Higher education enrollment is facing two major catalysts – the enrollment cliff and COVID-19 – both of which are forcing institutions to transform. According to Jim Bouse, Director of Enrollment Technology for the University of Oregon, it’s important for colleges and universities to take a holistic approach to student enrollment to achieve growth and stability.
As noted by higher education leader Dr. E. Gordon Gee has said, the pandemic is accelerating needed changes in higher education by a decade or more. One of these areas is in delivery as higher education has seen a hyper-acceleration of the adoption of technologies. Campus detractors suddenly saw the benefits of using technology across the campus, including allowing (necessitating?) many employees to work remotely.
The pandemic has caused a hyper-acceleration of trends that were already emerging. These trends include demographic trends in relation to the number of traditional students as well as high school graduates across the nation, in different regional areas and states; economic trends across the globe; technology trends including online education; and geopolitical trends that affect international students.
Maintaining Competitiveness for Enrollment Growth and Stability
This current situation puts the onus on higher education institutions to show that they have a purpose and are providing value. The problem is that very few institutions know what their true purpose and mission are, e.g., what is their real value proposition to students and the marketplace, and because of this, students (and parents) don’t really understand the advantages that they will gain by attending your institution. In common business vernacular, this is known as the business “value proposition,” and it is what differentiates you from your competitors.
Nontraditional students (e.g., 24+ years old, distance learning, etc.) now make up over 70% of those attending higher education institutions. The demographics for high school students entering higher education are currently flattening and dipping. To survive, institutions increasingly need to look at veterans who will use GI benefits to attend school or adult learners who are returning to school to complete a degree. Individuals also are looking for certificate programs and other markers of completion that will result in a raise or job with an employer.
Additionally, more people are questioning the value of higher education and are considering the overall return on investment. Many are getting smarter about this equation. Parents are looking at the worth of funding this education for their children. Students are questioning the level of indebtedness that they will be taking on and whether they will be able to make that money back after they graduate. Will this indebtedness prevent them from saving for a home, retirement, and other societal impacts, all of which will affect the nation long-term?
Back about 10 years ago, higher ed enrollment was growing – the go-go years where you could always expect growth – so it was easy to “grow your way out of a crisis.” Now, that’s not the case given all the challenges that higher ed faces, including demographics, COVID, etc. This is typical for a mature/declining business model as is higher ed. But still, we in higher ed have that same mentality – grow your way out of a problem. Here’s the issue.
Every institution needs to consider whether its growth has a purpose beyond just growing for growth’s sake. Otherwise, the institution needs to reevaluate its mission, purpose, and goals. For example, Ivy League institutions really consider who they are and how they can focus on that, and then market that to students.
Institutions need to understand if they are on the cutting-edge operationally, including are their “product offerings” unique and not easily replicable – what is known in business terms as “barriers to entry” and brand promise/value proposition. This requires conducting more in-depth market research to consider where they stand against their competition, i.e., whether the institution is competing in a broader field in which it is not the only player on the chessboard. Because of this reality, a myopic view will no longer work. Institutions need to determine who their competitors are and then identify who is pulling in prospective students through offering less-expensive quality education.
Institutions must determine what their “sweet spot” is, i.e., their unique value proposition, and how they reach those target students while considering fixed and increasing variable costs. For example, leaders need to consider the institution’s purpose and the ideal enrollment size. What makes the institution distinct and what are the institution’s specific competencies? Can others replicate what the institution does? Can this replication be done remotely and less expensively? Why do students want to go to your institution? Why should they come to you? What is it about your institutional experience and value that can’t be easily replicated someplace else? Leaders need to continually focus on enhancing the quality of what they are offering.
An example of this is the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, its main in-state competitor. OSU was known for its engineering and science programs, but Oregon also had excellent programs. Oregon wanted to grow enrollment in these programs, so they begin tweaking the programs as well as publicizing them more. The result: Oregon is now known for its bioengineering and science programs and has carved out a niche for itself in this area.
A Holistic Approach to Student Enrollment
When considering the business model, leaders often consider how they are leveraging financial aid, why students enroll, the institutional price points, and the costs. While the CFO considers controlling costs, quality, and various sources of funding, another consideration needs to be how the institution operates so it can grow its endowment to sustain its future, as opposed to chipping away at the endowment.
This requires looking at things from a holistic perspective, instead of only looking at this from an enrollment perspective. All these pieces work together. Yet, most institutions cannot differentiate themselves from other higher education institutions. This is reflected in their marketing materials, which look like the promotional materials from nearly every other college and university.
Students are becoming increasingly savvy about higher education marketing and are considering whether the education offered will give their life value. They are growing up with technology and want to earn a degree that will not be easily replicable by robots or artificial intelligence.
They also are realizing that they don’t need to be rich or extremely wealthy to have a fulfilling life – and aren’t willing to make this trade-off. They want to do something worthwhile and that they enjoy. These students are looking at the cross between what they will gain by earning a specific degree from an institution and the level of indebtedness they will incur. They also want to have a broad-based education with a distinct niche that is appealing to employers, but also with a focus on flexibility so they can know how to shift and adapt in the future.
Institutions also need to build skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, and leadership into their curriculum. Employers are seeking these competencies, and higher ed institutions need to highlight how these are learned in specific courses and activities. Then, students understand what they are learning and be able to reflect on these experiences so they can speak about them to prospective employers.
For example, the ability to analyze and interpret data is one of the top five skills employers look for in graduates / new hires. Students who can describe the amount of data they are processing in degrees such as psychology or history must be able to relate these skills to prospective employers. Additionally, having a specific minor in data can make a difference between a typical graduate who only has a history or philosophy degree, and someone who a similar degree along with this minor. The latter can result in a $25,000 difference in salary on average.
Strategic Enrollment Management
A strategic enrollment management concept requires leaders to have a total understanding of the institution. As budgets are impacted, more players across the institution are realizing how their roles require them to work together across institutions to create a place where students want to come.
Messaging is important about programs and strengths that take trends into account, but these programs need to already be in place, so the institution is not creating a new program. The curriculum, classes, syllabus, and activities also need to align so students understand the knowledge and skills they are building.
The institution’s goal needs to be for the student to graduate and then become a donor or active proponent for the institution. Additionally, these individuals may choose to return to the institution to earn micro-credentials to boost their careers.
- What is the student persona (i.e., the composite profile of your current and desired student) for the institution?
- What do leaders need to do to align their resources to attract, prepare and help them be successful in their pursuits?
- What support do they need to be successful? Is it academic, or does it go beyond academics to housing, mental health, and other “normal” things?
- Institutions also need to understand the average student profile and students’ end goals for seeking higher education.
Prospective students also consider programs and majors when considering a college or university, so it’s important for institutions to realize this. Programs need to be of the highest quality to prepare students for the work world. Additionally, by aligning the institution’s work, the various stakeholders—administrators, faculty, staff, students, and alumni – become institutional ambassadors.
Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards
- The main thing is the main thing is the main thing. Why does your institution exist? Focus on what the institution is delivering, what specifically is offered, and why students should want to come there.
- Understand the institution’s mission and who you serve. This allows you to identify the students you need to recruit and understand their needs, which will help the institution to move forward.
- When students enroll, does the institution deliver everything it has promised? Has the institutional culture shifted? Does everyone who is employed at the institution understand what their role is in delivering a superior student experience?
Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides strategic planning, implementation, and change management consulting to help institutions make the transformational changes needed for enrollment growth and sustainability.