Reducing the Impact of the Enrollment Cliff

6 min read

Benjamin Boivin

As the global population continues to grow, higher education professionals and enrollment management consultants have set their focus on the year 2030, also known as the United States’ enrollment cliff (*insert dramatic, impending doom sound effect). 

So what is the enrollment cliff? Thanks to the Great Recession of 2008, American saw a steep decline in the birth rate. While the economy has rebounded over the past decade and a half, the birth rate has not. Higher education experts predict between 2025 and 2029, the college-aged population in the United States (ages 18-22) will decrease by 15%. To make matters worse, a decade-long annual decline in national college enrollment was accentuated by the global pandemic in March 2020.   

Fear not. There is hope for forward-thinking institutions willing to prepare for the cliff ahead. 

Reimagining The Traditional College Student 

Degree-seeking students from 25 to 34 years old will increase by 11% between 2015 and 2026. The young adult population prefers a flexible, hybrid education model as they focus on family, professional life, and personal responsibilities.

As students of color and the Latinx populations continue to increase on-campus, institutions need to consider their needs and cater to their goals. This may require hiring more diverse admissions recruiters, developing first-generation student support services, creating marketing campaigns targeting families where English is not the first language, and focusing recruitment efforts on untapped markets. 

While COVID-19 significantly impacted international student recruitment, American higher education is still elite in the eyes of growing populations worldwide. According to the Pew Research Center, India is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2027. In addition, all 10 countries with the fastest population growth rates by 2100 are in Africa. With more screen-to-screen interaction than ever over the past year and a half, international recruitment strategies are likely to change and become more cost-effective. 

Modernizing The Mission and Curriculum 

Today’s tech-savvy college students are only getting savvier. Their lives revolve around authentic branding, YouTube DIY tutorials, entrepreneurial spirit, and in-your-face influences on social media platforms. Name recognition, legacy, and prestige will always play a role in attracting students, but a traditional mission, vision, and value statements written over a century ago may not attract prospective students anymore. 

The same applies to outdated liberal arts curricula. Students don’t want to waste their time (or money) on courses that don’t prepare them for the real world. Institutions that boast “state-of-the-art” research centers and modern career preparation need to prove it in their course catalog and “About Us” pages. Social media is one way to bridge the divide between the founding values and the current student market. 

See “7 ways to harness social media for recruitment success” 

Colleges and universities will also need to enhance the same strategies currently used to combat summer melt. Personalized communication strategies encourage families to stay in touch with their admissions counselor and take the next steps throughout the summer months. Rethink Orientation to include micro-events offered bi-monthly instead of once a summer. Stronger bonds with academic advisors and financial aid representatives before the first weeks of class.

Industry-changing advancements in technology 

Student Engagement Software 

In the “About Us” section of Anthology’s website, readers can learn about a company “kickstarting a new chapter of higher education technology.” Focused on student success, engagement, and retention monitoring, Anthology offers solutions to help identify effective programs and uncover at-risk students, strengthen data-driven insights through student engagement platforms, and digitally assist students in real-time with automated artificial intelligence chatbots. As of September 2021, the company boasts partnerships with over 2,000 unique colleges and universities, and once more institutions realize the value of retention innovations, the client portfolio will increase.

“Retention will be as important as recruitment in the coming years.” 

— Bill Conley, former Vice President for Enrollment at Bucknell University

Flexible Learning Paths 

In Keystone Academic Solutions’ State of Student Recruitment USA 2021, 37 percent of potential students said that they were interested in the flexible or hybrid learning model. We might think that this is the first time a shift has happened, but the idea of modifying the traditional model has been happening in smaller geographic pockets long before “social distancing” and COVID-19.

While alternative, online, and professional certificates might be the perfect fit for a specific base, the experience of college, even part-time, is highly desirable. On many college websites, visitors can find fast facts highlighting the depth of academic programs, options for student accommodation, and a vast array of clubs and organizations at the university. However, none of these websites provide statistics on part-time and distance learning students or graduation rates among these students. There are many benefits to part-time and distance learning. Universities and colleges have a responsibility to rethink the traditional learning route and to acknowledge these unique learning models, particularly in the wake of an enrollment cliff.

See “Why do more students want flexibility in their studies?”

Online Test Assessment Tools and Optional Testing

To create a more accessible testing experience for future students, institutions must provide faculty resources for virtual student assessment. While this online learning feature has been a requirement throughout most of the global pandemic, it isn't easy to forecast where this function will fit on-campuses in the future. 

As more institutions gain virtual test assessment experience, how can they provide more testing options to students in the classroom? 

See A comprehensive guide to virtual student assessment 

How might a decrease in college-aged students benefit future job seekers? 

The graduating Class of 2030 may experience less competition in the job market due to a decrease in college graduates. What does this mean for admissions recruiters and marketing strategy? Career outcomes and alumni data will become more important as students base their college search on post-graduate job prospects and less on the campus experience. 

Higher education will become “hire-able” education, where students’ primary school search focus will shift to hire-ability, career outlooks, professional networking opportunities, and internship connections. We may see companies offer college interns robust benefits and guarantee job placement. Research-driven universities may have the potential to offer undergraduates more opportunities that were only offered at the graduate level a decade prior. 

Challenges in higher education enrollment are nothing new, and the impending cliff will force professionals to think outside the box once again. Only time will tell how government funding, technological advancements, marketing strategies, and career outlooks will change the way prospective students search for colleges and how colleges welcome students to their communities. Develop a five-year plan now and take a modern approach to enrollment marketing. 

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