Leading the Way

Chris Baker is more than an expert in admission and enrollment management. She’s a leader and advocate who has actively promoted the independent school admission and enrollment profession for more than 26 years. 

By Sally Benford 

If you’ve been around the admission and enrollment profession for a few years, chances are good that you’ve heard of Chris Baker of The Baker Group. If you haven’t heard of her, you should because Baker literally wrote the book on enrollment management for independent schools.

For years, Baker has been teaching schools how to compete in the demanding and ever-changing independent school environment, and although that’s the focus of her work, she’s also at the heart of creating professional development opportunities for admission and enrollment managers and leaders.

Baker has spent years inspiring those new to the admission and enrollment profession, as well as leaders who have been at the job for years. She created “gatherings,” as she calls them, for her colleagues to meet and discuss important issues of the current admission and enrollment season. Among her endeavors are the Chatham Experience, the Crow’s Nest Institute, and she was the founder of AISAP as well as other regional associations. Baker explains that she’s always been interested in education policy, and her early years of political activism helped build a solid foundation for leading and helping others.

Early in her career, when she was earning a master’s in education administration at Boston College, she was offered a position in the office of the Massachusetts Secretary of Education. At the same time, she had applied for an opening in the Boston College admission office. She accepted the BC position, which she says was a better fit for her degrees and experience. Baker explains that at that time, enrollment management strategies and practices were being pioneered by leading colleges and universities, including one of the most influential, Boston College. It’s where she cut her teeth.

“I learned enrollment management at BC and I was also involved in the college admission profession. I’ve always had an interest in leading professional development opportunities. I mentored and then ran the NEACAC summer workshops in New England for new college admissions professionals,” she says.

After spending seven years at Boston College, Baker took her experience and knowledge to Babson College, which was just starting to embrace strategic enrollment management. She spent three years at Babson, and then went to Milton Academy to develop a system for managing enrollment at a time when the demand for independent schools far outpaced supply. For example, during that time—1992 to 1999—the acceptance rate for certain grade levels at Milton was 12 percent and student retention hovered around 98 percent.

While at Milton, however, Baker felt a certain amount of fragmentation among admission and enrollment professionals and saw a significant void in professional development opportunities. It was then that she recognized the need for a regional professional association for enrollment and admission managers.

“There wasn’t a place where day and boarding schools could be brought together to talk about the profession. So, along with a day-school colleague and a boarding-school colleague, we organized meetings with others in our profession to discuss a testing debacle that was happening at the time,” Baker says.

The group felt they had little to no control of a critical situation affecting applicants to their schools and knew they needed to have a collective voice that could affect change and support one another.

“It was through those meetings regarding the testing crisis that led us to realize how much we valued the dialogue and each other’s company, and that we could meet once a year as a group of colleagues. It was the beginning of the Chatham Experience,” says Baker.

The first group of Chatham attendees included 21 schools, and Baker says that since that time—23 years and counting—it has remained a comfortable-sized gathering of New England admission and enrollment professionals. In addition, she created the annual Crow’s Nest Institute for experienced directors in the profession, which has continued successfully for 19 years in Kennebunkport,Maine. But Baker calls Chatham the seed for AISAP.

Early on, she and her peers recognized the need for a national organization to represent industry professionals. With encouragement from Pat Basset, then-president of NAIS, she began sending out inquiries to recommended admission professionals in efforts to form a group to establish the organization. From across the country, they planned to attend the first meeting at the NAIS headquarters in Washington, D.C. on a January 2004. Some might say it was an inauspicious beginning. A blizzard blew in to the northeast but that didn’t stop Baker, even when NAIS leaders told her to cancel the meeting. She hopped on a train from Boston because she hoped that people from other parts of the country were making their way to the meeting. She was right. She arrived late, but when she stepped in the room, 17 people were waiting for her.

“It was a beautiful beginning. My heart was full,” she says.

Since that auspicious beginning, AISAP has grown to more than 3,000 members. Today, the association’s mission focuses on career development and training and continues to add to its offerings—most recently, a partnership with Baker to replicate the spirit and principles of the Chatham Experience so that similar programs can be developed and offered in other regions across the country.

As the principal and founder of The Baker Group, Baker and her team continue to provide their expertise on admission and enrollment management for independent schools.

“What we’re doing is what we’ve been doing for almost 20 years now, which is helping schools enhance their enrollment and address market challenges, which are greater now than they’ve ever been. Essential to our work is supporting the enrollment leader within the school in order to facilitate the internal and external efforts, which includes mobilizing stakeholders to own their part in the school’s enrollment success,” says Baker.

As her team focuses on three key areas—strategy, data and research management and collaboration—Baker says that knowing the right questions to ask and answer in order to make better decisions is a critical component for successful outcomes.

Finding solutions is something Baker has always done and will continue to do. That includes advancing the career development opportunities for admission and enrollment professionals. She says there’s something really special that we’ve created with Chatham and Crow’s Nest and hopes to continue to spread that “secret sauce” to AISAP’s regional gatherings.

“I will spend as much time doing this as needed. Because, in my heart, the bottom line is, and has always been, to advance the profession,” Baker says.