The recent decline in college enrollment across the country cannot be pinned on a single factor, but rather it represents the accumulated effect of multiple interconnected problems.
With ongoing perceptions of mistrust in the efficacy of higher education, rising higher education costs, a robust job market drawing current and prospective students away from a college education, and the growing popularity of alternative educational opportunities, it’s clear that institutions of all levels have their work cut out for them in terms of attracting and retaining students.
While overall college enrollment might be down, institutions are experiencing a more than 20 percent increase in the number of applicants as more students “shop” around. More than ever, enrolling and retaining students requires an in-depth, data-driven look at the needs of the individual learner, making the value proposition clear throughout their journey and mitigating obstacles that might prevent them from reaching their goals.
Data-driven personalization is key.
Looking at trends in higher education is a good starting point for institutions seeking to focus their recruitment and retention goals–however, colleges must also consider investing time and money into data-driven outcomes. Institutions already have access to millions of learner data points on how and what students want to learn, how they best engage, and their personal needs and wants. Tapping into these rich insights in a meaningful way with personalized engagement strategies along a learner’s journey is critical to keeping them on track.
Forward-thinking institutions should be able to provide data-driven resources throughout students’ academic journeys that motivate them to stay the course. For instance, an academic and career preparation map based on course performance and participation in extracurricular activities can provide students a clear view of where they are headed in their academic journey and beyond.
Now more than ever, students are focused on career outcomes.
The robust labor market is a significant driver in colleges’ enrollment and retention issues. Positions that do not require 2- or 4-year degrees are becoming more lucrative, and an increasing number of traditional and adult learners are choosing to tap into these opportunities, putting plans to obtain a higher education degree on hold.
In order to provide value to working learners, colleges have to do a better job of aligning outcomes and focusing on a clear and significant return on investment for the students they hope to serve. The value proposition of a college degree is still strong and remains a ladder up, as those with a bachelor’s degree earn 84 percent more over their lifetime than high school graduates.
Academic programs that can be strengthened and aligned to more intentional workforce partnerships within their communities can provide clearer, more tangible outcomes. Job placement programs including co-ops that are adapted to market and workforce demands, stackable credentialing that provides tangible workplace value along the path to a bachelor’s degree, and competency-based education can help paint the picture of how higher education can be a stepping stone to economic mobility. Earning an IT credential that can help a learner pursue a promotion in months while they complete their full degree program is an example of how institutions can provide real value to potential students weighing the benefits of pursuing additional education.
Higher ed must maintain its commitment to serving adult learners.
One bright spot through the college enrollment crisis has been the increase in the non-traditional, adult student population. Still, there are a huge number of adults who have some college but no degree–39 million, in fact. Therefore, institutions should be doubling down on their efforts to attract and retain this critical demographic, especially with the pending 2025 college enrollment cliff and the increase of high school graduates taking a year off to work.
The adult learner population requires flexibility, affordability, and clearly prescribed outcomes. To address adult learners’ many competing priorities, institutions need to be able to offer and market online and hybrid learning, extended hours of support, wrap-around services, degree audits on previous credits earned that ensure time and resources aren’t being wasted on unnecessary classes, and an overall investment into making sure these non-traditional learners still feel a part of the community.
Personalized outreach to adult learners is paramount as, similarly to the traditional 18- 24-year-old tract, they cannot be treated as a homogenized group. And engaging with this group is often more difficult as they have competing priorities such as work and family obligations. Attracting and retaining adult learners requires creative engagement strategies to really reach these students. As an example, Miami-Dade Community College recently canceled up to $500 in stranded debt that was preventing adult learners who had dropped out from re-registering to encourage re-enrollment.
Boasting great ROI is a great start. But institutions need to walk the walk.
We’re entering a period of fierce competition for students. Schools promising high-quality education for reasonable prices need to deliver on that promise or risk losing current and prospective students to competitors that do. Institutions that are personalizing their offerings with data-driven resources designed to connect learners with in-demand jobs are going to be the most attractive to students. The colleges pairing this with competency-based education and hybrid approaches to learning, allowing for the most flexibility possible, are setting themselves apart for future enrollment and retention success.
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