Jenni Biehn joins Western Reserve Academy as the school's Director of Enrollment Management, a new position devoted to research, analysis and strategy for the Admission Office. Biehn brings a wealth of experience in enrollment management, and hails most recently from Columbus School for Girls, her high school alma mater. She and her husband are the proud parents of three sons, and she is an avid fan of reading, baking and spending time outdoors.
Q: Tell us a little about your background in education.
A: It's funny, most little kids don't grow up saying, "I want to be a Director of Admission!" But I have been working in the enrollment management field my entire career. I started giving tours when I was in high school and continued to do that through college. I first worked in admission and financial aid for higher education, and then eventually moved into independent schools, where I've been working in enrollment management for 20 years now. I started at Cranbrook, which is a boarding and day school outside of Detroit. I was working in upper school admission at that point, and then international recruitment. I ended up meeting my husband there, so it feels like we're coming full circle by returning to a boarding school. When we started raising a family, we moved to day schools in Philadelphia, and I worked at two different schools there, working in lower school admission at one and then managing enrollment in another. Six years ago we moved back to Ohio. I grew up in Granville and attended Columbus School for Girls, so it has been really meaningful to come back and work in enrollment management in my old stomping grounds.
Q: What do you enjoy most about working in this field?
A: What I really love is the balance between the analytical demands of the job and the requirement for strong interpersonal skills. I don't think I would be fulfilled in a role that didn't require both; that kind of balance is really healthy for me. I love thinking strategically, using data and doing a lot of analysis to drive decision making, because in this role that's really necessary. At the same time, it's also about building relationships throughout the school community, with colleagues, students, parents and alumni and, of course, with prospective students and families.
One of the things that's fulfilling about the mission of enrollment management is establishing a relationship with a family, helping them make the choice to enroll their child, and seeing that child grow and thrive and then graduate and move on. That was one thing that was missing in higher education. The volume is so high that once students enrolled, they're done with admissions, but in independent schools, you can really maintain those relationships. Another thing that's particularly fulfilling for me is the financial aid program. It's really moving to work with families who recognize the value of education and are willing to make significant sacrifices in order to give their child that opportunity. My parents were both teachers, so I received financial aid as an independent school student, and it was so valuable to see the transformational impact it had on me and my siblings. Now that I do this work I have a fuller understanding of what that meant for my parents. It's a personal passion of mine to bring in socioeconomic diversity and make sure kids from all different types of backgrounds have the opportunity of an independent school education.
Q: Tell us about some of your goals.
A: One of my goals is to make sure that the work that the admission team is doing is connected, understood and shared throughout the school. It's so important to have a collective understanding of admissions throughout the school community, just as it is important that the admission team understands and shares goals with faculty and other administrators. Everything is connected, and I can't think of a success that I could take credit for. We are all partnering all of the time. To be successful in my role, I will need to be an engaged expert in both the program side and the business side of the school. I've heard another enrollment manager refer to this as being a midfielder, playing both ends of the field rather than specializing in one side or the other. So I need to quickly develop a really deep understanding of the mission of the school and the programs that we offer and be able to present that to prospective families with accuracy and understanding. At the same time, I also need to focus on how enrollment impacts the operational and business end of the school, since in independent schools, tuition is the biggest source of revenue in the operating budget.
Q: What drew you to this role?
A: I am really excited to have the space to focus on strategic work. Typically, a Director of Enrollment Management is doing both the analytical work, the goal setting, the strategy — all while being right in the weeds with the detail and day-to-day work, such as setting up the catering request for an event. The way that my position is structured at WRA, I think we'll have the flexibility to prioritize the strategic work and to make sure that we have really good framework for all of the decisions that we're making and how we're prioritizing our efforts and being data driven. What's really exciting is that a lot of the data gathering and analysis is already underway at Reserve, so I will have the luxury of having that work already done and being able to use it right away.
Q: What drew you to WRA?
A: The mission of Reserve resonated with me. I still have a lot to learn about the school, but in broad strokes, I could see that there's a real appreciation and respect for the tradition of the school. The long history that's apparent the minute you walk on campus is celebrated, but there's also this forward thinking mindset. Whether it's the curriculum, facilities or extra-curricular programs, you can see the embrace of new approaches and best practices, all while respecting the traditions of the school. I was so glad to see that dichotomy in place, because it's really all about balance for me. I had an unexpectedly profound and positive emotional reaction when I first spent a day on campus. Some of that was personal for me, in that I hadn't been in a boarding environment for a long time and I was reminded immediately of the power of a boarding experience that no day school can replicate. When I think back on the seven or eight years that I spent working in boarding admissions and recruitment, along the way I repeatedly saw the transformational impact that a boarding experience, in particular, had on students looking for more. Often in the Midwest, boarding school is not something that a family has been planning. It's often the student in middle school who realizes they want more of a challenge or more opportunity than what is available at their current school, and so you see the parents following their child's lead. Now as a parent of a 14-year-old, I can empathize in a different way about what it means to think about your child going to boarding school when it's not something you were originally planning. And I think I can be effective in supporting parents through that journey.
Q: Why do you believe in boarding?
A: Well, I think that for students who are self-motivated, want to fulfill their potential, and really identify with and deeply commit to a passion, boarding school is perfect for them. Day schools just cannot match the opportunities that a boarding environment provides. Good teachers at day schools work hard to know their students as individual learners and understand what motivates them, what's going on outside in their lives and how that might impact their learning, but the truth is that in a boarding environment, they're actually living that. Those authentic relationships with students are primary and deep because of the ways that the students and faculty interact outside the classroom. I think when the different parts of a student's life are all connected — because we, as educators, know that learning is optimized when it is meaningful to kids and when it's connected — learning is so much more powerful. I also have seen so many students discover opportunity and take risks because they're in an environment where they feel safe enough to take a risk, because they are known and supported by multiple adults and peers in this incredibly deep way. You have to feel safe in order to take risks. They develop the confidence to be vulnerable and take responsible risks in a boarding environment, and that leads to growth.
Q: What's the difference between Director of Enrollment and Director of Admission?
A: I will be focusing more on the strategy and data, rather than the tactical day-to-day work of admission. Admission is, of course, a primary component of enrollment management, but it's not the only component. From an integrated perspective, you're looking at the admission of new students, the retention of current students, and the two biggest tools that can impact both of those things, which are financial aid and marketing. So admission must work in close partnership with the Business Office and the Communications & Marketing Office. And then ensuring an ongoing agenda for institutional research and analysis. This will support decision-making in all areas. Many Directors of Admission are also responsible for the components of enrollment management, but you can't feasibly be the point person for enrolling kids and give appropriate attention to all of those components. The distinction is that I will have the resources to focus on the strategic work, which will support the day-to-day decisions that are being made. This is the model in higher education that we are now seeing in top independent schools.
Q: How has the admission landscape changed for independent schools?
A: Families have more educational options now than they used to. A generation ago, it was maybe more of a family tradition to go to an independent school, and tuition was within reach for a much wider part of the population than it is now. I think for most independent schools, the biggest competitors are strong public schools — especially those that are offering high-quality education and have been marketing themselves. This has necessitated a change in how admission work is done. A generation ago, the Director of Admission could just pick up the phone when someone called and say, "Sure, yes, come in for a tour and apply and we'll see if we want to accept you." But now, a significant effort has to be on making sure there is an awareness among potential prospective families rather than waiting for them to make the call. Generating interest in the school is a much bigger part of enrollment management than it is in a traditional admission director, who is more of a gatekeeper that decides which of the applicants to accept. This is why the partnership with marketing and communications is so critical. You see all kinds of public schools with marketing initiatives, strategic plans and branding — things that didn't happen before. They're definitely a major competitor, and I think there might be an assumption that the biggest competitors for a school like Reserve are the independent Cleveland day schools or other Midwest boarding schools. For a small segment of the applicant pool that may be true, but it is the people who aren't even thinking about independent school, much less boarding school, that we need to reach.
Q: What hobbies do you enjoy?
A: You know, I used to be able to talk about a lot of fun hobbies, but then I had three kids and continued to work full time! Family is a top priority for me. My husband Steve and I have three sons: Jeremiah is our ninth grader, Asher is going into sixth grade, and Simon is going into second grade. When I do have time for myself, I like to jog and do yoga, and I love to read and bake. We are a water-oriented family, and in the summer you will find us at a lake in the Adirondacks whenever we have the chance, or at the pool and we try to get to the ocean in the summer as well. We are long-time Philadelphia Eagles and Ohio State fans and when we moved to Ohio we jumped on the Cavs bandwagon too. And of course, the reality of being a parent of kids that like sports is that I end up being a spectator at many, many games.