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How to Manage Admissions Office Staffing Challenges

Episode 122

October 4, 2022 34 minutes


University of Rochester Dean of Admissions, Robert Alexander, joins EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer to discuss the impact of staffing challenges on admissions teams. Madeleine and Rob point out the dangers to institutions that ignore staff demands for greater flexibility.

They also share ways to balance upward pressure on compensation with the need to focus on the core functions your teams have the capacity to execute.


0:00:00.3 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we focus on a problem comment to virtually every institution and the industry sector, the staffing crisis. Nowhere is the problem more acute and potentially more serious than among admissions teams that produce the tuition and associated revenue that provides the very lifeblood of your institution. Our guest today share strategies for keeping your recruiting operation humming, even when you’re short-staffed. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:48.3 Madeleine Rhyneer: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Madeline Rhyneer and I am EABs Vice President of Consulting Services and Dean of Enrollment Management. And today I’m joined by my great friend and colleague, Rob Alexander, who is Dean of Admissions, Financial Aid and Enrollment Management at the University of Rochester. Welcome back to the program, Rob.

0:01:07.7 Rob Alexander: Thank you Madeline. It’s great to be back.

0:01:12.2 MR: I’m so excited to have you here, because to our listeners, you may have heard there’s a staffing crisis in America and it’s certainly impacting enrollment shops and universities at large. We invited Rob onto the podcast today to talk about a challenge that’s endemic to higher education and now nearly every other industry. And that is how to manage those staffing shortages clearly within the admission office. Some of those top stories that we’ve heard across EAB are things like a team that was so short on staff that campus visit requests had to be put on hold and they put 200 students on a wait list. The number of applications per open admission position is down 80%, staff departures increased the number of admitted students per counselor from 500 to 750 during yield season at one place that VP for enrollment management, the poor soul was the sole remaining admission staff on the team when the entire staff departed.

0:02:06.9 MR: And at one place, two staff with more than eight years of experience, so a lot of institutional knowledge left campus during the same month. So there are a lot of multiple factors at play, I think. Remote work has certainly created a national marketplace for labor, there’s no doubt about that. The number of working age people in the United States is shrinking as the population ages. Employees certainly developed a taste for flexible work during the pandemic, and as we all know, higher ed often lags private industry in compensation and perhaps in some flexibility of work. So there’s a lot going on. Is it too much work? Is it too few staff? Is it inefficient use of existing staff or is it some combination of all of these? What is it that you as enrollment leaders can do to address workload, flexible work compensation, build a strong team environment and optimize your org structure?

0:03:00.0 MR: These are the questions that I’m gonna be asking Rob to dig into with us today on this episode. So Rob, let’s start out. Often we think about the level of work in admission shops. You heard that number all of a sudden that you went from 500 to 750 admits to try and yield. So it’s easy to say cut staff workload, but I’m thinking that’s a lot harder to achieve in reality ’cause in some ways, the work is the work and it needs to be done. So what approaches have you found most effective to streamline workload and to get team buy in?

0:03:34.7 RA: That is the critical question, isn’t it? I think people need to know how much you care about them and that you are listening and that that can really be the first thing is just have you asked your team? Have you taken maybe some time during the summer or as this new enrollment cycle begins to ask them, What are the things that you enjoy most and what are the things you don’t? And could that lead to re-prioritizing, and sort of reassigning some staff members? And also what’s the work that you’re doing that you either can see with data or that you just feel is most impactful? And are there things that we’ve been doing that we just shouldn’t do? I tend to be the idea guy, and I think I’ve built enough trust with my teams that at some point, they usually have to slow me down and say, “Wait, stop, this is gonna be too much. We won’t be able to do any of this at a level of excellence that we want if we try to do all of this.” So I think it’s a real dialogue between the institutional leaders and strategists and then those folks who are really gonna be able to successfully implement all of those strategies or not.

0:04:50.7 MR: Rob, I know you took your position at the University of Rochester during the pandemic, and there are certainly other enrollment leaders where the same thing has occurred. Could you share some of your insider tips about how you actually built team cohesion and glue and built that level of trust you just were mentioning in an environment where you actually couldn’t sit down with people over a cup of coffee and talk about what were their drivers in their work?

0:05:16.0 RA: Well, I think it was a slow process and it’s still a work in progress. The most important thing to me was understanding where they needed and wanted help and where they didn’t, where should I leave well enough alone? And just asking that question, I think established a level of trust. And the first time that you get that feedback from a team member really showing that you’ve listened to it, that you’ve considered that idea. And even if it’s not the direction you end up going, responding back to that person and if you can, telling them a little bit more about why, because otherwise, if you just shut it down, you’re never gonna get that opportunity again to get that feedback. And it’s gonna just create a culture that is not highly communicative and doesn’t build that trust.

0:06:07.9 RA: So that’s the starting point. I also say that I inherited an incredibly strong team and a team that was in some ways, well prepared for some of the staffing challenges that we faced and the remote work because we already had a significant number of regional team members who were highly experienced professionals, so we were used to working asynchronously. Our international folks were really experienced in working in student recruitment through Zoom, and they were able to teach the rest of us best practices. And on the Financial Aid side, where there’s also been really significant staffing impact nationwide, we’ve seen real stability. I think because of great leadership on that team and because of the ability to allow them to continue a high level of flexibility and remote work as long as they continue to show great data in terms of customer satisfaction. Working on Zoom with a student who may be in one location, a parent or maybe multiple parents in multiple other locations, but still able to share the screen and really do the work of both empathizing oftentimes with that family situation, but also showing them the detail and guiding them through the process with some of the more nuanced and sometimes anxiety inducing elements of financial aid.

0:07:38.8 MR: It is interesting that there are now emerging best practices in student retention also where the efficacy of Zoom and the opportunity for virtual meetings and engaging with students after hours and don’t make them come to your office, it sounds like you, especially on your financial aid team, they were really nimble in making that work in a way that was supportive of family. So kudos to you and those teams that you inherited, and I’m sure that they’re glad that you are there with them.

0:08:08.0 RA: And I think there’s also a role for advocacy for those of us in leadership positions to then communicate back to the powers that be above us and to our HR structures about, look, this is working and let’s not make some arbitrary decisions that seem like they might be good to the gray-haired folks in the corner offices. Let’s actually look at what’s working with the most important constituents on campus with our students and really respond to that because they tend to think about everything being available right then and through their phone.

0:08:49.1 MR: That’s interesting. That’s a great segue into my next question is, which is, surveys have shown that often there’s a misalignment between what university leadership, those people with the gray hair in the corner offices you were just referring to, and what staff who are working in support of students and frontline staff on campus in terms of desire for more flexible or hybrid work that balances some time on campus and some remote. So it sounds like maybe you have experienced this a bit at the University of Rochester. What advice do you have for colleagues about how to effectively share that information up about efficacy and evolving student practices about how they wanna interact and have meetings and conversations with people?

0:09:32.3 RA: I think the simplest answer is we now have proof of concept that it worked. So just demonstrating the kinds of successes that were possible during this big and unexpected experiment during the pandemic and trying to keep what was good about that and iterate to make some elements even better, right? And that constant, I think knee-jerk reaction to just go back to “normal” but instead, I think it’s about building towards something that is better than what our old normal was. And that’s so important when we’re talking about staff retention, who now have… Many staff who’ve had a new experience with hybrid work and with more flexible schedules.

0:10:23.5 RA: So if as is the case at most of our institutions, we don’t have immediate additional resources to pay people more. What about some of the non-salary kinds of compensation factors and ways that we can listen to what our teams want and demonstrate then not only are we achieving in our case enrollment results, but we’re also having an impact on staff retention or if that’s not working for you, make sure you do some sabre rattling out there and show the powers that be the kinds of turnover you’re experiencing or the kinds of candidates that you’ve offered a position to but haven’t accepted it and maybe some feedback from those top candidates who said no, that they’re taking other positions either inside or outside of higher ed where they will have that flexibility. So I think it’s our job to be those advocates and to collect the data, the quantitative and the qualitative, and bring those up to leadership who are… It’s not their fault that they’re disconnected from those levels. If they’re not hearing it, that’s our fault.

0:11:40.0 MR: Yeah. One of the things that has been so interesting for me as I talked to enrollment leaders, presidents, cabinets across the country is, early in that when things were beginning to get back to normal after the pandemic, there was this sort of, let’s revert to the mean, it’s, we are just gonna go right back to 2019 and what my sort of observation in what we learned from students and parents in our survey work at EAB is they’re not going back. I mean, there has been an evolution, there’s been an evolution of necessity during the pandemic, but many people, to your point, Rob, both, whether they’re students and families or whether they’re consumer students and families or they’re parents. They actually like some of the new opportunities that they had.

0:12:25.8 MR: And so this sort of, what I call reverting to the mean, you know, it’s human nature to wanna revert to what you know, but people don’t wanna revert to what they know. And early on there were conversations with presidents who were talking to each other about, I can’t believe it, my staff doesn’t wanna go back to work. And at a traditional residential college or university where the business is face to face, what do you mean they don’t want… What do you mean they don’t wanna go back to the office and they’re all talking to one another. Six months later, they’re all like, Oh yeah, we’re so over that because what we’re trying to do is, they’re understanding you can’t replace these people. And they’re also understanding that perhaps, expectations on campus have shifted and that there is a way to provide those accommodations.

0:13:03.0 MR: So I see this really interesting evolution, but you know, we see it in a lot of areas, test for optional big shifts, some people going back, will that be a wise decision to return? Hmm, I think we don’t know, but you actually mentioned this in your answer just a second ago. Let’s talk a bit about salaries. At virtually every institution in the country, regardless of size of endowment and endowment income, tuition revenue is the driver that fuels and supports the academic mission. But in general, the observation is, and you already said, admission salaries are relatively low related to the requirements and the expectations that are placed on each of the individuals. So what are your thoughts about admission salaries and have you been able to effectively at any points in your career, advocate for increases, reallocated resources? How do you handle that in a very tight employment market?

0:14:03.1 RA: Well, certainly you’re absolutely right that the role of the chief enrollment officer is often that of the chief revenue officer as well, in terms of the proportion of the budget, at least for our undergraduate colleges, even within a large comprehensive university like Rochester. So appropriately, bringing attention to that fact and in some cases, with folks who may have come from outside of higher ed, you may even have an easier time because they’re used to understanding that your “Salesforce” needs to be very proficient at what they do. And if they’re not, then the rest of what the organization is striving to do won’t be possible. So that level of advocacy has certainly been part of my career, both advocating for myself at times and where I and my peers were as more junior admissions officers, but now also in that leadership position. I’m lucky that we have a system where I have an internal kind of deputy who is our liaison with HR. She really knows all of the systems and processes. So having that position has been a real advantage for me.

0:15:25.1 RA: And then where I bring my voice in, is with some of the pulse for better external benchmarking, both for example, against industries other than higher ed and trying to demonstrate that we were starting to lose people to some of those other industries, but also within higher ed, particularly when we’re talking about regional staff members and not just benchmarking based on what we would pay people potentially here in Rochester, but really getting into cost of living and encouraging our HR folks to think about what those people could be compensated at if they were working for the flagship university or the most selective university in that region.

0:16:17.7 RA: So again, it comes down to advocacy, some level of knowledge base, but certainly recognizing that the folks in HR are the experts. And then, you know, advocating within the budget structure to the CFO, and that group demonstrating… Look, here’s what we’ve done in terms of increasing the revenue and we deserve to feel some positive impact from that. And that’s been a fairly successful argument. I can’t say that I’m getting everything that I want and I can’t ever say that I’ve felt like my people were paid truly at or above where they should be, given the scope of responsibility that an enrollment folks have, how much knowledge they need and the… Frankly, the kinds of opportunities that they have, even within the institution, if they decide that they want to work fewer hours, gosh, there are definitely some other jobs where they can put some of the knowledge they already have to great use. So we have seen a little bit of that, of folks no longer interested in the travel as that comes back into the work, migrating over to another department where they can still be useful, where they can still live the mission, but where they can spend a little more time, not on airplanes.

0:17:45.2 MR: I’m imagining that there are many of our listeners are thinking, Oh my goodness, what I wouldn’t give to have a staff position that part of that role is serving as a liaison with HR. Because historically, many decisions about if positions are gonna be filled and what salary will be offered and what the title will be and what the benefits will be are made by an entirely different group of people. So I love your conversation about building close ties and having a good knowledge of their operations and systems, but I also think someone who can advocate for the external knowledge. I actually was talking to a colleague at one institution where they were trying to hire two senior advancement officers, so not admission roles, and had zero applications for either position, major gift officers. And I think… So the challenges are being faced across the sort of, I think all of the hiring, and I think that probably, it has put a lot of pressure on HR offices because some of the traditional tools that they might have used, like, Well, this is, what we paid people a year ago or two years ago, who cares? ‘Cause sadly, with that may not be a competitive offer, and I also really appreciate what you said about getting feedback from people to whom you’ve offered positions who have taken them elsewhere because that feedback loop internally is.

0:19:03.0 MR: Sometimes people think, “Well, you just didn’t do a good enough job recruiting that person to get them to take the job.” And we all know people in enrollment are experts at that kind of recruiting. So it could be factors that you couldn’t control, it wasn’t you, it wasn’t your team, it wasn’t the position, it was some of these other factors, so I appreciate you saying that.

0:19:22.5 MR: Let’s talk about… Could we just dig into, what advice do you have? EAB has this wonderful white paper about staffing, and there were some great suggestions in there about how you actually do effectively recruit new people on your team in this kind of type staff in the market. Could you talk about some of the things that you’ve done, maybe revised, not just perhaps more money or more flexibility, is there anything in shifts in job description or other innovations that you’ve made, Rob, that would be helpful for our listeners?

0:19:57.2 RA: So we’re talking about outside of pay, what else have we done? And I’ll say that we haven’t been perfect on this, we’ve had some positions that we haven’t been able to fill yet, and we’ve had to go back to the drawing board a little bit. But with some of that feedback that we’ve had from the folks who were in the pool, but didn’t end up being the right fit or didn’t end up taking the position. So I think one key way is making sure that you’re thinking about not just external candidates, but also potentially internal candidates as a strategy that can double as a retention effort and a recruitment effort simultaneously. So thinking carefully about how might we reorganize a little bit to offer some advancement for someone in an area where they wanna grow and then back-fill at an entry-level position. I think that’s been a very helpful strategy, it can also sometimes be more advantageous budgetary, and you can actually create some savings that then allows you to increase the salary for some of those folks that are sort of feeling the compression at a middle management or mid-career kind of level.

0:21:19.7 RA: The others are trying to leverage some of the networks that many of your internal staff have, if we’re creating this culture of Preston camaraderie and a great workplace environment, that goes a long way and empowering those folks who are on your team to find the other right people within maybe their networks to become interested in the job. So I think looking closer to home, so to speak, can sometimes be a more advantageous strategy than your job, web hosting optimization and looking farther afield, especially when we’re talking about a time when maybe it’s not quite as easy to relocate, given what’s going on in the housing market and with inflation generally. And then I think it’s about describing the work appropriately and maybe trying to get a little bit beyond your typical job description. But really talk about what kind of energy do you want from this person and what kind of activity are they really gonna be engaged in ways that don’t sound like an AI algorithm generated the job description after reading a ton of Dilbert cartoons, but instead really talking about the value of the work that we do and what we’re looking for in terms of the character and the values of those team members that are gonna join us. That’s what we do when we’re recruiting students, so why wouldn’t we take that same approach when we’re recruiting great team members?

0:23:03.8 MR: Well, one of the other things that I glean from the white paper, but also in talking to colleagues is, in many ways, a little bit of this is akin to recruiting prospective students, there’s some of the culture and the campus and the mission and what your lived experience would be, but some of it is just, what’s in it for you? What are the durable and transferable skills are you gonna develop in this role that will serve you well throughout the course of your profession?

0:23:34.6 RA: I’ve had some great conversations with folks going through the hiring process, particularly, newer staff may be coming from their undergraduate degree programs, and we certainly value those folks with that perspective, given their ties to the population that we’re working with, largely high school or a potential college transfer students. So in talking with some of those folks who might be newer to the professional world, getting down to, What are your goals? And let’s talk about the ways that working as an admissions or a Financial Aid counselor could give you some real tangible skills and that if we’re transparent about it, if I know and if your supervisor knows that your trajectory is probably headed toward law school someday or that you might wanna end up in the financial sector at some time, we can tailor some of the projects and some of the teams that you interface with so that you get some more of that direct experience. So I think a level of transparency about our expectations of perhaps how long we would want to see you stay in our organization at minimum because of the amount of training that we put in, and that individual’s expectations of where they want to go.

0:24:57.9 RA: Just being more direct and open about that is really helpful. The other piece that can often be very compelling for potential new hires is the benefits outside of straight salary, and I’m thinking particularly about the opportunities for graduate or professional enrollment and tuition remission. Sometimes that’s for the employee themselves, sometimes that’s for a spouse or family member, so those can be pretty compelling, but at the same time, I think we’re also going back to what you’re talking about earlier. I do wanna be cognizant that we are mission-driven institutions, but there’s a certain level of mission under compensation gas lighting that perhaps has always happened in our profession, and I think it is incumbent on us to make sure that we are using some equitable benchmarks and that we’re pushing our HR folks and that we’re getting that feedback from our candidates and our employees that we’re not doing ourselves or them a disservice by severely under compensating.

0:26:11.4 MR: So Rob, you get a kick out of this. When I was applying for and took my first admission position, one of the benefits that was attractive to me was there was a month of paid vacation, and my dad said to me, “Honey, you can’t eat vacation.” Because the compensation, the salary was low and historically has been in many places. So for me, one of the… I’m always looking for the silver lining of situations, perhaps the silver lining for the pandemic is that enrolment salaries will start at a slightly higher level and there will be a higher progression, just a higher compensation throughout the course of one’s career in recognition of both the mission driven nature of the work, but the incredible financial pressures to be successful.

0:26:57.4 RA: I hope so, and I hope that there can be also a greater realization and opportunity for folks who love higher ed, that you can come into an admission or financial aid job and grow, not just within the enrollment organization, but potentially into the Bursar or the institutional business office. That you could take an entry level admissions path that someday leads you to be the chief of staff in the President’s office, that there are so many other kinds of opportunities within the higher ed realm that some of the basic skills, our entry level folks really come away with, we’ll make them great candidates even beyond what they’re initially focused on with an enrollment.

0:27:50.8 MR: Correct. That you bring them in, but they become lifelong members of your academy or someone else’s academy because the work is so fulfilling. We’ve talked a lot about getting new people, so let’s talk about retaining your experienced staff members, maybe you could share some of your thoughts about long-term strategy to optimize your current team for retention, and how do you keep… How do you keep people so that you don’t get two persons with eight plus years of experience walking out the door in the same month? So what have you found to be exceptionally successful in retaining talented staff and then also less experienced staff? Those who might have come in with the expectation, “I’m gonna do this for a few years and I’m thinking about Law School or something else.” How do you handle that sort of the retention at all levels, Rob?

0:28:41.9 RA: I think it comes back to that importance of trust and open communication and really asking, don’t expect that everyone’s gonna feel comfortable volunteering to you. “You know, I’m starting to think about a next direction in my career,” or, “Oh, I really love what I do, I don’t wanna take on more because I’ve got a lot of other things going on in my life.” Or, “I’m just satisfied where I am.” I think you gotta create a culture where you can ask as the manager or leader, and where they’re gonna feel comfortable giving you their true sentiment about what their trajectory looks like. And then that gives you a lot to work with, those folks who are really happy and fulfilled doing the job that they’re doing sometimes get less attention than those folks who wanna be on a very steep growth trajectory. But those long-timers are really important in many ways within our organizations, and they deserve to feel just as valued and feel like they’re getting just as much care and attention from the organization.

0:29:56.9 RA: So listening, asking questions and listening carefully, at least as part of the annual review process, hopefully more often than that, to what people are doing and how they’re experiencing their current role and what they want out of the future. That’s in some ways given me opportunities to think differently about the org structure to facilitate that growth, and then for some folks, it’s been clear that we’re not gonna keep them forever and let’s help that person find a great pathway forward. And eventually that will pay dividends whether that person someday boomerangs and comes back into your organization, or where they just have really great things to say and help you find their own replacement and pay it forward in that way.

0:30:52.3 MR: You know, so it really sounds to me like you’re being manager/leader as a coach, as you know, I’m a Gallup coach, and this is exactly what Gallup would be recommending. Talk to each person, understand what their drivers are. What are the parts of my job I love the most that I’m in my happy place every day? What are the pieces of my job that need to be done, but don’t necessarily bring me joy in my journey? And when people don’t just believe but know that you’re really invested in them and their personal trajectory and not just their professional development, but their personal lives, and feeling the support of you as the leader and feeling support of the organization, the University of Rochester and their team, that is absolutely huge.

0:31:38.9 RA: Another strategy that’s embedded in that white paper that has been really important to me is also thinking about cross-training, so number one, as the senior leader, that’s incredibly important, because when you do have someone step away, they don’t take all the institutional knowledge with them, so just in terms of ensuring business continuity, that’s key. But it also means that if someone doesn’t love every aspect of their job, they’re gonna feel a lot better if you’re coaching them to cross-train another member and they can see an opportunity, maybe offload some of that work to other team members. And who knows, maybe that other person is exactly the right fit, and will love that aspect of the job. So I think thinking more flexibly about how we cross-train to create some mobility and enhance the capacity of our teams is a really important component that wasn’t something I thought about earlier in my career, but has become a really important mechanism for retaining staff, for allowing staff to have a growth trajectory and optimizing the organization.

0:32:57.3 MR: Rob, I think that’s incredibly helpful. I also appreciate your authenticity as you talked about earlier in your career, then think about this. But you think about it now, I mean, all of us or all of us, everyone in an enrollment, everyone at a college or university. It’s a life-long learning experience, and you just get better and better, and you hope at building those kind of relationships, building the kind of trust and confidence that it sounds like you’ve been very successful at Rochester. Well, this has been an amazing conversation. I want you to know how grateful I am and our listeners will be, thank you for sharing your expertise and we hope that we’ll see, hear you soon again on another office hours with The EAB. Thanks so much.

0:33:40.7 RA: It’s always fun to be back on the podcast, thanks so much.


0:33:49.6 S1: Thanks for listening, please join us next week when we’ll be looking at how technology can help your team support and retain existing students amidst the staffing crisis. Until next week thank you for your time.

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