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The Great Enrollment Crash

Students aren’t showing up. And it’s only going to get worse.


By : Bill Conley | September 6, 2019


Question: Who do you think made the following observation — and when?


“Even more alarming is the perception among a growing number of young people today that, with escalating college costs and diminishing payoffs in terms of guaranteed career opportunities, a postsecondary education simply may not be worth the huge investment.”


If you guessed that I pulled this from a magazine article published in the past couple of years, you wouldn’t be alone. Point of fact: The above statement was made by Jack Maguire in Boston College Magazine … in 1976. 


For those of us who have been doing admissions work for a while — I’ve been in the business since 1980 — to hear some form of Maguire’s concern today just seems like déjà vu all over again. The 1980s were quickly dubbed the “demographic decade” as high-school graduation rates declined and a stubborn recession pressed family pocketbooks. In fact, Maguire is widely acknowledged as the father of enrollment management, the science that would be called upon to relieve higher education’s enrollment pressures at the time.


Yield models have been invalidated by the sea change in student college-choice behavior.


The two decades that followed saw ebbs and flows in high-school graduation rates and an inexorable increase in the sticker price of college. Yet with each demographic blip, and with every crossing of a new are-you-kidding-me? threshold for cost of attendance, colleges still reported record selectivity, robust enrollments, and financial-aid programs that, for some, effectively reduced sticker shock. Indeed, reports of a higher-education bubble about to burst appeared to be greatly exaggerated. American higher education seemingly had an elasticity that could withstand periodic, short-term fluctuations in demand and cost.


Then came 2008. The Great Recession devastated university endowments, shattered the majority of family wealth and income, and confounded the predictive modeling of enrollment managers. The near-term chaos was very real. Somehow, at varying rates, most colleges managed to survive, but in order to do so they established a “new normal” that would allow them to claim renewed stability for the long haul. That brings us to the summer of 2019, when the cracks in this new normal really started to show.

As has been the case in recent years, Bucknell University had a large and talented applicant pool for the Class of 2023. Setting an aggressive target of 980 (40 more first-year students than in 2017), our yield model indicated that our admit pool, plus 30 to 35 students enrolled from the wait list, would safely land us there by the first day of fall classes. That all changed on May 2. The enrollment-deposit spigot went dry, considerably short of our goal. As it turned out, we would need to enroll about 100 students from our wait list. 


In the process of calling these wait-listed applicants, we learned that Bucknell was hardly alone in its shortfall. Up and down the selectivity ladder, especially among private colleges, yield models had been invalidated by a sea change in student college-choice behavior. After the May 1 deadline for candidates to accept or reject admissions offers, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) provides colleges the option to post a “still open for business” status alerting potential applicants that there’s still time to submit an application. For classes entering between 2014 and 2016, the average number of colleges that would consider postdeadline applications over that three-year span was 436. For the past three years? The average was 554 — a 27-percent increase.



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