Until recently, a college education all but guaranteed a golden ticket to the middle class. While there are still those that extol the virtues of college, the stark reality is that colleges have experienced decreasing enrollments since 2013. Few outside higher education have noticed these trends, but the reality is that it has become harder colleges to recruit and retain students of all ages. Lower birth rates among 18- to 24-year olds mean that there is a smaller pool of potential students, and the improving United States economy has reduced the number of adult workers looking for additional training or mid-career job changes. Many colleges have had to raise tuition to make up for less students. Some for-profit schools have even had to shut their doors.
The changes in higher education aren’t limited to any particular kind of program. Public and private four-year institutions have experienced declining enrollment for the past five years. Community colleges are also finding themselves with fewer students as the economy improves and fewer students look to improve their job prospects. For-profit colleges have been hit particularly hard thanks to a spate of bad press combined with new regulations. Yet students who leave for-profit schools aren’t transferring to community colleges or four-year institutions. In fact, the only area of higher education that seems to be growing is in the form of shortened programs of study, such as coding “boot camps.”

Does that mean that the era of higher education is over? Should colleges simply target the few interested high school seniors and be thankful for every tuition dollar received?

No. It simply means that the face of college is changing. Today’s colleges are predominately comprised of students over the age of 24 years old. They do not live on campus and are more likely to be enrolled as part-time students. Furthermore, experts predict that college enrollment should start improving in 2023, but the face of higher education will be much different. Incoming students will be from low-income households. Many will be the first generation to attend college; these students will undoubtedly provide a badly-needed boost for college enrollments, yet they will also need more supports in place to help them be successful. This means that colleges need to take a fresh look at recruiting and retaining students to their programs.
Colleges can still recruit and retain students, but the focus has to be on the students’ needs and solid job prospects after graduation – remember, education is an investment. In our consumer-driven world, schools that best meet students’ needs will net the most students. Likewise, students will flock to schools that provide real value in terms of job placement opportunities. Business, health care, allied health, liberal arts and science, general studies, and humanities are currently the top programs in colleges large and small. Whether or not those will remain the top programs remains to be seen, but government labor statistics can help a school determine what jobs will be most in demand. Programs can be developed and marketed around these workforce demands. Doing so motivates students to enroll in a program because of the positive prospects of a future job.
More schools are vying for a smaller pool of candidates, and there are certain features that students find valuable to their educational experience. Because more students are enrolled as part-time students, online and hybrid models are popular among students. These programs make it easier for adult learners to balance all the priorities in their life. Satellite campuses are also beneficial to adult learners since students can more easily enter into and finish a degree program thanks to convenience. Partnerships with corporations are particularly valuable as they offer students the possibility of internships that provide experience or possibly a job after graduation.
Yet even the best program will be unsuccessful without a solid outreach program. Today’s students are used to comparison shopping, and schools should anticipate what message they are sending to prospective students. In a world where branding is important, schools need to differentiate themselves from the competition and craft a message that will resonate with prospective students. A solid online presence is key. The first place students often look when considering a school isn’t the school’s website but college comparison sites. These sites help students narrow down the wide array of choices, so schools should monitor these profiles to ensure that the available information is both current and relevant. Once the student is funneled to a particular school’s website, they should be able to navigate the website quickly and easily. School websites that are not user friendly could potentially drive students away. Likewise, the admissions process should be as streamlined as possible.
Successful schools look at the students already enrolled to discover what potential students most value in a program. Use the current student body to discover what works best for recruiting. This information can help target these markets and personalize the message. Again, differentiation and a solid message are vital. Consumers will only pay if there is obvious value. Since life’s circumstances can change quickly for adult learners, reach out to them regularly. Most students thoroughly research a school’s offering online and will only schedule a campus visit if they are truly interested in the school. Invite potential students to tour the campus via every outreach method available, such as the website and personalized mailers. Busy students can tour campus on weekends or even through virtual online tours. Capitalize on these visits by personalizing the experience. Studies show that 50-60% of students who take a tour of campus will enroll. The tour should be authentic, led by a tour guide who can relate to the potential student, and on message to solidify what sets the school apart from all the others.
That’s not to say that schools should only look locally for potential students. A partnership with a school outside the United States or an international program can bring in more students. Increasing academic rigor can help international students view the school as equal to more selective schools with stringent admissions requirements. This kind of partnership takes multiple years to build but can pay off as more students bring in more tuition dollars.
A number of factors have caused declining enrollment in higher education. Holding fast to the traditional view of a college experience or a typical college student will keep schools from regaining lost learners. Lessons from the consumer-driven economy can help colleges move forward.

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