Preparing for The Great Enrollment Crash
You’ve heard the news, right? Colleges and universities in the United States, particularly private institutions, need to start preparing for the “Great Enrollment Crash” coming in the 2025/2026 school year. The enrollment decline is forthcoming primarily due to a reduction in the overall number of college-aged youth (by up to 15 percent) due to a decline in birthrate statistics2. Add to that a myriad of other factors including the value of a college education coming into question, antiquated financial models, fat physical infrastructure, rising costs, alternative education models, and most recently, employers and the government entering the fray with a public service ad campaign communicating that a traditional college education may not be the best path3. The struggle is real.
Operating in the hyper-competitive industry of higher education is not easy without all of the real and forthcoming barriers mentioned above. Huge online mega-universities can dominate any market they choose by using sophisticated marketing tactics and significant marketing dollars. Without the right business intelligence and proactive recruiting tactics, it will be even more difficult for some colleges and universities to survive. With the repeal of some of the NACAC regulations preventing more aggressive recruiting practices, some colleges and universities will pounce on the opportunity to communicate to students at any point before a start date.
What can colleges and universities do to be competitive, relevant, and most importantly, experience growth amidst factors that indicate decline?
1. Go online
That does not necessarily mean hiring an OPM to go-to-market as quickly as possible. Programs can be converted from ground to online very quickly assuming there are no internal barriers to entry – which there typically are. Rather than solve internal issues, some colleges and universities partner and build new programs separately to circumvent internal bureaucracy. The only organic way to survive is to eliminate the bureaucracy.
2. Start date frequency
Many institutions still run on the traditional semester-based system for student entry points (spring, summer, fall, winter). Gen Z students are used to being online – all the time. Adult students are working online every day in their jobs every day. Offer more frequent start dates that are more frequent and that allow the students to enter whenever they are ready. The alternative? Groups of institutions will offer create more flexibility and recruit students while they are waiting. Additional tracks: early entry points, and overlapping courses are easy ways to achieve frequency without changing term lengths.
3. Split – testing
Approach marketing with a level of science that will increase interest and create additional brand awareness. Robustly share data between departments! Without understanding cost-per metrics, there is absolutely no frame of reference for where to begin marketing. Good data is the lifeblood of any successful operation. With websites and online marketing, split and A/B testing are critical and should be ongoing processes. Testing methodology doesn’t just apply to marketing, though. Enrollment executives should look to integrate split testing into the admissions/enrollment process, and the same goes for advancement/fundraising professionals. It’s cheap to split-test, and incremental improvements add up over time.
Does the profile of a university president or chancellor’s profile match their institution’s al needs of the future? If enrollment is or will begin declining, is the university leader of the university a marketing and enrollment expert? Institutions cannot “non-profit” their way to increasing enrollment – the person at the top has to understand the grind of marketing and recruiting to enact the necessary, and sometimes significant, change the college or university needs to survive. Students today want transparency and engagement – is the president/chancellor active on social media communicating with and influencing to Gen Z and adult students ready to go to school? The university leader of the future has to be strategic, visionary, practical, and accessible. Age doesn’t matter, but visible activity does and will matter to students.
Yes, fundraising is important. Yes, collaboration is important. Yes, diversity is important. Yes, highlighting and promoting faculty are important. All of these other important factors are supported by tuition revenue earned by recruiting, retaining, and graduating successful students.
5. Social Media
Today’s colleges and universities of today should look at multi-layered recruiting approaches using social media and email campaigns. For social media to be effective for branding and recruiting, it has to be worked. A suggested cadence to start would be to post once per day on each platform. For example:
Day 1 – testimonial and hero picture
Day 2 – university news
Day 3 – faculty spotlight
Day 4 – program highlight
Day 5 – relevant news article post
Work backwards on the other channels, then move to two posts per day, and so on. Without a significant social media presence, attention will move to other institutions. Control the narrative.
Experts continue to predict institutional mergers and closings to come in 2020 and beyond. The decisions that a college or university makes now prepares them for a bright future or doom them to be on the closed institution list. It won’t take anyone more than five minutes to scan LinkedIn or other news sites to discover the challenges facing higher education, but what is being done about it at the institutional level? “That’s the way we’ve always done it” are the seven worst words in business. Yes, folks, higher education is an industry with businesses that sell to consumers.
The consumers are telling the business that change must come quickly.