems from leadership effectively utilizing marketing and brand positioning in continuing to update and promote its mission and brand in a way that accurately reflects what alumni, as well as current and prospective students, look for in higher ed. This process involves executing market research, implementing new programs based on these findings, and then marketing these principles and values effectively to prospective students.


Becoming Mission-driven for Continuous Enrollment Growth

Saybrook leadership’s initial process of identifying solutions to address Saybrook’s low enrollment numbers wasn’t simple and required them to adopt a trial-by-error approach that many leaders in higher ed are familiar with. Many presidents have adopted it “throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks” mentality, using pilots and other low risks, says Dr. Nathan Long, President at Saybrook University.


“You have to plan on failing sometimes, but when you find the right mix of solutions that do work, it can be really powerful.”


For Saybrook, success was predicated on becoming mission-driven. Leadership discovered that although a university’s mission comes from within, it should also serve as an accurate reflection of the larger community to stay relevant in today’s world. This requires administrators to perform market research externally to alumni as well as prospective and current students and do so more than once since the community is always changing.


Creating Programs that Reflect the Mission and Target Market Research

To be truly mission-driven, universities should only introduce new programs that are fully mission-adjacent. This might also require leaders to shut down pre-existing programs that don’t fit within the institution’s latest mission. However, creating programs based on an outdated mission will not succeed, either, because they no longer reflect the marketplace. That is why leaders should only introduce new programs that reflect the latest market research to better serve not only the institution but the incoming students as well.


“If your programs aren’t authentically positioned, if they are not authentically engaging with the mission, they might be mission adjacent, but they should not be part of the institution at all.”


Promoting the Institution and People vs. Programs: Branding

While mission-aligned programs that reflect market research are important, an institution must market itself first and foremost. Too many institutions get caught up in programmatic marketing to their detriment.


“We had to market Saybrook first and who we are as an institution.”


This is where marketing research comes into play. Through our market research, Saybrook learned that their students were attending because of our brand – who they were as a humanistic institution. Students wanted an institution with values that aligned with their own.

Saybrook leaders positioned their brand as an institution to focus on the partnership between faculty and students and to help learners live their best lives rather than having faculty tell them how to live. Social justice serves as a major undercurrent to Saybrook’s brand as well by advocating the importance of and how to live better as a society. Now, although originally largely California-centric, Saybrook is not only seeing higher numbers of enrollment in general but from across the country as well, which has greatly boosted the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of its student body.


Promoting the Institution and People vs. Programs: Faculty

One of the keys to Saybrook’s success is how it recruits prospective students. Instead of delegating this critical task to recruiters, Long recalls his own experience of how he was recruited to graduate school – by a faculty member – so Saybrook sends faculty across the country to recruit prospective students. After all, it is the faculty who form strong connections with students during their tenure on campus,


Having Saybrook brought to life by hearing a faculty member articulate how it’s important says it all. I think that really makes a big difference.”


“I’m a firm believer in the way in which I was recruited in graduate school, which was by a faculty forum that went around the country,” says Long. “I’d never seen anything like that before. Each faculty member in the forum talked about why the program was important, what we would learn and how we would develop as learners and as scholars.” He continues: “We could have just read a piece of paper that talked about this, but having it brought to life by hearing a faculty member articulate how it’s important says it all. I think that really makes a big difference.”

Though a practice that administrators should approach for every faculty member, leaders who involve their faculty in the enrollment process should especially focus on financially supporting them through additional training and development. Decision-makers, including presidents, are encouraged to clearly demonstrate to their professors that they care about their programs and that they believe in what they’re trying to accomplish. This will boost their performance and enthusiasm in and out of the classroom, improving enrollment and retention overall.


Leveraging Strategic Partnerships


“While our institution is ultimately responsible for its success or failure, TSC really made all the difference in helping pave the way for us.”


A major key in Saybrook’s success involved the university’s partnership with the TCS Education System, a nonprofit system of colleges that advances student success and community impact through collaboration and the use of shared processes and practices.

TCS provides back-office solutions to higher education institutions, enabling them to focus on what is truly important – the student and student learning outcomes.


Responding to Change Through Market Research and Marketing

Since the marketplace is always changing, Saybrook launches new market research campaigns every four or five years to learn what students and alumni value to help inform their brand. Updating the university mission shouldn’t require a complete overhaul, however, nor should leaders forget who they are. But it’s still important to seek guidance externally because it helps identify the most effective way to present the university to the community and the world.

Marketing these changes should be equally as robust. At Saybrook, leaders invested around 15% of their total budget into their marketing expenditure three or four years ago. Many university leaders might balk at such a high percentage, but it’s a risk worth taking. “It’s a lot of money, no two ways about it,” says Long. “But part of that expenditure was predicated on the idea that we have a story worth telling, that we have an institution worth enrolling in and that students will have great ROI.”

Through targeted or grassroots marketing campaigns, Saybrook faculty, staff, students, and alumni tell their stories in a podcast called Saybrook Insights, which is targeted directly at the prospective student. Although speakers discuss the university, the overall brand experience shines through in each episode. Saybrook also decided to make its podcast more student-centric rather than focusing on its university president. Although presidents should and can be role models, prospective students care more about what their future peers are involved in, and it’s for those reasons that they’ll eventually apply.


“It’s always about the students. It’s about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.


“No one cares about what I do in public,” says Long. “It’s always about the students. It’s about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. That has really informed how I work as a president because they’re why we’re here. And that’s why we’re inspired day in and day out to serve them.”


Moving forward: Long-term Sustainable Growth

As Saybrook concludes the rest of its latest strategic plan, institutional leaders will put a renewed focus on long-term sustainability. This includes:

  • Focusing on core programs and expanding its reach to ensure Saybrook continues to function 50 to 100 years in the future.
  • Making mental health a primary concern on campus.
  • Leading and supporting other institutions and organizations that want to help heal the country.


Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Have a realistic vision in the orientation to strategic marketing. For example, view incremental improvements as a win. A vision is important, but be realistic.
  • Hone in on results that are simple and clear so the whole team can get behind them. People tend to get more excited when goals are identified, especially when they’re surpassed.
  • Don’t wait to seek help until it’s too late. This is especially the case for smaller institutions. Find people who are willing to help. This help also shouldn’t be focused on just the institution. It should be focused primarily on the students.



About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a Higher Education Consultant, CEO of The Change Leader Consulting Firm, and an international leader in transformational change for Higher Education.

About the Guest

Links to Articles, Apps, or Websites Mentioned During the Interview

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