Institutions in the midst of 2018 recruiting are likely feeling the pinch of recent declines in higher education enrollment. Surveys by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed put data to the pain that admissions directors and leadership are experiencing. The Chronicle found that 44% of public colleges and 55% of private colleges missed enrollment goals in 2017. The findings from Inside Higher Ed are even more alarming: only 34% of institutions met enrollment goals in 2017, declining from 37% and 42% in 2016 and 2015 respectively. Indeed, higher education enrollment trends should be a discussion point in your next committee meeting.
This is normally where an opinion blog would use a coordinating conjunction to introduce the good news. “Higher ed trends look bad all around but the good news is…” Unfortunately, we can’t confidently say that because demographics are against us. A Washington Post article found that the overall number of high school graduates is likely to decline by 9% from 2026 to 2031. What makes this more troubling is that the percentage of graduates going to college has steadily increased and is now close to 70%. In addition to having fewer prospects, admissions offices are seeing fewer conversion opportunities.
So what can administrators do to overcome higher education enrollment trends in the face of waning budgets?
Enter coordinating conjunction: But the good news is that you’re not helpless in your quest to meet enrollment goals. Successful strategies to improve yield and attract best-fit students center on engagement and communication process not large investments or far reaching marketing campaigns.
3 Ways to Overcome Current Higher Education Enrollment Trends
1. Improve the enrollment experience
Today’s students are more demanding shoppers. Schools need to adjust the enrollment experience for this new type of digitally native customer. Every communication point matters to prospective students, who expect the personalization and immediacy that comes with the digital age. Each interaction you have along the enrollment lifecycle – from prospective student to applicant to admit to enrolled – contributes to the student’s overall enrollment experience. Administrators need to ensure that their communication methods keep pace. Ask yourself: are you communicating where and how students operate most or where you operate most?
2. Tighten financial aid processes and communication
Changing higher ed trends are creating an environment that is part buyer’s market, part job seeker’s market. Which means institutions need to compete aggressively for talent. Instead of lowering the asking price or raising salary offers, administrators will have to pull their monetary lever: financial aid availability. This will elevate the financial aid conversation from a pesky application task to an integral part of the prospective student experience. Financial aid availability should be communicated much earlier in the enrollment process and continue throughout the enrollment journey. That means that financial aid directors must work closely with their admissions counterparts to ensure streamlined student communication. Communication coordination is vital to the overall enrollment experience and to ensure that your enrollment goals are met.
3. Develop your alumni network
Finally, administrators should be nurturing a tight-knit and involved alumni network. A strong alumni base isn’t just for fundraising, although that certainly helps. For discerning prospective students, word-of-mouth referrals are an important source of information in deciding where to apply. Students are increasingly skeptical of website information and school rankings. They want to hear about authentic experiences from current and former students who are involved with their colleges and universities. This is a generation that engages in the community. Your communication with alumni should foster engagement with the school, fellow alumni, and the broader community. Expert alumni communication allows for scale, personalization, and even localization.
While higher education enrollment trends point to more pain in the future, the steps that administrators take now can alleviate the impact of that pain. Institutions don’t have to spend significantly on marketing to improve enrollment, in fact, that approach may be counterproductive in the long run. A solid communication plan built on personalization at scale is the common theme among each of these recommendations.