Where Did All the Students Go?
Five views on the great enrollment crash
"Higher education has fully entered a new structural reality,” argues Bill Conley, vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell University, in a recent essay in The Chronicle Review. When Bucknell failed to hit its enrollment goals this spring, it wasn’t alone — National Association for College Admission Counseling data show a large increase in the number of colleges still soliciting applications after the May 1 deadline. “Up and down the selectivity ladder, especially among private colleges,” Conley writes, “yield models had been invalidated by a sea change in student college-choice behavior.”
We reached out to five leaders in enrollment from across the country and asked them: What does the enrollment crash look like to you? Here’s what they told us.
— The Editors
A Collision Course With Reality
During my 35 years in admissions and enrollment management, there has been one constant: the incessant background hum warning about the pending economic decline of higher education. I remember hearing in the early ’80s that birth rates were beginning to decline, that the pipeline of prospective college students was drying up, and that many colleges would soon face closure. A few did, of course; but in fact, colleges had always closed with the ebbs and flows of the economy and changes in demographics and demand, as witnessed by the 5,000 entries in the College History Garden, the online graveyard for defunct institutions.
If you look through that list you’ll notice the dearth of big names: St. Joseph’s College in Santa Clara, California (closed in 1991); Westmar University in Iowa (1997); Barat College in Illinois (2005); Lon Morris College in Texas (2012). Their collective impact on the national discourse is regrettably small, perhaps because they were never really a part of it. Against a backdrop of over 2,300 four-year public and private nonprofit colleges and universities, a few closures were unfortunate, but inevitable.
The ecosystem of American higher education today is like an aging baby boomer who has never exercised: Years of neglect, ignored warnings, and doing things we know we shouldn’t do may finally be catching up to us. The lack of large-scale, high-profile closures made us stop paying attention to the trends creeping up on us: “Yes, this class is a bit smaller and the discount a bit higher, but we can handle that,” we told ourselves. “We’ll invest more to turn things around.”
Now the background hum has become a din, and the amorphous specter that only a few could see has morphed into the elephant in the room that no one can miss. Arthur Levine’s 1997 Chronicle essay, “Higher Education’s New Status as a Mature Industry,” should have been on the wall of every college president, and required reading for every new trustee. Levine argued that because higher ed had left its growth stage, it should expect government to reduce its autonomy, increase regulation, and demand greater accountability.
Colleges have been reluctant to change, or to be boldly distinctive, for one simple reason: In our industry, innovation is dangerous. If you take a big risk and it’s successful, everyone soon shares the payoff on your bet. If you fail, the cost and the consequences fall squarely on you.
Fundamentally, colleges are the same: We measure quality by easily quantifiable inputs, not by more nebulous outputs; we take stock of the opinions of consumer magazines and newspapers more than of knowledgeable educators; we refuse to let competitors surpass us. If students once saw real differences between Carleton, Grinnell, and Oberlin, those distinctions faded as the sector became commoditized. It is no wonder that applications are skyrocketing, yield rates are falling, predictive models are failing us, discounts are rising, and — yes — colleges of some renown are starting to close.
In retrospect, 2007 seems to have been the tipping point, the final warning that we were on a collision course with reality. Tuition increases have slowed a bit since then but are still increasing faster than inflation and are exacerbated by flat or decreasing family incomes.
We are facing a crisis in enrollment, but it’s not just an enrollment challenge. Instead, it requires the attention of every member of every university community coming together to think less about our own self-interest and more about the common good of our institutions and society. Big public universities and well-endowed private colleges with powerful brands are safe for the near future — or so it seemed until a few recent announcements that make even the most optimistic of us wonder.
The big question: Can we begin to get back in shape, or will our collective complacency finally do us in?
Jon Boeckenstedt is vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University.
The Definition of Insanity
It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. For decades, this is how colleges handled enrollment. Instead of transformation, they tweaked at the margins. This is no longer sufficient. The answer to the “revenue problem” has always been “get more students who can pay” or “go recruit in a new market.” Those wells are drying up.
Unlike businesses, colleges don’t have many levers to pull when their product is no longer in demand. When computer sales drop, Apple creates a new device. When Americans buy fewer of its vehicles, Ford increases sales abroad. Higher education does not have this luxury. Colleges have to ask: What else can we do to increase revenue that is consistent with our mission? Colleges have historically added programs, increased the size of their student body, or added fees. We are hitting a wall on all of those options.
The enrollment game is fiercely competitive, and every college plays it — which means that every college will have to decrease its dependence on traditional enrollment.
In short, colleges must be willing to radically reimagine their business models. This does not mean redefining who they are and what they do; it’s about doing new things. Partnerships with corporate America, alternative uses for campus buildings, different methods of curricular delivery, and programming and housing for adult and retired populations are just a few options. Colleges should emulate successful businesses — figure out what their “customers” need and design products and experiences to meet those needs.
The challenge is that this requires institutions to fundamentally change how they operate. Small liberal-arts colleges, for example, are used to serving a traditional-aged student population. If they are to attract adult and nontraditional learners, they must redesign everything.
Change in higher education moves at a snail’s pace, but this crisis requires expediency.
The colleges that will thrive in the decades ahead are those willing to take risks while keeping their mission and history at the core of every decision they make.
Angel B. Pérez is vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College, in Connecticut.
The Biggest Threat Is to the Neediest Students
I’m often reminded that I sit in an enviable position. Georgia Tech is not fighting to meet our enrollment goals. We are not calling students from our waitlist instead of enjoying Fourth of July barbecues or re-packaging financial-aid offers in early August to fill beds and save faculty jobs.
At many colleges in New England and throughout the Midwest, however, each meeting of deans or trustees includes at least two citations from Nathan Grawe’s book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Meanwhile the South and the Southwest are growing.
As a result, the conversations around enrollment at healthy publics, particularly in the South, is not will we be a decade from now, but rather who will we be? My biggest concern is that our nation’s most prominent public universities will continue to become more socioeconomically homogeneous.
With drastic declines in state support, particularly since the Great Recession, public universities with strong brands have increasingly sought non-resident tuition to satisfy the bottom line. Combined with the steadily increasing cost of attendance, the representation of high-income students on these campuses has ballooned.
While programs like UNC’s Carolina Covenant and Georgia Tech’s Promise have done an excellent job of providing debt-free education to the neediest students, representation of middle-income students has continued to dissipate, effectively creating a financial barbell. Initiatives such as The University of Georgia’s Commit to Georgia and the Texas Advance Commitment at the University of Texas are seeking to address the problem, but they are also indicators of the extreme challenge many flagships face enrolling diverse socioeconomic classes.
Without more concerted efforts, the middle-class student will continue to be squeezed out — or saddled with an unconscionable debt burden upon graduation. If our most prominent public universities are unable to re-establish public trust and effectively articulate their need for state appropriations to bolster need-based financial aid, they risk losing the very students they were created to educate.
Richard A. Clark is director of undergraduate admissions at the Georgia Institute of Technology.