American colleges and universities are facing a challenge of demographics. We are now in a period where there is and will continue to be a dip in the number of traditional college age students (age 18 to 24). According to trends and projections measured by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the number of high school graduates in the U.S. peaked in 2007-08, is now in decline, and will not recover to its previous level until 2016-17. This trend is most acute in the Northeast, and especially so in Upstate New York, where RMS is located. We have seen the effects of this demographic shift first-hand. Over the past several years, a number of our higher education clients have told us they were very concerned by this trend and have engaged us to conduct research to help them adjust their enrollment management strategies.
Colleges and universities are attacking the problem on a number of fronts. Each one presents its own set of challenges, but they’re all sound strategies. As with any strategy, they need to be informed and supported by research throughout the process. Here are a few ways institutions of higher education are working to maintain or even grow enrollment in the face of the demographic slump, and some research activities that can aid in those efforts:
- Attracting adult learners – One way to become less dependent on the shrinking traditional age cohort is to increase programs for adult learners. In the rapidly changing economy, there are many people over 25 who are looking for retraining or to finish degrees that they put on hold or never pursued when they were younger. RMS has a great deal of experience in working with this sector, and it’s important to understand that they have some fundamentally different needs and expectations from college than do many younger people. They also have a host of time, lifestyle and transportation barriers that are often not the case with the 18-24 population. Key information that is needed to pursue adult learners include: the workforce demand of the local area, course delivery preferences, and exploring ways that an institution can help adult learners overcome barriers to access. Focus groups, surveys and even mystery shopping can help answer those questions.
- Increased retention efforts – This is a very broad-based issue that can touch on issues like counseling, residence life, academic support, financial aid and initial admission standards. Some key research questions related to retention boil down to figuring out what factors within control of the institution might lead students to not complete their studies and measuring how well the institution is doing at addressing them. Student satisfaction surveys or focus groups, housing studies, and assessments of student services can aid in this process.
- Breaking into new markets – Many schools are trying to go outside their traditional recruiting areas to attract new students. These new markets might be geographic, with increased recruiting efforts in counties or states where the institution had less of a presence, or programmatic, creating new degree or certificate programs. In either case, it’s important that the schools measure their brand equity among the new groups (what a college means to potential students in its home county might be very different from what it means to people in another state – if it is even known at all there.) The long-term success of new programs should be explored with feasibility studies. Entering into new territory is essential for growth, but it’s always good to look before you leap.
Those represent just a few of the possible ways to deal with enrollment challenges. The proper approach or mix of approaches will vary from institution to institution. What does not vary, however, is the need for data-driven decisions at every step as the key to success.