Student demographics are shifting. Here are 4 things colleges can do about it.

Kathleen Escarcha, senior staff writerKathleen Escarcha, senior staff writer

Between 2025 and 2029, the college-age population in the United States is expected to drop by nearly 15% due to falling U.S. fertility rates, and then drop another percentage point or two in the subsequent years.

That prediction comes from Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College who recently released a book based on his research, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education.

"Students are going to be a hot commodity, a scarce resource," says Grawe.

Regional four-year universities and the Northeast—where a disproportionate share of U.S. higher ed institutions are located—will see the greatest fall in demand, he predicts.

Grawe recently discussed his research in a presentation and Q&A session hosted at EAB by Sally Amoruso, Executive Principal for EAB. Based on his research and conversations with campus leaders, Grawe outlined a few ways schools can secure their enrollment pipeline in the coming years.   

Strategy 1: Recruit smarter

When Grawe presents his research to campus leaders, he's found that many believe a better recruiting and marketing strategy alone will help them avoid an enrollment fallout.

But if every institution focuses on this strategy alone, colleges will face increasingly intense competition for the same students. "Recognize that everyone is thinking like you and that this strategy can't work for everyone," says Grawe. If you approach the demographic changes with the idea that only your institution will break the odds, you make it harder for everyone on average, he adds.

Strategy 2: Improve access to education

Institutions can't just compete for the same shrinking pool of students, they need to expand the pool of students, says Grawe. When we improve access to education, we bring new students to campus who may not have considered college as an option.

Improving access to education is critical to counter the student demographic shifts, says Grawe. If colleges fail to reach diverse students, they'll back themselves up into a corner and create a larger enrollment problem, he warns.

Learn more: 6 proven ways to boost your college enrollment

Strategy 3: Retain more students

Once you’re successfully recruiting new students and getting them to campus, then it’s time to make sure they stick around. Colleges that focus on retention and student success both improve their revenue and serve their institution's mission, Grawe points out.

Faculty will play a growing role in whether students stay, graduate, or re-enroll at an institution. Colleges can encourage faculty to take on this role by tying tenure evaluations to student success initiatives, he recommends.

Strategy 4: Articulate the value of higher ed

To win over prospective students and families, colleges and universities need to talk more about why students should go to college and graduate on time. To clearly articulate the value of higher ed, institutions need to be transparent about their graduation rate and career outcomes.

When institutions bury their results on their website or in complex reports, they do a disservice to themselves and potential applicants, says Grawe. "We’re not making it easy for families to make informed decisions. And we're not telling our story effectively."


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