Assessing the State of Undergraduate Enrollment in the US

5 min read

Joanna Hughes

Attracting students -- more precisely, the right students -- is essential to the survival of any higher education institution in the United States. Which begs the question: How is it going? Read on for a closer look at the latest trends in undergraduate enrollment, along with challenges and opportunities within the sector.

Holding Steady with Growth Ahead

Much has been written about the ups and downs of undergraduate enrollments in the US. And indeed, the numbers do fluctuate from year to year. Factor in the meteoric growth of graduate enrollments and, by comparison, the numbers may seem sluggish.

The overall trend is actually a positive one, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Not only did total undergraduate enrollments in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increase by 30 percent from 13.2 million to 17 million in the last two decades, but the outlook calls for more of the same. Predicts NCES, “By 2026, total undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 19.3 million students.” This represents an impressive 14 percent spike. Another promising trend? Increased enrollments among minority students at the undergraduate level.

According to an “Open Doors” report from the Institute of International Education (IEE), 45 percent of universities surveyed reported a drop in international students this past fall.  Still, this decline is not indicative of the entire higher education sector. Rather, with 31 percent of universities reporting increases in international enrollments and 24 percent reporting no change, universities seeing the same or more international student enrollments are in the majority. In fact, the total number of international undergraduate students in the US increased by 2.7 percent between 2016 and 2017 with New England universities leading the pack when it comes to increasing their international student share.

Universities themselves can take much of the credit for ongoing interest from international students. Said IEE President Allan Goodman, “Educators are letting students know they are welcome here and working to prepare them for a successful academic experience in the United States.”

The Key to Increasing Enrollment

Of course, it makes sense to sustain and develop undergraduate enrollments.  As in countries like Australia and the UK, higher education in the US is a billion dollar industry. Colleges and universities fuel local and federal economies and generate employment and investments around the country. Undergraduates go on to become graduate students, and graduate students bring the added clout of academic and research development along with funding and revenue.  Still, while reports and research tend to focus on the value of international graduate students in these systems, undergraduate enrollment is equally if not more valuable as a long-term strategy for both academic growth and economic stability.

Currently, more than 40 percent of jobs require a post-secondary degree, and by 2020 policy experts predict that there will be 55 million job openings, 65 percent of the American workforce will need to have at least some post-secondary education, with 24 percent dependent on a bachelor’s degree and 11 percent needing a graduate degree or higher. With an estimated shortfall of 5 million workers in the next decade, the value of an undergraduate degree will continue to grow.

Clearly, there is both a need and incentive for growing and developing undergraduate programs. Which begs the question: Are universities doing everything they can to boost enrollments? Start with these four questions:

1. Is your website doing its job?

First, are prospective students finding your website and how are they finding it.  If your digital recruitment strategy depends entirely on branded searches, you’re missing out on a wealth of highly qualified students who may know what they want to study, but don’t know where. Make sure that your strategies are optimized and future-proofed for branded and organic searches.  The good news is that search engine optimization (SEO) doesn’t have to require a complete overhaul of your website content.  Partner with a higher education marketing specialist that focuses on highly qualified organic search results and you can concentrate on perfecting the brand strategy of your own digital marketing efforts.

This means high-quality, relevant content that is easy to find.  When prospective students visit your website, they’re not just looking for information, they’re looking for it quickly. Information including what programs you have available and at what levels; cost; and duration of programs must be easy to find and clearly communicated.  Why? Because if they don’t readily find what they’re looking for, they’ll click away and look somewhere else.

Other website-related factors which can help drive enrollment? Adding an online form through which prospective students can request more information and mobile-friendliness.

Lastly, it’s not good enough to think your website is doing its job; you must know it. A preponderance of analytics and metrics are available offering insights into your website’s performance. Use them.

2. Are you harnessing the full power of social media?

Social media is a powerful tool for engaging prospective students. From sharing information about your offerings to featuring student experiences, there’s a near-endless way to showcase what makes your school unique and appealing.

However, many schools are still thinking of social media as supplemental -- instead of integral -- to their comprehensive enrollment management and marketing process. This can ultimately lead to missed opportunities. As with your website, you must do more than merely through up content and hope it sticks. You must also factor in how this content will drive an audience member to action.

Again, performance-tracking tools and specialist services can help you measure where you’re succeeding and where you’re falling apart.

3. Is your geographical presence large enough?

As online learning continues to grow, many colleges and universities are underestimating the value of bricks and mortar. With blended learning and distance learning also on the rise, many students are looking to combine both paths.

Expanding your geographical footprint -- both domestically and internationally -- through branch and satellite campuses can boost both your enrollments and your brand. The most successful branch campuses boast central downtown locations, enhanced opportunities for faculty-student interactions; and strong relationships with local businesses.

4. Are you playing to today’s diverse student body?

Student demographics look very different today than they did just a few years ago. Not only are students older, but fewer are living on campus. Many are also working while juggling personal and professional commitments.  In other words, “traditional” and “typical” are no longer synonymous in the higher education sphere.

The more you acknowledge today’s student through flexible programming -- such as adult education, flexible learning, and online offerings -- the wider the net you cast in terms building a bigger potential student base.

There’s no denying that today’s universities face new challenges when it comes to recruiting and enrolling undergraduate students. The good news? With informed, proactive and comprehensive strategies in place, it’s possible to transform these obstacles into opportunities.

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