But enrollment managers are often effectively ordered to squeeze more money out of poor students—"to nickel and dime these families making $48,000 a year," as Zucker puts it. Their continued employment depends on meeting specific goals. "You're only as good as your last fall's enrollment," Kalsbeek says. "You're wanting people to take this grand, principled, big-picture perspective on their work, but holy shit, you miss your target and you're gone."
The enrollment managers I spoke with weren't blind to where this was all heading, and the populations they were leaving behind—North Jersey's blue-collar families, Alabama's blacks and rural poor—were very much on their minds. Roger Thompson's university isn't yet so selective that he has to cut off poor but able students—and, he told me, "I don't really want to get there. I still want that kid from Jackson, Alabama. His father's a truck driver making seventeen grand a year, and no one's graduated from high school in the family, and the kid's got a twenty-four, or let's say a twenty, ACT. I want that kid to have a chance."
Only the most ruthless single-mindedly pursue profits or prestige at the expense of low-income and minority students. "It's really up to the institutions," Heffron says. "Many schools will tell us, Even though we can get fewer needy students to come, that's not what we're going to do. We're not cutting everyone until they squeak." Many schools mix the merit and need-based approaches, using the techniques simply to guarantee that they have enough students and revenue to stay afloat. And although competition increasingly threatens a university's principles, the most innovative work in the profession comes from enrollment managers who attempt to align market with mission.
David Kalsbeek, for instance, has an impressive record: DePaul is now the largest Catholic and the eighth largest private school in the country, and it's home to a top-ranked M.B.A. program. But those successes, built by Kalsbeek's formidable corporate tools and overseen from his corner office high above downtown Chicago (his 175-person division resembles a small consulting firm), allow the Vincentians to underwrite the school's commitment to educating poor first-generation Chicago students, rather than scrambling up the U.S. News rankings.
"No margin, no mission" is the watchword at DePaul. By expanding its profitable professional programs and slowly improving its faculty, campus, and marketing to attract more students, especially full-pays, the school has brought in enough revenue to enroll more low-income students. As a result, 26 percent of undergraduates have family incomes below $36,000, and 38 percent are the first in their families to attend college.
Tally Hart, a veteran advocate of need-based aid at the national level, is another enrollment manager who has found that the demands of ethics and the marketplace can pull in the same direction. When she joined the enrollment-management team at Ohio State University, she says, "My friends thought I just checked my morals at the border. I honestly don't think that many people thought about how enrollment management might be used for optimization of other things, like needy students." OSU was one of the first public schools to adopt the financial-aid leveraging (Hart prefers "management") techniques developed for private schools, but it retooled them to improve economic diversity and academic quality, not just revenue. Even merit aid can make college more accessible to the poor, if the additional revenue it generates is funneled back into need-based aid. When I asked which tradeoffs she faced, Hart replied, "None." Precise recruiting lets her find students who will increase socioeconomic diversity and academic quality, and also bring extra revenue in the form of state grants for low-income students. With those additional funds (which vary enormously from state to state) low-income students can actually bring more net revenue than their richer peers.