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Outlook on enrollment: Perfect storm of challenges ahead

Higher ed leaders in 2015 will have to step up efforts to retain students, do a better job of marketing their sticker prices and prove their institutions’ value
University Business, January 2015
Higher ed leaders expect modest enrollment increases in the coming year. (Click to enlarge graphic)
Higher ed leaders expect modest enrollment increases in the coming year. (Click to enlarge graphic)

From declining numbers of traditional-age high school graduates and changing student demographics, to the overall concern among consumers about the value of a higher education, anxiety will haunt enrollment administrators moving forward.

“Last year was a stressful year for many colleges, and it has just exacerbated because of market conditions,” says John Lawlor, principal and founder of The Lawlor Group, a higher education marketing firm. Many private colleges and universities, for instance, missed enrollment goals.

Ed Venit, senior director with the Education Advisory Board, a research and technology company, likens the upcoming enrollment predicament to an iron triangle, with enrollment, revenue and selectivity/quality as the three points.

“To improve enrollment, you have to either take students you wouldn’t normally take, or drop the price to look more attractive. Neither of these is a great option,” he says. “Dropping the price hurts the margin, and dropping the quality could be bad for your reputation and also impact graduation rates.”

It’s no wonder that higher ed leaders in 2015 will have to step up efforts to retain students, do a better job of marketing their sticker prices and prove their institutions’ value amid the political uncertainty of a Democratic president and Republican Congress. Here are some trends enrollment experts are predicting for the coming year, so others can think and plan ahead, too.

Focusing on the middle years

Officials at more institutions are realizing that by reallocating some resources from enrollment to retention, they can make up for their smaller freshman class sizes. “I keep hearing the phrase ‘retain to grow,’ ” says Venit. “Even though attrition is happening in the middle, you see a lot of attention in the first year and then again to get super seniors out the door.”

Traditionally, there just hasn’t been enough done to try to grow sophomore, junior and senior classes, and for many colleges, that’s amounted to lost opportunity and lost revenue.

Regulatory changes ahead?

With Republicans now in charge of the Senate, Senator Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education will likely ramp up its efforts, says Michael Reilly, executive director of AACRAO.

As the incoming chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Alexander is most concerned with deregulation, but some of his other pet projects include:

  • Simplifying the FAFSA, which would make applying for financial aid a lot less complicated. Democrats will argue that oversimplification could lead to cuts in aid programs.
  • Fighting the “gainful employment” rule, which he believes will not improve student outcomes, and will disproportionately penalize for-profit institutions.
  • Opposing President Barack Obama’s proposed rating system linking school performance to financial aid.

The biggest ticket item of all is that the Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization. Reilly predicts that given the stalemate that a Democratic presidential administration and Republican Congress could cause, it’s likely that nothing will happen in 2015.

“The last time, reauthorization took five years. I don’t think we’re working together any more efficiently today,” says Reilly.

“It’s less expensive to keep students than recruit new students,” says Lawlor. By keeping students engaged and enrolled, it’s beneficial not only on the tuition dollars front, but to marketing, as well. “Happy students and their parents will tell others in their influence groups they are having a positive experience,” he says.

Shifting the focus toward retaining middle-year students will require forming academic care teams who can begin identifying students with academic stress and can intervene with support and tutoring, says Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

He sees institutions continuing to use early-warning systems that leverage data to identify attrition risk. And then there are transfer prospects. “Expect to see a stronger focus on recruiting transfer students,” Kruger says.

More schools will likely try to improve their transfer policies to ensure seamless transitions, says Tom Green, associate executive director of consulting and strategic enrollment management at AACRAO.

Some strategies include building articulation rules within the student information system to expedite the processing of transfer-credit information, and forming partnerships between community colleges and four-year schools.

These partnerships should develop ways that “information on transfer credits gets into the hands of students through joint mailings, transfer center events or other means,” says Green. By doing so, schools can welcome motivated students who’ve already completed that critical first year or two of study.

Rethinking price and competition

Tuition discounting—and its impact—will also continue to get attention in 2015. “Private colleges are not losing enrollment to who they perceive as a competitor,” Green says. “It’s usually to a publicly-funded institution.”

More colleges will (and should) begin to ask themselves: “Are we losing consideration because of a published price point that isn’t accurate?” Green adds.

Students and their families are doing the math, says Lawlor, and an increasing percentage of students aren’t enrolling in their first-choice school because of money concerns.

As such, he predicts private institutions will work to change the perception about sticker price so they can reach a new segment of prospective students who may qualify for merit- and need-based financial aid, but who previously wouldn’t have bothered applying.

Trying new marketing messages

Colleges in 2015 will work harder to prove their value by trumpeting high graduation rates and alumni career success stories, among other evidence of student success.

Economic conditions and skyrocketing student loan debt will force colleges to rev up messaging about degree completion and employment outcomes, says Venit. “Colleges need to be saying: ‘Look at the infrastructure we have in place to help you along the way.’ ”

As such, more resources will be put into the career exploration process, and not just for seniors, says Kruger. “Career discussions will be integrated as soon as they enroll as freshmen,” he says. “There will be a lot more emphasis on helping students understand their career interests and getting skills that employers want, and trying to get students to develop and articulate those competencies.”

Of course, there will also be some pushback from higher ed leaders who worry that being overly career-focused will make higher education seem too vocational, says Lawlor. “This isn’t about selling your soul, it’s about translating what you can do,” he says. Lawlor even expects to see more traditional, liberal arts-based institutions getting on board with linking education to real-life application.

Increasing student success collaboration

The notion that student success is everyone’s concern will be another dominant theme in 2015. “We’re seeing some senior-level administrators with student success in their portfolio,” says Venit. “And it’s starting to trickle down into getting faculty members more engaged—it affects how deans are being evaluated.”

There also will be a tighter connection between academic advising and the career center, and enrollment management will be more aligned with academic affairs, he believes.

In short, collaboration will be key to overcoming the major challenges of 2015. “No matter your job, you now have to think across the student lifecycle,” says Michael Reilly, executive director of AACRAO. “You might have had silos where everyone dealt with their issues. Now, there’s much more of a need to integrate and try to get everyone’s heads around a more strategic approach.”

Dawn Papandrea is a writer based on Staten Island, N.Y.

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