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The Bottom of the Enrollment Cliff: How Do We Get Back Up?

The number of traditional students is diminishing. Who will replace them, and how do we serve their needs?
The number of traditional students is diminishing. Who will replace them, and how do we serve their needs?

Consumers, customers, students, learners – call them what you will but without them, higher ed does not exist.

With some expecting the amount of traditional students set to fall, what should be expected over the next half decade?

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What trends will most significantly impact higher ed over the next five years?

Yvonne Villaneuva-Russell (YVR): I don’t think I have any huge surprises here—many people in higher education have been talking about this—we know the enrollment cliff is real. I mean, there are some deniers out there, but by 2025, the traditional 18-year-old, straight out of high school student will account for far less enrollment, certainly in some parts of the country more than others. So, we will see more competition for traditional students. We also know that post-pandemic and because of the great resignation that the use of technology and the ability to do things remotely, maybe even asynchronously, is a reality. It’s not only an efficient way to get work done, but it’s also an important way of addressing educational equity issues, particularly for adult learners and working professionals that can only learn at 2:00 AM or study when their children are not taking up all the bandwidth at home.

One of the big trends we’ll see is the larger institutions recognizing that the adult learner, the working professional and the partial college completer markets represent huge untapped potential for new enrollment. We just saw the University of California System dedicate four of their campuses to go after these partial completers. Texas Southern University announced a new program (the College of Transdisciplinary Studies) aimed at partial college completers. Thirty-four million Americans have some college and no degree.

Two other big trends are, one, the continual interloping of educational delivery by nonacademic sources. So, we know about the Google certificates, the Hootsuite social market certificates. There is some preliminary evidence that employers are taking them seriously and hiring students with the certificate in lieu of the bachelor’s degree.

In fact, when they get the four-year degree, they’re already outmoded, they’re hiring high school students and giving them the Hootsuite social media certificate in place of the bachelor’s degree. Teacher shortages are such that they’re hiring employees before they have a bachelor’s degree because there’s just that great a need—because of the great resignation because of these post-pandemic trends. We’re turning the corner on that. Another trend that dovetails this very well is something that Guild education calls credit for X. PLA has been around for years, but credit for X is a more creative, more agile way of recognizing prior learning by converting leadership training that a Chipotle or McDonald’s employee had, recognizing that and translating that for college credit. It’s going to be a huge new avenue that universities will need to respond to because the train is starting to move.

Evo: What are some indicators you’re watching to signal these changes?

YVR: The proof will be in the pudding. Potential students will vote with their feet, with their pocketbook. We’re going to see where they’re going to enroll. It may be that the traditional institutions just now getting into the adult completer market are way behind the curve. Those of us who have been here for a long time are scrappy, agile—we’ve already got the infrastructure in place. We’re much more adaptable to trends as we see them pop up and partner with businesses to move toward shorter-term certificates or credentials, as opposed to that four-year degree. Some statistics (from Hanover Research) say 50% of employees will need to reskill by 2025, and 71% of potential students want their employer to pay for their credentials. And interestingly now, 58% of potential students are reporting they want interdisciplinary studies; they don’t want one traditional way of thinking. We can’t just simply do what we’ve always done. We need to be agile, responsive and build real partnerships with the market and industry to offer what employers want and what students are demanding.

Evo: What can an institution do to make itself more appealing to a student not necessarily looking for a four-year degree but still seeking to acquire skills?

YVR: Some people, the naysayers, say you can’t provide a degree online and you can’t do it asynchronously because students will lack the academic community and the experiential piece that comes from having the shared cultural experience of being on a campus. We are responding to that. Our competency-based programs are 100% online and asynchronous. Sometimes the student is only interacting with the professor, but we also want the students to have that experiential piece if they wish. So, in one of our newest degrees—the bachelor of general studies—we’re actually structuring a micro-credential for every student to get real-world work experience before they complete the degree. This is an unpaid sort of internship either for a career charger or someone who’s in an organization and wants to earn a credential to move up.

So, they’re going to spend some time in that organization working with that next agency, that next level to get some actual work experience. They’re not on the front lines, but maybe they’re getting some managerial experience. We also want to give the career changers, the people who want to pivot into a new career field, a micro-internship to get some work experience in that field, even if it’s just volunteering or job shadowing to get concrete experience and develop their social capital. So, when they graduate, they can get a job.

And then we’ve got the career explorers, who are just doing a career because it’s a bucket list item for them and who will maybe never have paid employment in a certain field. Maybe they’re going to become a social activist or a community planner, or they’re going to be the head of their PTO. They can still have a micro-internship to gain experience in their community to have an impact and apply some of the leadership skills they’re learning in the classroom to a real community network. We’re being crafty in terms of providing not only the academic skills a student needs for career success but also giving them the real-time work experience that some people believe is not necessarily possible in an online degree. And we’re hoping that that’s the complete package for the students, so they’ve got the soft skills and the hard skills to go out there post graduation.

Our programs produce graduates in 1.3 years, accepting on average 77 semester hours of transfer credit. Of that, the micro-internship lasts 24 hours in a workplace.

Evo: How can leaders ensure they’re prepared to support their divisions through changes like this, especially changes bringing in a whole new internship system?

YVR: You must bring in all of your stakeholders. You have to obviously see what talent pool your faculty brings, but you shouldn’t stop there. In the olden days, it was the faculty who dictated the curriculum. They were the experts who decided what students should know. We know better now. I always start with empathy. I usually start with the student themselves. What is it that you need? Why have you not been able to get it so far? What barriers are in your way, and how do we make sure you have the access you need to succeed? I always start with the student, then I usually go to the employers. And that was largely simply because we lacked the faculty. I didn’t have the experts in the room, so my experts were future employers.

I created advisory boards of people within a hundred mile radius of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. One permanent adaptation we have made post Covid is expanding advisory boards, which now stretch across the country because we meet via Zoom technology. And I have the smartest industry people all over the country telling me, “Here are the gaps, this is what I need people to do. This is a trend coming up in our field.” And those are the types of things I make sure I’m structuring into my curriculum. I keep touch with the advisory boards about twice a year. I share with them our student artifacts. And I’m saying, “This is what our students can do. Is this what you need to see in the workplace?” Sometimes they say we’re on target, and sometimes they say we’re way off. It’s a new approach to the continuous improvement demanded of us in institutional effectiveness and assessment. We are now utilizing advisory boards to build our courses, pairing a faculty member alongside an industry profession to ensure there is academic rigor but also cutting-edge insights from the actual workplace. 

I think it’s brilliant and innovative. In reality, it was born of necessity. I just didn’t have the manpower. So, why not use everybody in the room and draw from their knowledge? In order to be a leader, you need to be able to look across your institution—and across the ecosystem at your students, your employers, the community and build something that caters to your culture’s niche and opportunities. As much as I could share my secrets of what has worked at A&M, it may not work in Seattle and probably wouldn’t work in Maryland because the needs, the market and the culture is unique to those areas. What’s so exciting is learning what other people are doing to find the interstitial gaps that worked for them in that scenario and learn from each other. There’s no one playbook here.

Evo: Do you have any specifics on what industries you reached out to and about which projects, when it came to the programs developed with industry?

YVR: Criminal justice is the one near and dear to my heart. That was the first one we built, and one faculty was interested. So, we brought them in with 50 board members from across the Dallas-Fort  Worth area and built a communication class in which the final project has a potential student giving a press briefing about some hypothetical incident. And again, we can evaluate that academically on oral and written communication. The criteria we would use in a professional speaking class is one set of important criteria. However, that student is eventually going to speak and represent a police or a law enforcement agency, and there are many different things that may contradict what an academic would say, which is necessary to present.

For instance, at a press conference, or in a courtroom, communication standards for law enforcement are much different—you don’t want to give too much information away. You don’t want to be expressive. You want to be very objective. You want to make sure the public trusts you. So, we had to rely on police agencies to say, “This is what we’re looking for,” which has been great. Some of those final projects were terrific. Some of them were not quite so great. We’re actually now looking at the capstone course in the criminal justice program for law enforcement leadership. These are people who want to command staff.

We’ve decided, in the state of Texas, that our final capstone project will look at the Uvalde school shooting. We’re going to be looking at the Texas representative briefing. We will look at advisory white papers produced by educational organizations and have future police officers examine not only the logistical tactical law enforcement perspective but also from the perspective community they serve. How do these new procedures impact the community, teachers, the way a school works, and how can the community work together, so police can not only stop a potential massacre from happening again but also protect, serve and gain trust from the larger community in which they will be embedded?

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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