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3 trends about the graduate and adult learner market that presidents need to know

March 7, 2024, By Beth Donaldson, Managing Director, Consulting Services

As a data geek, I look forward to EAB’s annual Higher Ed State of the Sector research every year. And this year’s did not disappoint. The research covers six key areas: public perception of higher ed’s value, sustainable business models, student readiness and well-being, hybrid campus, artificial intelligence, and of course, enrollment and demographics (which is most immediately interesting to me as a former VPEM). Now, in my work within EAB’s Adult Learner Recruitment division, I meet with university leaders around the country to discuss what these trends and others mean for their institution. Across this new enrollment research, here are the three most important takeaways for presidents and their cabinets as they consider their graduate, online, and adult learner portfolios.

The big bets university presidents are placing on graduate and adult enrollment

1. Population decline will make grad and adult enrollment growth more difficult

Our researchers have had their eyes on the much-discussed “demographic cliff” for nearly a decade now. But the demographic cliff—or the 6.3% decline in the 15-to-19-year-old population from 2021 to 2032—is just the beginning of a larger phenomenon. This youth population is projected to fall even more dramatically, by 21%, between 2041 and 2100. That decline represents a reduction in the college-going population three-times that of pandemic-era enrollment losses. While 2041 might seem far off, the next few years are critical in setting institutions up for success as we prepare for these demographic dips.

Population decline will have some positive impacts, including wage growth and less pollution. But of course, it also means there will be fewer students in the market. From identifying the most productive sources of new leads to investing in the marketing work necessary to convert these leads to enrollments, university leaders will need to make strategic decisions and investments now to weather these changes.

2. More students are set to come from “emerging markets”

University presidents should also consider the reshuffling happening in international student markets. For example, international enrollments from China are expected to peak in 2027 before declining through the 2030s. With demographic declines domestically and in key international markets like China and India, institutions will need to look to “emerging markets” to find pockets of potential students, namely across Africa and the Middle East.

According to projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE), young Africans are expected to make up 42% of the world’s youth population by 2030—representing an opportunity for universities to expand their recruitment presence across Africa.

3. Economic change will impact student and labor market demand

Many of these population changes will beget changes to the labor market that will impact graduate and adult learner enrollment. As the American population ages, our researchers expect that that the US will move from a knowledge-centric economy—characterized by intense innovation, research and development, and intellectual capital—to a service-oriented economy in which sectors like retail, healthcare, and banking flourish. This could increase demand for non-traditional learning opportunities, a trend we’re already seeing as bite-sized offerings at non-university providers rise.

Hear tactics for building successful standalone and stackable credentials

An aging population will also exacerbate caregiver labor shortages already prevalent in the market. This will likely drive many adults away from pursuing degrees as folks assume caregiving responsibilities. Other students will choose to balance school with caregiving responsibilities—meaning the institutions that offer the flexibility and services these adult learners need to succeed will be best positioned to increase enrollment and retain students. It may also increase demand for caregiving professions and in turn, student interest in nursing, social work, and other health care fields.

 From population decline to economic change, these data points can seem a bit daunting. But there is opportunity in disruption, especially for institutions making strategic decisions now to future-proof their campuses.

Beth Donaldson

Beth Donaldson

Managing Director, Consulting Services

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