Combatting Enrollment Burnout: Four Takeaways from NACAC 

photo of burnout in block letters

In my nearly three decades of supporting higher ed admissions teams in recruiting and building their entering classes, I’ve had the distinct privilege of working with an array of passionate, caring and often selfless individuals. Recently, however, I’ve witnessed the pace of change within their profession rapidly accelerating and very often leading to feelings of frustration and disillusionment—familiarly referred to as burnout. 

Looking for a path forward in addressing this industry-wide issue, I attended the NACAC panel, A Profession on the Edge, and How We Might Come Back with high hopes. From the overflow crowd in the room, it was obvious that I was far from the only one in search of answers.  

Each of the four presenters on the panel approached the burnout topic from different points of view in sharing their experiences, observations and best-practice ideas. While I didn’t expect complete resolution from this notable group, I was heartened by the thoughts and perspectives they shared. 

Here are a few key takeaways that I believe enrollment teams could benefit from during this trying time: 

1. Elevate the importance of how each person’s work connects with something broader.  

Presenter: Eric Hoover, Senior Writer, Chronicle of Higher Education 

Building off his recent article, “A Profession on the Edge: Why enrollment leaders are wearing down, burning out, and leaving jobs they once loved,” Hoover stressed the significance of everyone being on the same page in understanding how each person’s work supports the bigger picture—and even more importantly, how celebrating it can go a long way toward improving communication and keeping the team motivated.  

This point is particularly true of younger admission professionals who often long for a sense of purpose in their careers. One suggestion Hoover proposed was to create a system where younger staff are partnered with those more experienced who share common interests. Knowing you have a key player on your side whose interests overlap with yours creates a more lasting bond and shows people newer to the field that they’re a valued part of a bigger team. 

2. Embrace the concept of “failing fast and failing forward.”  

Presenter: Adrienne Oddi, MA, VP, Strategic Enrollment and Communications, Queens University of Charlotte 

Losing half of her team within the first six months of arriving at Queens (and ultimately 80% overall) forced Oddi to think creatively in rapid fashion. Much of that included creating roles and responsibilities that promote cross-functional opportunities for staff to take on roles outside of the enrollment area and work across the institution. Not every new idea was a success, but that was part of the plan. 

She advised others to resist the pressure to be perfect and not consume themselves with trying to have everything all figured out. “Don’t think you have to have all the answers at once,” she said. “The light is there … just keep walking toward it.” This open-minded approach got her team through a very difficult period and headed in a positive direction. Oddi now has a small and mighty support team backed by a president who is a great thought partner. 

“The light is there … just keep walking toward it.”

Adrienne Oddi, MA, VP, Strategic Enrollment and Communications, Queens University of Charlotte 

3. Realize the benefits of using your talents well and managing up teams.  

Presenter: Ken Anselment, VP for Enrollment Management, RHB

Pulling double time as both moderator and panelist for the discussion kept Anselment busy but didn’t prevent him from bringing up several salient thoughts. One of which was encouraging the audience to think about the value they bring to their institutions and the impact they have. He elaborated on that by encouraging everyone to use the full breadth of their talents to manage up teams and think of their work as consulting in nature, while urging them to consider shifting relationships to help colleagues understand and value the work of enrollment professionals. 

4. Ensure mentorship is readily available—especially for enrollment officers of color.  

Presenter: Allan Mathew, PhD, Director of Graduate Admissions, Tufts University 

Dr. Mathew shared his dissertation topic theme, a personal reflection of his professional life as an enrollment officer of color. Highlighting the importance of knowing who you can trust and having advocates when working with boards, he spoke to some key themes causing challenges in the enrollment profession: 

  • Everyone has an opinion on enrollment work.  
  • It’s not easy sustaining motivation for change. People must be reminded why they do this important work. 
  • Finding a place where you can pursue your goals in higher education is paramount. 
  • Mentorship is the path to success, and there’s currently a substantial lack of mentoring in the profession for enrollment officers of color. 

He followed that up with several findings from his research:

  • Chief and mid-range managers must think about who they tap for mentorship and who they mentor. 
  • Those in admissions work need to overcome the fear of being pigeonholed.  
  • We need to build consciousness around equity. Enrollment professionals should find places where they’re valued—places to support their individual goals and places working to promote up the ladder, especially those of color.  

He also shared one piece of advice that I think could benefit many of us in these times: “Find a good therapist or outlet, a way to undo the gears.”  

So, in conclusion, did I ultimately find what I was looking for from the discussion?

I’d say, yes. I knew going in that there was no silver bullet to solving burnout, but there does appear to be a silver lining in the form of the profession putting its own self under the microscope—and paving the way for meaningful, industry-changing reform. And, to me, that’s the best we can hope for right now.