We’re officially in the heart of “back-to-school” season, and it’s shaping up to be another busy year in higher education. College and Universities nationwide continue to grapple with lean budgets, a decline in enrollment, and rising expectations among prospective students as the world continues to shift to technology-reliant learning models. Staying ahead of the curve is critical for institutions in order to remain competitive in the ever-changing marketplace. Let’s take a deeper dive into how your institution can break out ahead of the pack when tackling these three common issues.

  1. Let’s Talk About Money

Things have certainly changed in the higher education landscape over the last decade. Students are more involved than ever in ensuring they don’t take on a massive college debt load upon graduation. The rising cost of traditional education has become a popular topic of dissatisfaction among young learners. The college debt statistics are pervasive in the news and on social media. There’s constant buzz discussing the $1.6 trillion in student debt, which is often labelled a “crisis.” What is not discussed as often is the decline in borrowing in recent years. A couple weeks ago, Newsweek referenced the College Board’s finding that “the amount undergraduates borrowed in federal loans dropped last year [2018] to $4,510 per student from $5,830 in the 2010–2011 academic year. Loans taken out annually by students and parents for all higher education institutions also fell, from a peak of $127.7 billion in 2010–11 to $105.5 billion last year [2018].” This directly speaks to the shift in mindset among younger generations and their parents. They’re actively seeking ways to reduce their student loan burden. Colleges and Universities are also exploring ways to reduce costs to meet these changing expectations.

There are several ways Colleges and Universities can start to address this primary concern. We’ve noticed a surge in demand for higher education market research services surrounding tuition pricing. Our team recently completed a tuition pricing study for a prominent University in Upstate NY. They recognized that their tuition price may not be competitive and wanted to determine the ideal price point to attract more students. We were able to provide them with the information they needed to determine that a slight reduction in tuition was warranted. We conducted a competitive analysis to identify tuition pricing among key competitors and followed it up with an online survey designed to identify the ideal price point to attract the most students. This is a trend that many Colleges and Universities are exploring, particularly for online programs or graduate programs. Another great option is to conduct student needs research. Are there services on campus or offered digitally that are not being utilized as much as originally hoped? Is the usage low enough to warrant removal from the suite of services offered? Are there services that students want or need which are not currently offered? All great questions to ask, and a top-notch research firm will help you outline a plan to address your most pressing higher education pricing concerns.

  1. Battling a Decline in Enrollment

The numbers don’t lie. Enrollment dips have been a source of concern for Colleges and Universities for several years now. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, higher education enrollment dipped by almost 2% in Spring 2019 as compared to the prior year. Four-year for-profit institutions experienced the largest decline at almost 20%, while 4-year private nonprofits experienced the largest positive change with a 3.2% increase in enrollment. Across sectors, undergraduate program enrollment fell 2.3% while graduate/professional degree enrollment jumped up by 2%. Fields of study at four-year institutions related to Science Technologies/Technicians (6.4%), Transportation and Materials Moving (6.2%), and Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services (5.4%) experienced the largest increase in enrollment, while programs related to Personal and Culinary Services (-16.7%), and Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities (-7.1%) saw the biggest dips in enrollment. At two-year institutions, Architectural and Related Services (17.8%), Personal and Culinary Services (17.6%), and Psychology (17.0%) experienced the greatest growth in enrollment, while Basic Skills (-23.9%), and Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities (-3.0%) decreased.

So…how is this information useful for your institution? Program feasibility research can help your team determine whether the current suite of academic offerings is meeting student demand, if there are gaps in offerings, or if there are programs that may be removed due to minimal current or projected demand by students or in the labor market. For more information on conducting a feasibility study, check out this blog post.

  1. It’s a Digital World, But We Need to Teach in It

Let’s come right out and say it—keeping up with the advances in educational technology can be a bear. While instructors are becoming increasingly savvy, the constantly evolving technology expectations of entering students can make it difficult to compete in such a crowded educational space. Coupled with a decline in enrollment and budget constraints, exploring educational technology options is a great way for institutions to become increasingly lean while also surging ahead as an educational market leader. It is expected that by 2023, the use of cloud applications and infrastructure will soar by over 22%. By using cloud-based systems internally, institutions may be able to address some of the most pressing issues such as: monitoring grant and state/federal funding in real time against expenses; staff recruitment and human resources management; and expanding the student body composition to offset enrollment declines. At the same time, enrollment in digital education programs is on an upward trend. Affordable online programs are becoming increasingly popular amongst prospective students as the digital landscape becomes intertwined with their daily lives (essentially from birth). The tough part for institutions is figuring out how to offer these programs in a way that will produce the most commonly desired outcomes—increased enrollment, and although it is a much less discussed priority, reduction in the institution’s expenses.

If you’re wondering how to jump this hurdle, you’re not alone. Let’s explore some options. First, consider having the IT department in your institution spearhead technology research. They don’t need to have established research chops, you can identify a reputable firm to assist with that, but the IT department will be instrumental in rolling out newly adopted platforms and equipment, so their expertise will be very valuable. In particular, you want to investigate—what technology do students prefer in the classroom? How do instructors feel about those same technology options? Would certain technology investments be more likely to positively impact enrollment? Which adoptions would resonate best with prospective students and current students? What resources will be needed to allow for seamless adoption and utilization of the newly added technology? The findings from this research will provide invaluable information which can be used to inform future strategic planning efforts, and help your institution stay ahead of the digital curve.


RMS is a full-service market research firm located in Syracuse, NY. If you are interested in learning more about our research capabilities, please contact Sandy Baker, our Vice President of Corporate Development at SandyB@RMSresults.com or by calling 1-866-567-5422.