Whether you’re aiming to grow enrollment, shape your incoming class, or achieve other enrollment goals, demographic change is on every enrollment leader’s mind. Spring 2018 marked the third consecutive year that fewer than 40% of colleges met their enrollment goals by May 1. And this trend likely won’t reverse any time soon, as the U.S. college-age population continues to shrink.
In fact, an EAB analysis shows that the population of high school students has been declining in some regions since 2013 and will continue to decline through 2025. And Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College, predicts that that the college-age population will drop 15% between 2025 and 2029.
Grawe adds that regional four-year institutions will lose more than 11% of their students between 2012 and 2029.
But what’s the fate of small, private colleges and universities?
Though all signs point to enrollment declines, there are some institutions experiencing rapid enrollment growth. The University of the Cumberlands, for instance, has seen 350% growth in enrollment in the period between 2007 and 2017, making it the fastest-growing doctoral private nonprofit institution in the United States.
And Cumberlands isn’t alone. Several other regional, private institutions are experimenting with new tactics to grow enrollments, boost revenue, and ultimately stay afloat.
It’s important to note, however, that enrollment growth in the past few years is still aligned with Grawe’s predictions, notes Margaret Sullivan, a senior analyst with EAB’s Enrollment Management Forum. She adds that small private colleges experiencing rapid enrollment growth shouldn’t get too comfortable, and should begin looking into the following expansions to get ready for the next ten years.
Here’s how Cumberlands and others are quashing enrollment predictions and welcoming record numbers of students to campus:
1. Invest in student services
In addition to investing in marketing, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and Western Governors University (WGU) report that a bulk of dollars spent go to student support services. Paul LeBlanc, SNHU’s entrepreneurial leader, says that the university allocates more than 40% of spending to student services—and employs more than 500 academic advisors.
Why? Satisfied students are more likely to recommend their institution to others. And 20% of SNHU students come through referrals, according to the university.
LeBlanc tells the Chronicle that he believes the key to SNHU’s success has been focusing “laser-like” on the user experience. In fact, as a result of SNHU’s commitment to investing in student services, the university has been able to shrink recruiting costs in recent years, according to Alana Burns, the university’s chief marketing officer.
2. Expand in-demand academic programs
Program offerings affect whether prospective students apply and ultimately enroll in an institution, writes EAB Associate Director Alexa Silverman. “Students might not even send in an application if they can’t find the program they are looking for in university materials,” notes Silverman. “As job markets and student interests change, chairs and faculty need to consider adapting their degree offerings in response.”
For instance, California Baptist University grew 163% across the last decade thanks, in part, to its addition of new programs in in-demand fields, such as nursing, engineering, and aviation science.
After all, as technology changes job outcomes, colleges will need update programming to stay relevant. According to a report from McKinsey & Company, nearly 40% of U.S. jobs will shrink by 2040. And to land (or keep) the remaining jobs, students will have to build new in-demand skills—particularly those involving technology.
3. Forge industry partnerships
Jayson Boyers, president of Cleary University, argues that the best way to stay relevant as a small institution is through industry partnerships. “Such partnerships pave the way for educational institutions to build a curriculum that responds to industry needs, staying on the cutting edge of where our economies are headed—a win that keeps on giving,” writes Boyers for Education Dive.
For instance, Cleary recently partnered with TEAM Schostak, a regional restaurant company spanning five states, to give restaurant workers free tuition to its programs. “This partnership—and others that we are creating—guarantees a steady stream of students for us, something any university would welcome,” writes Boyers. “For industry, this arrangement promotes employees’ longevity and loyalty, and their upward mobility within the company.”
Employer partnerships don’t just affect enrollment at small colleges, they can also influence adult learner recruitment at larger institutions, according to EAB research. That’s because nearly all adult learners are returning to college to start, advance, or change their careers. And industry partnerships not only demonstrate the career relevance of their programs, but can also boost an institution’s reputation in the minds of prospective students.
Sources: Boyers, Education Dive, 8/16/19; Field, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/18/19; McKinsey & Company report, July 2019; Saeed, EAB, 1/15/19; Silverman, EAB, 10/9/18; EAB expert insight, 10/14/15
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And by June 1, the majority of colleges still hadn’t met their enrollment goals, according to the 2018 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed.