5 Key Factors to Enhance College Enrollment Growth and Advancement Success

In today’s college environment, it does not take long for stakeholders to discuss the current state of enrollment and fundraising targets. Many times, these questions go hand-in-hand since they give a quick synopsis of a college’s performance. Sadly, some schools are facing enrollment decline as a result of a lack of first-time students and issues surrounding student retention and success. 

However, the link between admissions growth and enrollment stability is often not connected with fundraising and advancement. In other words, many — both in and out of higher education — simply don’t see how these two essential operations fit together. 

We know first-hand that both enrollment and advancement success can work to complement one another and are mutually appreciative and not mutually exclusive. We know that, at the college level, success emanates from a number of important factors, but without student enrollment and donor support, these points have little consequence. 

The Shared Metric of Success

Whether we like it or not, many people use growth and quantifiable metrics before they use qualitative descriptions. The common adage, “If you are not moving forward, then you are moving backward,” is frequently cited if enrollment and/or fundraising have plateaued or show signs of stagnation.

Most cases of sustained success are the result of careful planning, data-driven assessment and the ability to make needed changes. The critical question then is: Is the mission being accomplished and to what extent?

Common Factors for Success

As two long-term college presidents, we have found that success can come to both enrollment and fundraising through a series of mutually interactive and support activities. There are several marketing, student enhancement and advancement activities that can be shared in ways that mutually support one another.

These connections, when maximized, can provide a series of primary and secondary supports, which together complement each other. This can happen when enrollment and advancement work together in planning and strategizing. Consults are not necessary on every decision, but economies of scale and cooperation can net a greater return when tactfully enacted for an overall growth strategy. 

While there are many factors that must be present for joint enrollment and advancement success, these five conditions increase the probability of success. 

1. The College Appeal

Academic and technical programs must be seen as good fits for students. Not only must students see the college as appealing, but so must donors. If the college does not fit the donor’s definition of appealing, then a relationship will not result in successful donor support. Our point is that prospective students, current students (for retention purposes) and donors — both new and long-time supporters — must find the college as a place or program that accommodates their needs. This is where careful planning and assessment are essential for enrollment and fundraising to be mutually beneficial.

When a college has both prospective students and donors noting the appeal, then there is an opportunity to maximize greater growth potential and more advancement support. When alumni actively voice their appreciation for their alma mater (and in today’s world this is primarily through social media), a surge in new student recruitment is possible, as well as greater alumni participation in annual, scholarship and capital giving.

2. The Clientele’s Needs 

Often, after a period of success, organizations, such as colleges, tend to focus on perceived organizational needs. This form of inward-looking can come from a variety of causes. The fear is that this lack of attention to the primary mission can create a stalling effect from the momentum once enjoyed. 

Sociologists refer to this as “goal displacement,” a form of misplaced objectives that are not focused on the heart of the mission of the organization. This detracts from meeting the needs of students and other stakeholders, such as donors. Every college has a series of needs so that faculty and staff can be successful in fulfilling their roles. Securing adequate resources for all working toward the mission is a given, but when students and donors feel neglected, the result can be fewer students and fewer donors.


3. Positive Organizational Atmosphere

Colleges may be referred to as academically strong in certain areas of study or for important programs, such as diversity or athletics. Developing and maintaining a positive organizational culture that is being shared on social media and by other forms of communication is an absolute must to grow enrollment and donor support. 

Students want to attend a school that offers a positive, rewarding experience, and donors want to assist students in achieving their goals. When donors can verify the impact of their giving, then they become student recruiters on their own. We have witnessed many students attend and graduate from a given college because a faithful donor recommended that school. The principle of reciprocity here can net large returns for both enrollment and for development.

4. Mission Success

Most individuals want to be part of success, whether it be personal or corporate. Failing or sub-par performance is difficult no matter the enterprise. That’s why Division I universities experience a surge in enrollment after national championships and playoff exposure in athletics. 

Accomplishing the school’s mission (or parts of it) and letting others know is essential to creating an experience that others will want to be a part of. Most development professionals agree that attracting a new donor and sustaining a current donor depends on the message of mission success. Donors want to give where their resources are making a difference. A positive message can be shared with prospective students so that they can participate in a new scholarship, program or capital facility. 

5. Loyalty and Trust

Upon achieving the first four objectives, donors will feel a sense of loyalty and trust through their giving. Stories of donor support and alumni success must be shared at the appropriate times. We encourage having a vision plan in mind as college leaders engage in annual strategic planning and assessment. Keep the “why” behind the mission in front of all key leaders at the college as a means to work daily at building loyalty and trust among the various publics the school serves. 

In sum, we think a strategic error takes place when school administrators and faculty silo their thinking about enrollment, retention and fundraising. Siloed thinking does not allow for important economies of scale to occur across these important functions within a college.

We much prefer to see cross-matrix thinking, management and sharing occur so that enrollment creates opportunities to share how a donor’s giving is making a difference and how advancement activities can help to recruit and/or retain students. Inviting prospective students to alumni gatherings and having a prospective student fair with donors in attendance are two easy methods of enhancing both enrollment and donor appreciation.

Countless other examples exist where marketing, preview events, alumni gatherings, special campus events such as lectures, performances in the arts and athletics can allow the college to tell its story and demonstrate its mission to prospective students, current students and alumni and friends. Enrollments and dollars from donors can grow when the right building blocks are put into place and careful planning is enacted.