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SEM – Three Little Letters That Can Have a Big Impact

By May 29, 2019

Students on Campus
By: Kirsty Wadsley, Head of Widening Participation

In Autumn 2017 – after a series of serendipitous events – I found myself at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) Strategic Enrolment Management (SEM) conference. It was one of the most influential, interesting, and above all collegiate three days of my career to-date. The fact it was in Phoenix, Arizona where I had mountain and desert views at breakfast was just an added bonus.

By the time I arrived, I had already started to develop connections within the US higher education arena, however, this was the first time I had learned about ‘SEM’. It resonated with my experience in widening participation. However, getting to know more about Strategic Enrolment Management has shifted my thinking about how we enact access and success in UK higher education. A key factor being how we use systems and data to support strategic enrolment management.

So what is Strategic Enrolment Management , you might ask? It is most succinctly defined as: “A concept and process that enables the fulfilment of institutional mission and students’ educational goals”.** This quote highlights that SEM is more than just ensuring you have a good enrolment strategy. It ensures benefits for both students AND institutions alike.

Strategic Enrolment Management should span from the very first contact someone might have with an institution (via recruitment, marketing, admissions and/or in my own area widening participation) through to degree attainment. Along the way, it should take in: orientation/induction; financial support; classroom experience; academic support; co-curricular support; and retention. That, of course, isn’t the whole student lifecycle as we might phrase it. The two key elements ‘missing’, that I am acutely aware of, are careers and alumni relations. These are essential to institutions’ ‘cradle to grave’ work. Strategic Enrolment Management however, keeps the focus on students getting into a degree and getting on with it. With a good SEM strategy and processes in place, other functions should flow readily from it.

American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers Strategic Enrolment Management conference

In my experience, UK higher education institutions (HEIs) have worked on the student lifecycle but do not see the discrete parts holistically as SEM does. A lack of overarching identity for these functions typically means that accountability is not collective and siloes are more easily developed (and maintained). Strategic Enrolment Management clearly has a set of ‘discrete’ specialist functions within it, but the connection between these needs to be articulated with shared overarching goals. Although it would be impossible to co-locate all SEM functions, systems and data can be connected and shared across the strategic enrolment management cycle (and beyond). In so doing, suddenly Strategic Enrolment Management can be a reality if we want it to be, and we are prepared to invest in this kind of integration and development.

SEM doesn’t have all the answers, no-one suggests it does, it isn’t a utopia and it doesn’t provide transformation without work. It does however provide a name, an impetus to develop a model, and ultimately SEM can – with the appropriate supporting structures in place – put responsibility and accountability front and centre. The beauty is SEM offers the flexibility to develop a framework that fits an institutions set-up (and to challenge this where needed). Strategic Enrolment Management also comes with decades of practice, advice and models from colleagues who have long worked to develop it in their own contexts.

I am clearly a SEM convert, and I am especially interested because it has parallels with widening participation where as a sector we have been working on a whole student life-cycle approach. The goal of taking this approach is that it leverages equity in access, student success, and progression into future careers or further study. In having to address such a model the component parts (including systems) start joining up. It sounds simple but in reality it needs work, however it ensures that the key people and functions start having shared conversations. This leads to shared milestones, and programmes of work. Whilst we still have a way to go, the possibilities for SEM with fully integrated support systems may seem utopian but do exist.

** SEM Core Concepts: building blocks for institutional and student success’ (Sigler 2017, AACRAO publications) . To find out more about SEM visit the American Association of Collegiate Registrar’s and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) website

About the Author
Kirsty Wadsley Head of Widening ParticipationKirsty has overall responsibility for leading strategic developments in Widening Participation, including working with colleagues across and outside of LSE on widening participation matters. She is also past Chair of the Russell Group Widening Participation Association. With over a decade’s experience in developing award-winning widening participation and student recruitment activities, Kirsty is currently on sabbatical until October 2018. You can find her on Twitter @kirstywadsley and LinkedIn.



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