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Increasing enrollment — and financial sustainability — in higher ed

Sep 12, 2023

College enrollment numbers have recently shown some encouraging signs of climbing upward from a significant decline in previous years, although changes continue to create recruiting challenges for admissions officers across the country. 

Stabilizing enrollment has moved to top of mind for many institutions, as it not only ensures financial sustainability but also enhances the overall educational experience for students. For your institution, successfully countering the reduction in traditional enrollees means understanding key enrollment trends and looking at how you’re providing value to students.

Understanding enrollment trends

During 2020-22, institutional college enrollment — which includes attendance in public four-year universities, private four-year universities and public two-year community colleges — fluctuated in a downward trend, showing a 2% reduction year over year.

Total student enrollment compared to spring 2019 pre-pandemic levels is down by about 1.3 million students. And graduate-level enrollment is still showing poorly with another significant 2.2% decline.

The population of high school graduates is also soon to reach its high point. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the yearly number of high school graduates will peak with the 2024-25 graduating class. It will begin trending lower from there, in alignment with overall population numbers, which means this traditional pipeline of college attendees will no longer be an ever-increasing figure.

But there’s still some good news. Community college enrollment increased 0.5% in spring 2023, marking the first enrollment uptick in four years. They also had a whopping 12.4% increase in freshman enrollment which may reflect pent-up demand for attendance.

Overall, registration for community colleges, public four-year institutions and private four-year institutions are showing signs of leveling off after sharp decreases during the pandemic.

Enrollment is only down 0.5% as compared to last year, which is a significant improvement after years of severe declines. And dually enrolled students (high school students taking college classes) have increased 8%. This dropped the median age of community college students by more than a full year, down to 19 years of age.

How to increase enrollment

Colleges and universities are focusing on three key items moving forward: The quality and relevance of their academic programs, diversification of course offerings and regular curriculum reviews. 

Career goals of learners are changing rapidly, and higher education must do its part to continually develop students in this shifting landscape. Regularly evaluating the value of your academic programs remains a critical piece to stabilizing enrollment and attracting a diverse population of students with changing needs.

Here are three strategies for increasing your institution’s enrollment:

  1. Strengthen high-demand programs
  2. Institutions should focus on finding and strengthening high-demand academic programs. 

    To help, your institution can:

    • Conduct market analyses
    • Survey potential students
    • Analyze labor demand in your region as an indicator of need

    Focusing on workforce-development teaching has also been a recent push for many community colleges.

    For example, if Tesla is building an electric car factory in your neighboring city, there may be an opportunity to create an instructional program around electric automotive manufacturing. There are also companies offering opportunities, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), that have partnered with hundreds of institutions to deliver AWS Academy courses which are then integrated with the institution’s workforce and certification curricula.

  3. Diversify your offerings
  4. Institutions need to continue to diversify their certification and degreed offerings.

    Some learners need a shorter, credential-based program to continue developing their skill sets. The Tesla example also presents opportunities for partnerships with local employers.

    Students may head from graduation immediately into a chosen workplace and have direct employment waiting for them, creating a winning scenario for the student, the college and the employer. 

    Additionally, employer sponsorships can ease the financial burden for learners and encourage more students to enroll.

  5. Review your curricula
  6. The most successful recruiters are constantly reviewing curricula. This is a standard multiyear evaluation for educational programs across the board, but now incorporating new ideas for student pipelines has become even more important.

    Measurement of learning outcomes is critical in maintaining and increasing value for student graduates.  In 2021, The overall employment rate of individuals between the ages of 25 to 34 was 76%, but those with a bachelor’s degree or higher came in at 86%.

    If the goal of a learning track is to increase employment rates within the community, reviewing outcomes to ensure that process is successful is crucial. New learning technologies are also introduced nearly each year and need to be considered for incorporation to keep programs current and innovative.

    Alignment with program outcomes must remain a focus as well. If a course is not steering a student to the program’s overall goals, it could become a counterproductive piece of the puzzle.

How Wipfli can help

Achieve your institution’s goals with Wipfli. Stay lean and on top of the latest tech and your financial performance with our outsourced services, or let our team guide you in developing organizational and digital strategies that deliver results. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you transform your institution.

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Sean Grennan, MS
Manager, CIO Advisory
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