Breaking down the college enrollment decline


By: Kaz Weida

If you’re in higher education, you’ve probably noticed things are getting tough out there for community colleges, public universities and private institutions alike. A recent decline in college enrollment has some experts concerned, but the reasoning behind the choices students are making about their enrollment in colleges is increasingly complicated. 

While it’s tempting to blame the college enrollment decline on the faltering economy or the difficulties of the pandemic, over the past decade, enrollment in higher education has actually fallen by 11% nationwide. It’s clear something more pervasive has been driving the enrollment crisis for some time now. In 2020, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported the percentage of students enrolled continued to trend down 4% for the fall semester

Let’s take a closer look at some of the potential reasons behind the college enrollment decline and how to address these problems by building a better university brand.

5 factors behind the college enrollment decline

There doesn’t seem to be just one reason behind declining college enrollment numbers. However, taking a closer look at the combination of contributing factors, including falling national student graduation rates and college student retention rates, can help schools tackle challenges in recruiting and retaining students.

1. The recession reset could be responsible for some of the college enrollment decline

In short, what goes up must come down. A stronger economy typically boosts college enrollment. However, in 2011, the reverse happened as an unprecedented number of students pursued higher education when the economy was still emerging from a downturn. The current declining college enrollment rates may be, in part, simply a return to levels of normal recruitment and retention.

2. College enrollment is down in part because there are fewer students

At some point, simple math prevails. Fewer births mean fewer students, and fewer students mean fewer college students. Shifting demographics and dropping birth rates from twenty years ago means a smaller pool of high school graduates for colleges to recruit from. This forecast of dwindling student populations is complicated by the fact that fewer high school graduates are choosing to go to college.

3. The growing cost of tuition is a barrier to college enrollment

As you may have guessed, sharply rising tuition rates and less investment by states in higher education pushes more of the cost of college onto parents and students. In fact, rising tuition rates are outpacing inflation by a large margin. This creates barriers to pursuing college enrollment, especially among first-time college students and adults who already have significant financial commitments.

4. Students worry college degrees don’t hold value anymore

The burden of student loans has become a hotly debated topic nationally, and it’s fueled concern about whether college degrees still hold value in the modern economy. Public and community colleges seem to present a better return on investment up front, but research indicates private colleges still provide better long-term gains for those who can afford them.

5. The pandemic definitely isn’t helping the college enrollment decline

While the coronavirus crisis isn’t the sole cause of the current college enrollment decline, it’s certainly not helping. Colleges and universities reported up to 25% of potential students postponed college enrollment because of coronavirus. Many of these students cited difficult financial choices as a result of their family’s economic challenges. This is compounded by an already high college dropout rate that is currently hovering around 40%.

How to increase college enrollment at your school

Leveraging the following marketing tactics isn’t a silver bullet, but it can help your school overcome obstacles to recruitment, strengthen your college brand, and drive better student enrollment and retention numbers.

Know your audience

It’s possible your potential students aren’t who you think they are. While high school graduates are the most likely to enroll in college, increasingly diverse populations now crowd the halls and virtual classrooms at today’s colleges and universities. 

Focus your college recruitment and create marketing personas shaped by non-traditional potential student populations. It may help you reach a broader audience, including adults going back to school, first-generation college students and international students.

Focus on your brand

Just as successful companies build brands that are easily recognizable to consumers, colleges and universities should invest in branding that means something to students. Brand building isn’t just about having a cool logo or a best-in-class website. It’s really about crafting a niche and making sure your branding reflects those institutional strengths. Whether it’s fantastic study abroad experiences or a thriving esports community, find what your school does well and incorporate it into how you market to potential students.

Get creative

College fairs and mail brochures aren’t going to cut it anymore. To boost enrollment, consider focusing on new marketing channels in social media such as YouTube or recruiting brand ambassadors on Instagram. 

You need to reach potential students where they live, and increasingly that’s online. Take stock of your internet presence and consider how you can elevate your school profiles and expand your audience. Consider who your target demographic is and how best to communicate with those students given how they spend their day and what they care about.

Be consistent

It’s far easier and more cost-effective to keep the students you have than to recruit new ones. It’s also true that supporting your existing students and helping them thrive on campus can create the kind of alumni that’ll be brand ambassadors for life. Former students can go on to be vocal alumni who provide the kind of buzz for your college brand that money can’t buy.

Part of creating a dynamic brand is to get consistent with your university branding and create content your existing students will be proud to promote and share. Brand templating can help your team keep assets in one place, reduce the risk of off-brand content, and allow anyone to create and use branded content when and where they need it.

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Attracting the modern student

A university's brand is defined by its culture and values. This brand experience is what draws students to a school and keeps them as loyal alumni after they graduate. But, the climate around student recruitment has changed as a larger and more diverse group of students look for the university that's right for them. Is your school delivering a strong, consistent message with its brand marketing?

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Kaz Weida

Kaz Weida is a freelance journalist and photographer who is passionate about crafting content that helps entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes tackle challenges. When not at her keyboard, Kaz can be found in the kitchen indulging in a little craft cocktail inspiration.

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