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College Enrollment is Down: Three Reasons Why

by Haley Trost | May 10, 2018
College Enrollment is Down: Three Reasons Why

Enrollment at postsecondary institutions has been steadily dropping after peaking in 2010. Adults, in particular, are less likely to pursue a degree: first-time adult student (aged 24+) enrollment dropped by 13% in 2017, whereas first-time traditional student (aged 18-24) enrollment dropped by only 1%. As a result, colleges - especially small liberal arts institutions - are merging or closing altogether. What’s behind the drop? We can’t pin the problem on one thing alone but we can explore reasons why college enrollment is down.

3 reasons why college enrollment is down:

Fewer students are graduating from high school.

As the huge Millennial generation graduates and grows up, they’re leaving behind a gap that the next generation can’t fill. Birth rates have gone down, so there simply aren’t as many students in high school.

There are nothing colleges can do to increase the overall number of high school students. There are, however, ways for colleges to help increase the number of high school students who graduate. With the current graduation rate for American high schools hovering around 83 percent, there’s definitely room to grow.

To boost enrollment, colleges need to connect with students early and often. Partnerships among colleges, high schools, and college access organizations are key to creating strong enrollment pipelines. Take the College Credit Plus program at Youngstown State University: communicating with dual credit high school students via text messages builds strong student-staff relationships and ultimately increases enrollment at the college.

Costs are increasing, but incomes are not

The average price tag for a college education has risen by nearly 400% since 1990, far surpassing the rate of inflation over that same period. College costs are rising faster than even health care costs. At the same time, household incomes have remained relatively flat. The result? The United States has a ballooning student debt crisis.

Students and their families are forced to take out massive loans - more than $1 trillion nationally - to pay for college. Colleges need to do a better job of communicating financial aid opportunities so students can feasibly pay for college.

There’s a ton of research that supports better communication as a solution to this problem. Students who receive text message reminders to complete the FAFSA are more likely to stay enrolled at a postsecondary institution. Loan borrowers who receive information and guidance about the loan borrowing process make more informed and less risky financial aid decisions. Institutions like Austin Community College see higher rates of completed scholarship applications when students can connect with the Money Management Office via text message.

Don’t let sticker shock keep students from enrolling in your institution. It’s up to colleges to help students understand how to pay for college without going into lifelong debt.

The ROI of a postsecondary degree is less clear

As college costs eat up more and more of families’ incomes, Americans are asking: is college even worth it? A lot of students end up deep in debt financing their education. These students are expecting their degree to make up for the cost, but that’s not always the case. Though it’s still true that college graduates earn more than their peers without postsecondary degrees, the income gap between the two groups is no longer growing.

Colleges and universities need to persuade students that a degree is worth the cost. To do so, institutions must invest more in career development services for students. One of the more effective ways to help students understand their career options and build skills is through advising. The National Association of Colleges and Employers notes that “there is no better way to learn about students’ needs and build a relationship of support and trust.” We’ve seen this play out in programs like This Way Ahead, which use text messaging to build trust and reliability with students as they plan their careers. Students are more engaged and the staff provides better service when communication about career planning is quick and open.

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