As higher education institutions deal with the fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic, they also are facing a critical challenge in maintaining student enrollment. Many leaders were already worried about the enrollment cliff, but the pandemic has accelerated this issue. Many students are changing their initial decision about college through not applying, deferring admission or transferring to a regional institution closer to home.

This podcast will look at the pandemic, student enrollment and the ripple effect that this can have on an institution. Today’s guests are Bill Conley and Bob Massa, co-founders of Enrollment Intelligence NOW.

Falling Enrollments

The pandemic has caused colleges and universities to lose student enrollment at a time they where they were bracing for the enrollment cliff of 2025. A year ago, more than half of four-year colleges and universities had not met their enrollment goal. COVID-19 has put a sharp punctuation mark on a trend that was growing over the last several years in many sectors of higher education, especially small four-year liberal arts colleges that are highly dependent on a regional enrollment in areas where high school graduation rates are declining and will continue to decline precipitously.

The fall enrollment numbers are sobering. Overall higher education enrollment is down 2.5%. However, some institutions and subgroups of students are experiencing steeper declines. Private college enrollment dropped by approximately 4% and community college enrollment also is down.

The only institutions that have done reasonably well during this time are the regional public institutions. However, these institutions’ enrollment still have dropped, but not as significantly as other types of colleges and universities.

International student enrollment dipped by 11%; this is not surprising due to the difficulty in enter the United States and COVID travel restrictions. Domestic students are attending institution that are closer to home. A not-insignificant number of students have deferred their admission to next school year.

These enrollment drops also will have a significant effect on public institutions, which will face the additional burden of receiving decreased state funding due to the pandemic’s impact.

A Steeper Enrollment Cliff

Dr. Nathan Grawe, the Carlton College economics professor who wrote “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” pointed to the Great Recession of 2008-2009 when fertility rates dropped significantly. He also projected a discouraging picture of high school graduation rates in 2030; this will be much worse when the decline in fertility is factored in.

Now facing the uncertainties of a pandemic, families are postponing childbearing. This would mean the next wave of students won’t reach college until 2040, which could result in higher education having an even rougher ride.

These projections have significant ramifications for higher education leaders. There is a tendency by university presidents, provosts and enrollment managers to focus on making decisions based on the “here and now” and what is right in front of them. However with the enrollment cliff rapidly approaching, decisions made right now will have institutional ramifications decades into the future.

Therefore, it’s important for higher education leaders to look toward the future to strategically consider the impact that current decisions will have. Leaders face a real tension between making the current decisions that are designed “to keep the lights on” and making sure those decisions don’t inhibit longer-term opportunities and excellence.

What happens in this environment can affect stakeholders’ sense of trust. In the current environment shaped by the pandemic, many higher education decisions are being made in a more efficient manner that is often seen in the corporate sector; this decision-making style is foreign to higher education and their shared governance models.

To be successful, current higher education leaders need to balance rapid decision-making that is focused on the here-and-now with consideration on how to build and maintain trust within the college or university across the institution’s governance structure, which includes faculty, staff, Board of Trustees. This involves blending two often contradictory styles and considering tradeoffs when necessary.

Taking the Long View

In the early 2000s, a well-respected president from a top liberal arts college made the decision to hold tuition constant for a year, thanks to the institution’s large endowment and healthy budget. In retrospect, the president believes this was one of the worst decisions he made because it had a multiplying effect on the institution’s bottom line so that the college was handcuffed and couldn’t to what it needed to do for its mission.

This should be a cautionary tale for higher education leaders. Today, colleges are rushing to discount tuition for online learning. However, leaders should reconsider this decision because not only does it set institutions up for less revenue than they need in this current economic situation, but also sets up an expectation among constituents (parents and students) that they should always look for a lower price.

While there is a strong need for cost containment in higher education, price and cost are two different things. Price is what institutions charge; while this is related to cost, it’s not the same thing. Rarely does the price charged for an education cover the full cost of providing that education. The rest is made up by endowment earnings, gifts, state funding, federal aid, etc.

Governance and Trust

An increasing number of presidents are announcing their retirement, resignation or return to the faculty. There is some speculation that many presidents may have planned to announce these decisions back in March, but delayed the announcement due to the pandemic.

There also are a growing number of challenges in the decision-making arena, including faculty votes of no-confidence. Are these no-confidence votes related to a president’s decision-making in regards to COVID-19? Or are faculty cherry-picking grievances based on past decisions?

Moving forward, presidents, provosts and board do need to be held accountable. With that said, there needs to be an understanding that they have a complex job and it’s become more so in the current situation. However, some faculty distrust decisions that are made when they are not present.

What is a University’s Primary Mission? Educating Students

Colleges and universities exist to educate students, not to employ faculty and staff. Many decisions currently being made are about how to keep student demand in place in order to maintain enrollment. College and university faculty need to understand that ultimately the institution exists for the students. If the institution doesn’t have students, it doesn’t have revenue; if there is no revenue, there is no mission.

Currently, stakeholders need to come together around a common idea of the institution’s guiding principle. This group of stakeholders also needs to include student and parents, many of whom felt blindsided by this year by university decisions to open, not open and quarantine.

Not all of the institution’s constituents will be in favor of every decision. Leaders need to convey that they are listening and cognizant of the concerns that faculty, staff and parents have. This is why transparency is important in decision-making.

Enrollment Management

It’s important to remember what enrollment management entails because there have a number of cynical perspectives, such as it’s about net-tuition revenue. While it is, the best way for the institution to maintain and enhance net tuition revenue is not just recruiting first-time freshmen and qualified transfers, but also retaining the students that the institution worked so hard to recruit in the first place. This involves taking into account recruitment, admissions, financial aid, retention rates, graduation rates and giving rates among alumni.

Analyzing each point on this continuum is the best way for institutions to manage the current stresses. People have to over-perform in all of these ways, which is well illustrated by Peter Drucker’s quote, “The best way to plan for the future is to plan the future.” Creating trust in relation to higher education governance is about planning the future through using students as the focus.

Breaking Down Siloes

People in colleges and universities are very good at building silos. In contrast, an enrollment management system should be good at breaking down siloes and checking on students in relation to retention. In doing so during these times, it’s important to integrate both the counseling center and the career center staff in these efforts to ensure that each student’s individual needs are being meet at this time.

It’s important that the appropriate resources be made available to take care of students in relation to enrollment management, counseling and career services. However, counseling centers are currently understaffed and having difficulty dealing with mental health issues coming up in the pandemic and the significant increase in number of students who are seeking counseling on campus.

Even though institutions are in a retention period because revenue has taken a big hit, expenses have increased significantly (especially in relation to COVID), and cuts and furloughs are happening. That sets the stage for the dynamics between enrollment management and the business office. The business/finance office views this as spending money (or too much money) that the institution doesn’t have.

However, spending to provide appropriate services such as enrollment management, counseling and career services is actually an investment in current (and future) students. These services ultimately are a benefit financially to the institution since they help maintain a steady enrollment of students. Therefore, it’s important to consider whether requests from these areas are an investment or truly a spend.

Four Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Conley and Massa suggested four takeaways for higher education leaders:

  • Leaders need to stand with confidence but given all the unknowns, it’s a folly being certain. Leaders need to tell people the truth–both good and bad—and lay out the options with confidence and compassion.
  • Make certain that the decisions made today also take the future into account. This requires careful thought and mapping out potential implications that a particular decision can have on the future.
  • Presidents need to communicate to enrollment management leaders and admissions deans that they need to stay connected by the external world, including K-12 education. Don’t get consumed by internal issues. This approach goes to building trust and credibility among the external-facing public.
  • Consider the difference between investment and expenditure. Do not expect the staff to produce if they don’t have the resources. With that said, staff do need to be held accountable, optimize their work and row in the same direction.

Bullet Points

  • Higher education enrollments have declined in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. These drops will be especially difficult for institutions that depend on state funding for a significant part of their budget.
  • Higher education already was facing an enrollment cliff. The pandemic may extend this issue since parents may delay having children until the pandemic and economy stabilize, which will have implications through 2040.
  • Higher education leaders need to consider both the short-term impact of decisions as well as the long-term ramifications. What looks good in the short-term (keeping the lights on) could have serious negative implications for the institution years down the road.
  • Building trust among stakeholders is critically important right now. This is important because many leaders have been forced to use a more corporate decision-making model based on the rapidly emerging issues in the pandemic, which is counter to how higher education has traditionally operated. This change has resulted in some votes of no confidence emerging among faculty members across the nation.
  • Price and cost are two different things. Price is what institutions charge; while this is related to cost, it’s not the same thing. Rarely does the price charged for an education cover the full cost of providing that education. Therefore, it’s important to think twice about cutting the cost of tuition since parents and students will come to expect a lower price in the future.
  • College and university faculty need to understand that ultimately the institution exists for the students. If the institution doesn’t have students, it doesn’t have revenue; if there is no revenue, there is no mission.
  • Enrollment management takes into account recruitment, admissions, financial aid, retention rates, graduation rates and giving rates among alumni. Analyzing each point on this continuum is the best way for institutions to manage the current stresses.
  • Appropriate resources need to be made available to take care of students in relation to enrollment management, counseling and career services. These services ultimately are a benefit financially to the institution and an investment since they help maintain a steady enrollment of students.

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Keywords: #HigherEducation #EnrollmentCliff #University #COVID #Education