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Adapting to Changing Enrollment Trends in Higher Ed

With higher ed institutions looking for ways to increase enrollment numbers, it’s critical that they utilize data to get to know their learners in order to properly meet their needs.

Higher ed is continuing to see enrollment shift, and it’s critical for institutions to respond accordingly. That means understanding your audience and leveraging data to better address learner needs. In this interview, Calvin Roberts discusses how enrollment trends have evolved in recent years, the key role data plays and how it impacts institutional strategy.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have you observed the higher ed landscape evolve in recent years, especially when it comes to enrollment trends and changes in learner demographics?

Calvin Roberts (CR): We’ve seen rapid change in continuing education over the past decade. We’re now seeing a shift in how we design and deliver learning experiences that meet learner needs and the shifting needs of the workforce. Continuing education units were doing pretty well until the pandemic, which caused a massive change for most of us and higher education as a whole. The pandemic created a lot of uncertainty for learners in their personal and professional lives and increased the ambiguity around what’s happening with their employer and workplaces.

Prepandemic Royal Roads was already delivering courses online through professional and continuing studies, but many courses were delivered in-person for our local audiences and communities. When the shift to fully remote learning happened, we began to see new enrollments from new demographics. We began to rethink our definition of community—we’re now far-reaching, it’s global—and how best to serve our global workforce. We’re working and learning in an interconnected world. In many ways, the pandemic opened opportunities for us to reach new audiences, and learners have more choice in what and how they learn.

Evo: How does real-time data play into meeting the needs of those modern learners?

CR: Enrollment and real-time data play a crucial role in understanding and meeting their needs. With the rapid evolution of the higher education landscape, which the pandemic accelerated, it’s essential to have accurate and up-to-date information on enrollment trends and learner demographics.

One of the reasons we chose Modern Campus Lifelong Learning was the need and the ability to report on data in meaningful ways. By analyzing enrollment data in real time, we can adapt our offerings to better serve our new and diverse student body’s changing needs. While still a work in progress, this approach includes identifying emerging trends in course preferences, learning formats and demographic shifts.

This data allows us to respond more quickly to learners’ dynamic demands, ensuring their learning experiences remain relevant and effective. Whether it’s adjusting course content, delivery methods or support services, having access to enrollment and real-time data enables us to stay agile and responsive in meeting the evolving needs of our students, clients, and partners.

Evo: Data isn’t always as clean or organized as we want it to be. What are some challenges to accessing enrollment with real-time data?

CR: For many institutions, data may be scattered across various systems or stored in formats that are not easily compatible or accessible (spreadsheets on everyone’s desktop!). This can make it difficult to gather comprehensive insights and make informed decisions in real time. Ensuring data accuracy and consistency can be a challenge. Data entry errors, outdated information or inconsistencies in how data is collected and recorded can all impact the reliability of the insights derived from it.

Another challenge is the need for robust data infrastructure and analytical capabilities. Institutions must invest in systems and tools that can handle large volumes of data and provide meaningful analysis in real time.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome some of these obstacles?

CR: We need to begin by asking, “How can we effectively streamline and integrate systems that collect and store data to make better decisions in service of students?”

This question helped us make the case for investment in an integrated student management system. We’re still working on the integration—we have a lot of moving parts! We’re also working to enhance our data governance framework. Aside from technology and systems, we also need to invest in people. Education, communication and effective change management are just a few ways to prepare the field for new systems and approaches. Our people must be aware of what’s going on with the data, know how to interpret and analyze it, and understand why it’s important to make good data-driven decisions. Institutional buy-in for these initiatives is critical. We need to shift from a culture of siloed departments doing their own thing to a more collective and integrated approach.

Evo: What impact does having access to this data have on decision-making and institutional strategy?

CR: People need to make informed decisions to help improve the student experience. We can use data to make decisions regarding future enrollment projections, demographic shifts and market trends. We are already using data to develop targeted recruitment strategies, expand into new markets and align our offerings with emerging industry needs and labor market trends.

It also allows us to identify courses or programs with low enrollment and reallocate resources to areas of high demand. We’re aiming to transform the way we do business by streamlining administrative processes to reduce costs and improve productivity, and the reality is we need to respond to student needs more quickly. As the world speeds up and students become more informed about their educational choices, they’re also making decisions faster. If we aren’t responsive, they’ll make other choices.

Evo: Is there anything else that you want to add in terms of the role data plays and the impact it has on a student experience?

CR: I’d just reiterate that understanding learner needs is key, especially in today’s uncertain and chaotic times. For students, deciding to pursue education amid such uncertainty and without clarity about future employment prospects is a significant life-altering decision that deserves respect. With the ongoing pandemic, the nature of employment such as remote work or flexibility adds another layer of complexity to their decision-making process.

We must prioritize understanding our students’ needs now more than ever. Providing support services is crucial because we may not fully comprehend the challenges they face behind the screen. The deeper our understanding of our learners, the greater empathy we can have for their experiences, allowing us to meet them where they are and provide the necessary assistance.

By gaining insights into our learners’ needs, we can enhance their access to education and reduce barriers that may hinder their success. This commitment to understanding and supporting our students is essential for fostering a positive and impactful student experience.