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)


Add your opinion to the discussion.