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The (Less-) Big Picture


Mark Toner

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​Enrollment growth is slowing, but strategically focused institutions are continuing to thrive.

When discussing demographics, people often speak of the “pig in the python,” a vivid analogy of how the huge demographic hump of the baby boomers disrupted many institutions—higher education among them—as that generation progressed through its major life stages. Now, with the boomers and many of their children long past their prime postsecondary years, institutions are looking at some lean enrollment years.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, enrollment nationwide sank by about half a million students between 2012 and 2013—the second drop of such magnitude in as many years. No area of the country has been spared from declines. Enrollment last year was down 2.6 percent in the Midwest, 0.9 percent in the South, 0.7 percent in the West, and 0.3 percent in the Northeast, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

And things are not going to be getting easier any time soon: Over the next decade, the population of 18- to 24-year-olds is projected to drop by 4 percent, according to Census figures. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that the number of high school graduates will decline by 2 percent overall, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest.

Even rosier projections of continuing enrollment growth hint at significant long-term shifts. While the U.S. Department of Education believes overall postsecondary enrollment will increase 13 percent between 2012 and 2022, the number of part-time students will grow faster than that of full-time and first-time freshmen during the same period. As the pool of traditional-age students shrinks, the demographic groups that are growing the fastest have traditionally had lower postsecondary matriculation rates. Together, these trends “create significant enrollment challenges,” said Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Declining enrollment comes on the heels of budget cuts and tuition freezes for many institutions, compounding their financial challenges. The University of California (UC) system estimates that the Great Recession drained $800 million from its budget, according to Stephen Handel, associate vice president for undergraduate admissions. For private institutions, discount rates have continued to grow to the point where they imperil sustainability. “I think a very high percentage of . . . smaller schools are really way over their heads,” said George Dehne, president of George Dehne & Associates, Inc., a higher-education consulting group.

Small wonder then, that fewer than one in four postsecondary business officers believe that their institution’s financial model is sustainable over the next five years, according to a recent poll conducted by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed. Even fewer—just 13 percent—believe it will be sustainable a decade from now.

But demographics aren’t necessarily destiny. Even as the overall numbers continue to decline, some campuses—both public and private—are setting enrollment records. Whether they are taking part in the nation’s effort to increase the overall number of postsecondary graduates, or are simply working harder to stay afloat, many institutions are enrolling more nontraditional students and diversifying their student bodies. This fall, the UC system for the first time in its history admitted more students who identified as Chicano and Latino than white.

The institutions sustaining—and even growing—enrollments are responding to the realities on the ground with a combination of tactical initiatives focused on attracting new students and broad-ranging strategic efforts to define who they are for the generations still to come. “You can’t just be finding every body you can,” said Louis Soares, the American Council on Education vice president who oversees its Center for Policy Research and Strategy. “You have to have a keen sense of what your mission is and the kind of education you want to provide.”

For that to happen, institutional leaders must be prepared to take risks, engage their campuses, and, at times, commit to sweeping changes. “I find myself saying that I need to practice the skills and capabilities I’m encouraging our students to build,” said David Angel, president of Clark University in Massachusetts. “It’s a hard thing to stay the course on a long-term strategy, but it’s what is necessary to be successful in this new enrollment environment.”

New Horizons

As local populations of prospective students continue to shrink, public and private institutions alike are looking farther afield to attract new students.

Institutions in regions where demographic shifts have hit particularly hard often “test the market” by purchasing SAT and ACT data across broader geographic regions, according to Reilly. Regional admissions counselors continue to proliferate in student-rich areas such as California, which has seen an influx of representatives from East Coast institutions, he added. Even transfer students, who have traditionally sought nearby institutions, are now being targeted across far greater distances. But Denhe cautioned that merely broadening the “mail and pray” pool of prospective students isn’t enough. “It’s easy to get the names,” he said. “You’ve got to weed out the inquiry pool and narrow it down to where you can deal with it.”

Institutions are also looking to parts of the world where emerging middle class populations are surging, including China and India. Continuing years of steady gains, international students increased more than 7 percent in 2012–13 to a record 819,644 students, according to the Institute of International Education.

For public institutions, the dynamic of seeking nonresident students in the face of declining state support continues to play out, particularly as tuition continues to account for an even greater share of funding. “There’s an important balance to strike,” said Handel of the UC system, where out-of-state students now make up about 11 percent of undergraduate enrollment. “Yet our support from the state has dwindled drastically, and [the growth in out-of-state admissions] has helped us backfill that.”

But growing numbers of states are changing their funding models for higher education. Even as the University of Iowa has expanded its recruiting presence in California, Chicago, and China, it has also redoubled efforts in its home state, with representatives visiting every Iowa high school and a new marketing campaign, said Provost P. Barry Butler. That’s in part a response to a new funding model approved by the state board of regents, which, once it goes into effect in 2015, will base funding in part on the number of resident undergraduate students.

These changes reflect broader shifts in strategic enrollment management, a role that has grown increasingly important—and much more encompassing. “It used to be more about looking at recruiting, admitting, and enrolling,” said Reilly. “What’s shifted is more of an emphasis on the entire student life cycle, including retention.”

Re-Emphasizing Retention

When thinking about retention, Waded Cruzado thinks back to her own experience as an undergraduate freshman. “University presidents then introduced classes by saying half of them wouldn’t make it to graduation,” said Cruzado, now president of Montana State University (MSU).

That’s no longer an approach institutions can afford to take. In the state of Montana, the number of high school graduates hit a high water mark in 2007, and isn’t expected to return to that level until 2023. “With this demographic dip, retention becomes a key component in our enrollment strategy,” Cruzado said.

MSU faculty helped identify more than 51 retention-related initiatives, ranging from tutoring and scheduling to more active learning environments and supports in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses and the “Freshman 15,” a campaign playing off popular (if erroneous) conceptions about early weight gain to encourage students to take full course loads. MSU also created a Return to Learn program targeted at former students who left the university needing only a few remaining credits for a bachelor’s degree.

“We’re placing the student at the center of our conversations, and that has provoked this intensive creativity,” Cruzado said.

Such a mindset will become critical, Soares said, as growing numbers of students who need additional support arrive on campuses. Predictive analytics, which help institutions identify students likely to require interventions as early as the first few weeks of a term, are already having an impact, he said.

Other programs, including those emphasized by organizations such as Complete College America, focus on creating pathways that help guide students into majors more quickly—or at least ensure they are taking courses that help them progress towards more general “meta-majors” such as business or medicine. “The old method of handing students a catalog and say ‘take what you want’ is not conducive to fast completion,” Reilly said.

For private institutions, discounting strategies can impact retention in unforeseen ways, cautioned Dehne. “If you do a really good freshman package and cut it way down, you’ll lose those students,” he said. For public institutions, the shift to performance-based funding makes retention a higher priority. In 2013, Montana linked a small portion of university funding to retention and performance, which led to an additional $2.3 million in funding for MSU. “This fall, we plowed every cent back into retention efforts,” Cruzado said.

Institutions should remember that even modest percentage improvements in retention rates can yield “hundreds of students,” Reilly said. “To have healthy enrollment, you have to have healthy retention.”

The Changing Face of Higher Education

The 2014–15 academic year marked a new first for America—the first year that more than half of all public K–12 students are nonwhite, a harbinger of the rapidly approaching minority majority. To gauge the impact this shift will have on higher education, look no further than the West Coast. “The demographics everyone is predicting are [already] in California,” said Handel. “The Chicano and Latino influx is huge and growing; they want to send their kids to college—and they are.”

The UC system’s record Hispanic enrollment is in part the result of ongoing work on strengthening transfer programs, particularly with the state’s 112 community college campuses, which Handel said Chicano and Latino students often find a “more welcoming” introduction to postsecondary education. “It’s a fundamental and important part of our strategy, in part because the community college system has 1.5 million students, and we want to tap into the expertise and diversity of those campuses,” he said.

Similar trends are playing out across the country. During a visit to the rural community of Storm Lake, Iowa, University of Iowa President Sally Mason pledged to support the town’s growing population of Hispanic students. The Storm Lake Scholars program, implemented this fall, enrolled 10 students from the small town about 250 miles away from campus as a cohort, and created a single point of contact to help them and their parents navigate the complexities of university life.

Changing rural communities such as Storm Lake present an opportunity for institutions seeking more diverse students, according to Soares. “[Institutions] keep going to the same 20 charter schools in the same large metro areas instead of going to a corner of Nebraska because that’s a needle in the haystack,” he said. “Yet as K–12 systems get better at aggregating data, there are a lot more ways to find them.”

Institutions are also reaching out to another key group of nontraditional students: military veterans and older students returning to the classroom to improve their career prospects. Reilly urges institutions to look at their prior-learning assessment policies to ensure that these nontraditional students get credit not just for past postsecondary course work, but also for work experience and applied training. While two-year public colleges have long focused on serving these students, some four-year institutions are now looking to offer more courses on the evenings and weekends, and at satellite centers closer to urban areas, Reilly said.

Rethinking the Institution

Even before the current demographic dip, many institutions had already redefined themselves to ensure they stand out in a crowded field. That process is still advisable, but it doesn’t make it any easier to do, said Angel, Clark University’s president.

“All of us know we have to focus on becoming differentiated institutions and achieving high levels of excellence in what we can do very well,” he said. “The hard part is implementation.”

For Clark University, that translated into reimagining its liberal-arts traditions to focus on traits

and skills that employers seek: resilience, problem-solving, and the ability to navigate the complexities of the workforce. To build those skills, Clark tapped its community and alumni to help place students in real-world, team-based work settings in which both the company and the student have a stake. “We can do these things because of our institutional identity,” Angel said.

Other institutions have focused on professional education, such as pre-med and nursing programs. Dehne cited Maryland’s Stevenson University, which saw enrollment grow sharply after shifting its focus from liberal arts to career education. The University of Iowa now involves its graduate and professional programs in recruitment, with heads of the law school, medical school, and graduate public health programs communicating with prospective undergraduates. “To me, that sends a really strong message,” said Butler. “We need to link graduate and professional programs with undergraduate recruiting that gets out the message of who we are.”

Looking Ahead

By 2024, institutions can look forward to a gradual increase in the number of young adults—call it a piglet in a python. “It’s going to be an interesting 10 years or so until the demographics shift again,” Reilly said.

While institutions must find ways to maintain enrollments in the interim, it’s important that they do their homework before enacting broad-scale changes, Dehne cautioned. “A lot of people do these things with no market research and they find that nobody cares,” he said. And leadership remains crucial, he added. “None of the [institutions] I talk about who have done these things had presidents with moss on their feet.”

But the institutions that succeed over the next decade will be stronger and better for the experience, Soares predicted. “Through this turmoil . . . institutions will have learned to be a lot better and smarter about helping individual students succeed,” he said.

Mark Toner is a freelance writer based in the Washington, DC area.

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