Sink or Swim: Tackling Higher Education Enrollment Challenges

12/05/2023

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A sort of panic sets in when people in higher education hear any peep about enrollment challenges (and after writing this I see why). But I am here to tell you despite these feelings of uneasiness, there is hope.  

The enrollment cliff is an obvious topic of discussion, but we also need to talk about the high cost of tuition, the public perception of the value of postsecondary education, and the rise of alternative credentialing. On top of this, we had the EDUCAUSE 2023 Conference in October, and the enrollment crisis was listed as #3 on 2024 EDUCAUSE Top 10: Institutional Resilience | EDUCAUSE Review, which has never been the case up until this point. We are not here to scare you, but we ultimately want to ease your worries and help you navigate these challenges effectively.  

* We’re going to spare everyone the headache of having to read about Covid-19 constantly. We all lived through it and know its impact, so that will not be discussed. (Here’s a link to read more about the pandemic and its impact if you’re interested: Quantifying COVID Impacts) * 

Challenge #1: The Enrollment Cliff  

Writing about the enrollment cliff is a very easy thing to do – but also one of the hardest. For those of you who don’t know Nathan Grawe, he is the first person to take note of this cliff (and his book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education is a great read might I add). The sole cause of this crisis: lack of babies after the 2008 recession – this is the easy part. According to the Inside Higher Ed article, Are Prospective Students About to Disappear?, we know that college enrollment will decrease by 15% between the years 2025-2029, which if you think about it, is right around the corner. Is it scary? Yes. Is it inevitable? Regrettably, yes. So, is there anything institutions can do? Absolutely. 

Now comes the hard part: there is no one-size-fits-all solution, because we simply do not have the same population levels of 18-year-olds to fill seats. But there are institutions who are actively implementing strategies to combat the blow that this enrollment cliff can cause. 

Solution #1: 

The University of Southern Maine has shifted their focus from recruitment to retention, increasing their stability by doing so. The Chronical of Higher Education article, How Maine Became a Laboratory for the Future of Public Higher Ed, explains how they heavily focused on student success and support, and this pivot gave them a 6% increase in their overall retention during their 2018-2019 academic year as compared to previous years.

They created the Enrollment Management, Marketing, and Student Retention unit in 2015 to generate these data informed decisions and they have two reports they produce annually. They have the “USM Factbook” that informs the university about enrollment, demographics, programs, retention, and graduation rates. They also have “By the Numbers” which addresses their most requested stats about USM such as admissions, enrollment, costs, class size, faculty, and degree completion. By doing so, they are able to use this data and understand their focus should be on retention and re-enrollment. 

Solution #2: 

The North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities group are taking a different approach when it comes to their retention efforts. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education article, How to Survive the Enrollment Bust, 30 out of 35 colleges and universities within this group are focusing on students’ overall success by making transfers from two-year colleges to four-year private institutions more efficient. They hope by streamlining this process, they will positively impact their enrollment rates. 

Are these fancy answers that will address every institution’s needs? No, of course not. What these do provide though are real examples of institutions who took the leap to find a solution that works for them.  

Challenge #2: Cost of Tuition 

Will I ever be able to pay back my student loans? 

No one wants to be burdened with debt (especially in this economy) and considering that the average amount of time it takes to pay back student loans is 20 years according to Forbes, I highly doubt students and families are jumping for joy.  

The Inside Higher Ed article, Americans See College’s Value but Question Its Price, explains that there are numerous studies showing that people do value higher education and think a degree is worth having, but justifying the price is where this questioning comes into play. Another Inside Higher Ed article, Tuition Resets Continue Amid Public Skepticism of College’s Value, stated that Sallie Mae reported that in 2023, 78% of students and families did not consider colleges based on the institution’s price.  

So, what’s a solution? Lower tuition?  

Actually yes, it is.  

Solution #1: 

According to the Inside Higher Ed article, Tuition Resets Continue Amid Public Skepticism of College’s Value, Bridgewater College in Virginia and Wartburg College in Iowa are actively shifting from traditional pricing models to adapt to the new educational world. Their goal is accessibility, reducing their prices by 62% and 48%, respectively. Wartburg College was able to increase their enrollment rate by 20% through a publicized tuition decrease. Although this is a significant and enticing increase, it should be noted that this will not be the case for every institution.  

Solution #2: 

A tuition reset is not the only answer though. Institutional aid is another factor we must consider, which is money, usually grants or scholarships, that the school provides for students. Unlike federal aid, each school has different policies and guidelines when it comes to their institutional aid provided. The Inside Higher Ed article, How New FAFSA Will Change What Students Pay, explains that with the new FAFSA system undergoing a major change, the Brookings Institute estimates that there may be 2.2 million students eligible for additional institutional aid and these benefits will total $3.7 billion, which means we are heading in the right direction.  

Trinity University in Texas is a school I want to point out because they have a yearly cost of $68,224, but 52% of their students graduate with no debt because of their institutional aid programs in place. They have a $1.7 billion endowment, enabling them to offer strong institutional aid to students and rank in the top 40 institutions for endowments per student.  

Education is not a luxury good. The article, EDUCAUSE Top 10 #3: The Enrollment Crisis, addresses that students and families are more informed consumers and are really evaluating these huge financial decisions that institutions are asking them to make. Providing students and families with accessible education through a tuition reset or providing more financial resources allows them to see college as an asset and attend with confidence.  

Challenge #3: The Public Perception of a Four-Year Degree  

The 2022 Gallup report, Education for What?, states, The results show that additional years of education beyond high school make for a healthier, more civic-minded individual who is more likely to interact with neighbors and family members, and to do work that aligns with their natural talents and interests. 

Despite this data showing that there are benefits to earning a degree, why do we hear so many varying opinions?  

Affordability is a huge factor that influences people’s decisions and perceptions of college. The Inside Higher Ed article, Americans See College’s Value but Question Its Price, explains that the rise in tuition and the lack of funding from states now puts the costs on students and families’ backs causing them to reconsider their return on investment.  

There has also been a lack of transparency from institutions when it comes to debt, post-grad earnings, and any risks associated with specific degree programs. The same article, Americans See College’s Value but Question Its Price, has a survey with 1,497 American adults shows that 92% of them believe that individuals should have access to this data before making the decision about college. People want to know ahead of time that the money they are spending will give them the results they want. 

What can be done?  

Solution #1: 

The Postsecondary Value Commission recommends colleges and universities “take actions such as creating clearer academic pathways and credit transfer policies, develop stronger advising systems that reduce students’ time-to-credential, and better target institutional aid resources to focus on students with the greatest financial need, including basic needs like housing and food.” The recent EDUCAUSE Top 10 #3: The Enrollment Crisis article also emphasizes that having access to data allows these adjustments to be better understood and carefully considered, voicing, “Such data also provides an opportunity to better understand prospective and current students’ needs and, accordingly, to adjust academic programs, support services (from housing and food insecurities to mental health needs), and enrollment process touchpoints.”   

Altering this perception may be hard, but it is not impossible. Having access to data showing the needs of students and actually addressing these needs will positively influence the perceptions of higher education.  

Challenge #4: Alternative Credentialing 

Micro-credentialing programs offer their own unique set of courses and certifications that are skill based, and often are relatively cost efficient. Coursera, EdX, Udemy, and Skillshare are some of the more popular credentialing programs you will see on the market, but there are an abundance of them out there (I have even taken a few myself).  

The most appealing factors about these programs are that they are more affordable than a degree, they offer specific skills training, they can be completed anywhere, and they are faster to complete. Who does that appeal to the most? Adults. Who is a growing demographic in the higher ed world? Adults!  

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center stated that as of July 2021 there are 40.4 million adults who are a part of the Some College, No Credential (SCNC) population. With the shrinking pool of 18-year-old college students, your adult learner is what institutions are starting to focus on. 

Solution #1: 

Mississippi State University is playing this game of life. They are not modifying their traditional structure, and are instead adding something completely new, specifically targeting these non-traditional adult learners. The Inside Higher Ed article, Program Launch: College for Adult Learners and Continuing Education, explained that MSU is creating a college combining their Center for Distance Education and Center for Continuing Education staff and resources in order to offer these new micro-credential programs.  

So, does this mean that your traditional student isn’t interested in micro-credentials? I know I really focused on adult learners, but traditional learners are just as interested. 

Solution #2: 

The University of Texas system is taking a different approach and is teaming up with Coursera to provide stackable micro-credentials for students. The 2023 Inside Higher Ed article, University of Texas System Bets Big on Microcredentials, explained that their pilot test, which took place in December 2022, involved 3,000 UT students who completed over 6,000 courses. This success provided them $2 million in funding for this new program. Now their goal is to have 30,000 students complete a course or earn a micro-credential by 2025.  

Just because there will be fewer 18-year-olds does not mean there will be fewer learners. Adapting to this new educational paradigm to stay on top of trends and meet students, whether they are traditional or not, where they want to be met is crucial.  

So, where does this leave us?  

Despite these challenges, there are solutions out there.   

Here’s what we know:  

  • The Demographic Cliff is going to impact enrollment starting 2025 – BUT institutions can focus on retention.  
  • The high cost of tuition is affecting people’s perceptions and justifications for postsecondary education – BUT institutions can implement a tuition reset or increase institutional aid (you have two options here!)  
  • The public perception of value is being questioned – BUT prioritizing and addressing the needs of students can positively influence the perceptions of higher education. 
  • Alternative forms of education are gaining popularity – BUT institutions can adapt to the new educational landscape and listen to their student base.  

Institutions are actively implementing strategies to address these concerns, and what all of the success stories have in common is adaptation. Adaptation starts with the availability of and acting on critical data, with research and data analytics giving institutions access to information needed to make pivotal decisions quickly. The EDUCAUSE Top 10 #3: The Enrollment Crisis article states, “To be strategic, institutional leaders must view their data and tools in a holistic manner, validate datasets, and look for causal relationships. Leveraging such information, leaders can help students determine the value of an institution, a degree program, or a credential.”  

Whether that be meeting your enrollment targets, refocusing your attention on other ways to keep your enrollment stable, or just how to stay afloat, the availability and integrity of your data is crucial. While there are many examples of institutions and their response to these challenges, it’s not about replication but instead drawing inspiration from their successes and adapting their strategies to suit the unique needs of your institution. 

Marketing Intern at Evisions

Maya Kvesic is a Marketing Intern based in California. She has been working at Evisions for 6 months and has a passion for copywriting. A proud graduate of California State University Long Beach, she earned her B.A. in psychology in 2023. Beyond the world of marketing, Maya finds joy in outdoor activities and finding new places to eat.

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