For those on the frontlines of college business and finance, enrollment math can be cruel.
Higher education institutions—of all types and sizes across the country—are struggling to attract and enroll new students. Nationally, only 34 percent of colleges and universities have met their new student enrollment goals, according to a recent Inside Higher Ed survey of enrollment management leaders. Only 22 percent of public universities met their May enrollment targets, and just only 27 percent of community colleges reported meeting their enrollment goals.
Most bedeviling for institutional leaders is that the causes of enrollment declines are complex—and difficult to attribute to a single issue. Are rising tuition rates and student debt to blame? Are students skeptical of whether an academic program is worth it? Is it simply demographics? Or are high school graduates choosing to go straight into jobs or short-duration vocational training programs?
Regardless of the cause, declines in enrollment spell financial trouble for institutions. But even more importantly, this trend is jeopardizing our society’s ability to help citizens—of all backgrounds—achieve educational and workforce success. Worryingly, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which did not benefit proportionately from the growth that other institutions experienced in recent years, have been enmeshed in the difficult process of redefining their role while attempting to maintain or grow enrollment.
A Comeback in the Works
But despite the dire headlines, a comeback may well be in the works. HBCUs have long been pioneers in higher education—true to their mission of expanding educational opportunity—and a few are beginning to show that a turnaround might be possible.
For example, Elizabeth City State University, an HBCU in North Carolina, had experienced several consecutive years of dwindling enrollment, which was causing the institution financial stress. However, this year, they turned things around.
Despite internal and external headwinds, Elizabeth City State University increased its new student enrollment by 72 percent. This fall, ECSU enrolled 1,411 students, including 349 new freshmen. This exceeded the university’s goal of enrolling 322 new students and greatly surpassed the size of ECSU’s 2016 freshmen class, which only had slightly more than 200 students.
(Next page: An enrollment comeback thanks to courageous coaching)
There were many factors at play, but one stands out. Since February of this year, ECSU has provide one-on-one enrollment coaching to prospective students, through a partnership with InsideTrack. Through structured meetings and ongoing digital communication via video, voice, email and text messaging, coaches help students identify the right program, navigate the enrollment process and prepare for a strong start.
The coaching program ensures that students make informed enrollment decisions, based on their career ambitions and the realities of the marketplace. It also supports students in developing the knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs required for long-term success, while generating valuable insights on the incoming student population to support administrators and staff with institutional resource planning.
While executive-style student coaching is best known as a way to improve retention and graduation rates, for more than a decade, institutions have increasingly been using the approach to support their enrollment efforts.
For example, the University of Alabama at Birmingham increased was able to increase yield by 9 percent through coaching admitted students, with even greater improvements among minority admits. Similarly, Penn State World Campus used coaching to increase their inquiry-to-enrollment conversion rate by 46 percent.
Whether focused on access, success or both, student coaching is gaining steam among HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. ECSU neighbor and fellow HBCU Fayetteville State University has its own student success coaching program, as do Hispanic and Native American-serving institutions across the country, from California State University Channel Islands to Bacone College of Oklahoma to the University of Central Florida.
Another promising initiative, the Optimizing Academic Success and Institutional Strategy (OASIS) led by the Education Trust, is helping to put similar evidence-based practices in the hands of more institutional leaders at minority-serving institutions.
Pairing evidence-based approaches such as coaching with an unwavering commitment to college access and success can help institutions grappling with major headwinds. The key is to stay focused on doing right by each student.
In today’s skills-based economy, education and training beyond high school is still indispensable. Institutions like ECSU are showing that supporting students in pursuing their educational goals can also help the institution thrive.