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Headcount up, enrollment down?

August 27, 2020

Don’t give up on fall enrollment just yet. I’ve heard from many community college leaders recently who have major concerns about fall enrollment and feel resigned to a much smaller fall enrollment than they had hoped. But some colleges see a hidden opportunity when they look a bit deeper: while overall enrollment is down, their headcount is up. If you find your college in this situation, we recommend three strategies that could generate a last-minute enrollment boost.

  • Students who underestimate their ability to take additional credits in the fall and are under-enrolled
  • Students who thought they’d take the semester off to work and now see college as a better fit in the challenging employment environment
  • Transient students who planned to study on-campus at a university and have since reevaluated their decisions.

1. Maintain your course planning agility

This spring, colleges quickly devised solutions to keep their students, faculty, and staff safe as COVID-19 raged across communities. As campuses pivoted to remote instruction, schools offered students pass/fail grading options, no-consequence withdrawals, and course extensions to help them navigate this unanticipated challenge. Many colleges have ended these policies, but they may still be needed to show students that your college is willing to share the risk associated with enrolling during the pandemic.

Students certainly aren’t the only ones facing an unpredictable fall. Varied student registration patterns place additional pressure on academic departments to respond to these fluctuations. For example, we’ve heard that courses that are typically full are now under-enrolled. At the same time, unexpected enrollment from transient university students places pressure on general education courses.

To keep costs down while maximizing enrollment, community college leaders need to look for opportunities to optimize faculty workloads. Under-filled course sections that are offered asynchronously should be collapsed into few sections to free up faculty to teach late-start “mini-mester” sections of general education courses. This strategy not only optimizes your teaching faculty, but also allows all students to consider increasing their attempted credit hours.

2. Communicate availability

Communicating fast-moving changes became the cornerstone of student success in the spring. Campuses that use Navigate polled students, pushed out notifications, and conducted outreach campaigns to provide the right level of support to their students. Lower than average per student enrollment suggests students have concerns about managing the same amount of coursework they have in the past. But data have been clear about the consequences: part-time students often face delays in graduation, disproportionate equity gaps, and increased probability of leaving college without earning a degree. As students begin a fall term unlike any other, now is the time to reintroduce and communicate flexibility.

To bolster fall enrollment, conduct a campaign that looks for students who enrolled in more than nine credits in the spring and are now enrolled in fewer credits to highlight ways they can maintain their pace toward graduation. Consider polling students who aren’t enrolled to better understand what you can do to ease the concerns that have prevented them from enrolling. The same principles of communication that served you well in the spring can continue to reap rewards this fall.

Communication campaigns should extend beyond your current student body. Grand Rapids Community College established a hotline for students who want to study close to home to engage students who have rethought their plans to study at a university or planned to work instead of attending college this fall but haven’t found a steady job. Looking to populations who aren’t part of your typical enrollment funnel can have a significant effect on this fall’s enrollment while also supporting students in achieving their goals.

3. Incentivize good decisions

Budgets are tight at nearly every institution across the country, but a small investment in grants to encourage students to enroll in additional classes may have an outsized effect. For example, Bossier Parish Community College offers a tuition waiver for one course to returning stopouts who can enroll full-time. Similarly, the summer enrollment incentive at Alamo Colleges District can serve as a model to bolster enrollment. Students who complete 18 or 24 credits in the academic year receive one to two courses, respectively, tuition-free in the summer. For students already enrolled in nine credits, colleges could offer a free late-start course. Or, for students who are already full-time, a free course could be added to their fall enrollment and they could receive a credit for another course this spring.

If students enrolled in…

9 credits

1 free late-start course

12 credits

2 free courses
(1 fall, 1 spring)

Grants offer students who are under-enrolled this fall a reason to set aggressive goals during these difficult times. Paired with reminders that students can drop late-start courses if they find themselves overwhelmed before they begin, students may take the incentive to stay on pace toward graduation.

Now is the time to deploy the same creativity that kept students on track last spring. The good news for colleges like yours is that your headcount is up. Now the work begins to help students make the best choices for this term by demonstrating your commitment to their success.

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