I call the bookshelf in my office “The Literacy Center.” Included in The Literacy Center are different books which have, in some way or another, informed the work that I do. One such book is Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, which was later turned into a movie of the same name starring Brad Pitt.
Moneyball tells the story of the Oakland A’s and their management team. In the world of professional baseball, Oakland is classified as a “small market team,” meaning they aren’t as rich and wealthy as “large market teams” such as the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Dodgers. With less cash at their disposals, as well as the rules put in place by Major League Baseball, small market teams like the A’s find it more challenging to remain competitive because large market teams can pay their players higher salaries and thus attract supposedly more talented players.
In Moneyball, we learn about the tactics the A’s took to be one of the more successful baseball teams of the early 21st century. Despite their lower wealth, the A’s found success by utilizing data on players that most other teams were overlooking. As a result, they were able to identify players who were undervalued by most teams in professional baseball, bring them to Oakland, and field a winning ball club. And since other teams undervalued those players, there was little competition to acquire them, meaning those players did not demand larger salaries.
The strategies used by the A’s made them outsiders in Major League Baseball, but like any successful organization, their tactics soon were replicated and copycatted by other teams, meaning that the players who were once undervalued by professional baseball are now highly valued, with higher salaries now given for the skills those players bring to the field.
While data has always been a part of pro baseball, Moneyball is often cited as the moment that ushered in a data “revolution” where the successful teams of the 21st century would be the ones with the best data and the best systems in place to utilize that data. The revolution is not just occurring in professional baseball; many types of organizations, including college admission operations, have mounds upon mounds of data at their disposals, and are continuing to figure out what to do with it all.
This long introduction was meant as a springboard into a discussion of enrollment management, or that process taken on by a university and its admission department to use data to ensure that student enrollment goals are met on an annual basis. It should be easy to see why I include Moneyball in The Literacy Center, as it serves as a reminder that data is important to my work and can enhance what my colleagues and I attempt to do. But instead of me pretending to be an expert on enrollment management, or highlighting which data points are most useful in admission, my focus is to address how I attempted to educate myself on the topic prior to stepping into my current role as an Associate Director.
When I was a Senior Assistant Director of Admission, a common frustration of mine was not being able to participate in the larger enrollment management operation taking place in my office. I think this frustration is shared by many at that level, which I will refer to as the “junior” level. At the junior level, you are likely to read more applications and visit more high schools than those at the senior management level, and while you still have a significant influence on the admission process, the enrollment management team is responsible for monitoring everything that happens along the way. As such, a student you have connected with throughout the admission process may ultimately be left out of the admitted student pool, as some characteristic or characteristics about that student may have made them seem like a less compelling applicant (i.e. student’s geographic location, student’s intended major, etc.)
But when it came time to apply for Associate level jobs, I knew it was inevitable for questions about enrollment management to come up. And without participating in the enrollment management meetings, what was I going to say when asked about my experience with this process? I knew it would be a challenge to make a strong case as to why I felt ready to perform this role. To keep with the baseball theme, would a baseball coach suddenly start me at shortstop if all I had done in my career up to that point was play catcher?
So to best prepare myself for this moment, I chose to dive head-first into the one thing I did have control over: the territories and regions of which I was responsible for managing. During my first stint with the USC Office of Admission, I was fortunate to have a consistent territory over my five-plus years. Therefore, I was able to identify trends over the course of time, and as I grew more knowledgeable about the schools in my regions, I could adapt my recruitment efforts to maximize what I was doing out on the road. I had a good sense of which high schools were most productive for visits and which college fairs were the best use of our time and resources.
When it came time to review the applications from my territory, each year, I got better at putting a student’s achievements (both in school and out) into greater context, and at telling a clearer story in my documentation. And doing all this under the umbrella of the USC admission process allowed me to develop a perspective on where a student might fit in the grand plan of the university and in our institutional goals and priorities.
In job interviews, when the topic of enrollment management came up, I found it best to simply talk about the exercise of managing my territory. Essentially, in my role as Associate Director for Recruitment, I ask myself the same questions when trying to develop a recruitment plan: What characteristics do we look for when identifying schools and regions in which to conduct recruitment activities? What are the recruitment activities where a student’s participation suggests a greater likelihood for that student to enroll? I learned that enrollment management didn’t have to be thought of as this process that takes place behind closed doors by the higher-ups; I realized that I was involved with it each and every day I did my job.
I mentioned earlier that I do not pretend to be some sort of expert on enrollment management, and if I stay in this profession for a long time, I doubt there will ever be a point where I think I have it completely figured out. I continue to learn more and more each day, and it isn’t always easy. The most difficult component has been the different way that my role now requires me to sometimes view a student. When I was at the junior level, the process sometimes felt a little more personal. I did my best to connect with a student and shepherd him or her through the weeds of our admission process.
But now, my role sometimes strips students and high schools down a bit more to “statistics” or as “assets.” It just feels a little less personal sometimes. So the struggle is to try and find some balance between each side. This very clash is at the center of the debate in Moneyball, as not everyone was on board with what the A’s were trying to do. Aside from its emphasis on using data, I think it is this debate over relying on the numbers or relying on what you see which keeps Moneyball on my bookshelf.
I’ll close with this scene from the Moneyball film, where Brad Pitt, who plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the A’s who is incorporating new data into his assessment of baseball players, clashes with his head scout, who is accustomed to assessing ball players by what he sees, with less regard for what the data says. I continue to have this very argument whenever I’m faced with enrollment management dilemmas.
At the start of my career, I might have been more of a scout, who leaned more heavily on what he saw and felt, and as I move forward, and become more entrenched in the stats, I won’t leave my days as a scout behind. Instead, I’ll remember how the past prepared me for what I do in the present. Each time I see Moneyball on the shelf of The Literacy Center, I’m reminded of just that.
By Michael Gulotta