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Enrollments plummet, worries grow in higher education

Census numbers have revealed that colleges and universities lost half a million students in 2012
University Business, October 2013

More higher ed leaders are concerned about maintaining enrollment levels at the same time Census numbers have revealed that colleges and universities lost half a million students in 2012. A drop-off had been anticipated for some time, but now institutions must scramble to manage.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that college enrollment plummeted by 467,000 students in the fall of 2012 after several years of strong growth. In an unrelated survey by the global accounting giant KPMG , the number of administrators at public and private institutions who said they were “very concerned” about maintaining enrollment levels jumped to 37 percent in 2013 from 23 percent last year.

“People are looking for lower-cost options and evaluating return on investment,” says Milford McGuirt, KPMG’s national audit sector leader for higher education and nonprofits. “It’s becoming more of an economic decision.”

According to the Census Bureau, the number of graduate and undergraduate students fell last year after increasing by 3.2 million between 2006 and 2011. The 2012 decline was led by a drop of 419,000 in students 25 and older, while the number of younger students fell by only 48,000.

The inability of parents and students to pay tuition had the biggest impact on enrollment cited by the 103 higher education leaders surveyed by KPMG. While 58 percent blamed family finances, 38 percent of the administrators said changing U.S. demographics, competition from other schools, and insufficient financial aid had affected enrollment. Other factors included the inability to offer competitive tuition (22 percent), students not seeing the college or university as a “hot” institution (19 percent), and curriculum not matching the job market (15 percent).

To steady enrollment, 59 percent of administrators surveyed said they would work to put more resources into online education and other technology without compromising the quality of instruction. About the same percentage said their institutions would use social media to connect better with students.

McGuirt says institutions should focus on differentiating themselves in the marketplace as the best places to achieve specific educational goals and prepare for their careers.