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David Kalsbeek: Reflecting on enrollment management and marketing in higher education

David Kalsbeek
A recognized leader and innovator in his field, David Kalsbeek has successfully led enrollment development strategies at DePaul since 1997. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
As David Kalsbeek, senior vice president for Enrollment Management and Marketing, prepares to retire on June 30, we took the opportunity to sit down with him and reflect on his 22 years at DePaul. In this Q&A, Kalsbeek discusses enrollment and marketing strategies, as well as his thoughts on how DePaul is positioned to navigate challenges. 

DePaul’s Division of Enrollment Management and Marketing is widely regarded as an industry leader. What differentiates DePaul’s approach to enrollment development and marketing strategy?

It’s true that the professional community views DePaul’s EMM as a model of best practice, in large part because we have focused on three I’s that define our work: integration, innovation and information.  

Perhaps the greatest reward has come from achieving a successful integration of functions, processes and strategies that have furthered DePaul’s goals. It’s more than centralization for the sake of efficiency. It’s aligning admissions, financial aid, student records and registration, university marketing, research, and career services to work together toward mutual outcomes via complementary strategies. Structure follows strategy, and I have had the good fortune to work at a university that both values and executes an integrated approach toward the critical mission and business goals that guide our enrollment and marketing strategies.  

The integration of effort is necessary, but not sufficient. I’m proud of the innovation we’ve continuously introduced to DePaul’s enrollment strategy. Examples include initiatives like the early adoption of test-optional admissions, the award-winning EDGE program of freshman internships, the Corporate and Employer Outreach program, the introduction of integrated systems from Slate to Handshake to Bluestar, and our development of an integrated brand strategy. Every part of our enrollment and marketing efforts has benefited from innovative approaches. 

Looking back over 22 years, I think my greatest particular contribution has been a relentless emphasis on building research-driven strategies grounded in evidence and empirical analysis; in short, a focus on information. As a result, EMM demonstrates the hallmarks of a learning organization, one focused on always working smarter in sustaining DePaul’s competitive advantage. On top of that, we’ve worked deliberately to bring to the entire DePaul community a greater understanding of our market position; our distinct brand; the potential of data-driven digital marketing; and the art and science of leveraging financial aid to achieve enrollment, academic quality, diversity and net revenue goals. We’ve created a more self-regarding institution, which is the foundation of sustainable success.  

What are some of the enrollment successes you’ve achieved over the years? What are some of the future challenges?

When I arrived in 1997, the overarching priority was to increase full-time undergraduate enrollment, primarily by doubling the freshman class—and we have done exactly that. We were also tasked with increasing socio-economic and racial/ethnic diversity, elevating the academic profile, and broadening our geographic reach—while increasing net tuition revenue. We have done that as well. We also set out to increase the four-year graduation rate—and have made amazing gains. The challenge in pursuing these objectives simultaneously is it requires balancing inherent tensions and tradeoffs that exist between them. 

Challenges, though, will never relent. While achieving record diversity, we still have disparities in student success with underrepresented groups.  While emphasizing full-time student enrollment, we’ve lost market share in part-time, adult and transfer enrollment, primarily to online and lower-cost competitors. While we’ve maintained our market position in most graduate programs, erosion in demand in many areas has resulted in enrollment declines that outpace our ability to reduce cost structures. And while our financial aid investments and strategies have increased access and opportunity for a record number of lower-income students, we are realizing less net tuition revenue as a result of pursuing these goals. DePaul is not alone balancing tradeoffs though we’ve weathered the challenges better than many institutions. But the future forecasts are daunting.  

Institutions of higher education, especially in Illinois, are facing significant enrollment obstacles, particularly demographics. How is DePaul positioned to navigate these headwinds successfully?  

The demographic challenges are minor compared to the many so-called “megatrends” that are disrupting traditional models of higher education and threatening our academic and financial viability. That said, I believe the best strategic response is what it has always been: attend first and foremost to improving the demonstrable value of a DePaul education all students receive for their investment, creating excitement about learning in each and every course, and putting the primacy of student outcomes before all else. DePaul’s future is bright if the entire community can rally around these ideas.  

You’ve served 22 years in this senior-level role. How is the university positioned to manage this change?  

Over my years, DePaul has had three presidents, eight provosts, 38 different deans and 32 different vice presidents—and one chief enrollment officer. Though that’s a lot of change, it’s clear that DePaul weathers such change well. My two decades of continuous leadership in EMM has helped sustain momentum in realizing strong enrollment outcomes but the achievements belong to a tremendous team of creative and accomplished enrollment and marketing professionals. I’m confident the integrated, innovative and informed foundation we’ve built provides a platform for DePaul’s future success.  

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