How To Stop Declining Enrollment In Higher Education

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How To Stop Declining Enrollment In Higher Education

How to stop declining enrollment in higher ed. For generations, education has been known to be a stepping stone to attaining more significant success in life. It is a gift that extends through the different stages of life, spanning across the primary to the post-secondary and graduate levels. However, recent statistics are showing a somewhat surprising decline in the number of students that enroll for post-secondary education.

In comparison to past years, the drop in college enrollment is becoming alarming, and judging from these statistics, 2025 will experience a significant decrease in college enrollment. Some reports indicate that college enrollment in America experienced a decline of close to one million between 2011-2013. The previous year was the eighth year in a row to experience a consecutive decline. Are you prepared for the upcoming enrollment cliff?

What are the Causes of Declining Enrollment in Higher Ed?

There are various reasons for the decline in the level of enrollment in American colleges and universities. The COVID crisis added an increased enrollment crisis. Prominent among these are the following.

Declining Demographics

Since 1980, there have been periodic declines in high school graduation rates, lingering recessions, and short-term economic and demographic impacts that affected higher education enrollment. However, colleges and universities were always able to adapt and adjust to these.

That changed with the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. Some colleges lost as much as 50 percent of their endowments during those years. In addition, families lost jobs and income and took huge hits in relation to their wealth, especially in home equity. This led to a decline in population growth.

The Birth Dearth in the Midwest and the Northeast, when combined with the decline in high school graduation levels projected to culminate in 2030, has precipitated this structural reality, turning this situation into a true trough instead of a rough decline.

Increase in Tuition and Other Fees

Increased fees (tuition, room and board, etc.) are a key reason for the decline in enrollment. Statistics show that the cost of average college tuition has doubled between 1971 and 2019. Stats confirm that this tuition increase will continue, with projections extending to 2036. This will bring about a further decline in the number of students that would enroll because of affordability.

It’s worth mentioning that out-of-state students in public colleges currently pay an average tuition of $25,620, which is about $15,650 higher than the average tuition paid by in-state students. Also, the average annual college tuition fee of $10,696 as of 1985 has significantly jumped to an average of $22,432 yearly in 2015. Forecasts indicate that attending a public college will cost a total of $162,818 by 2036, as opposed to $100,000 currently paid to attend college for four years.

Some other points to emphasize the effect of the increase in college fees are highlighted below:

  • College tuition in 1995 was around $13,572.
  • In 1971, it cost $1,832 to go to a private college.
  • The average cost of tuition was $14,724 in 2000.
  • In 2005, college tuition was about $17,532 on average.
  • In 2010, college tuition averaged $19,912.
  • In 2015, college tuition averaged $22,432.
  • In 2016, the cost of a four-year degree was twice that of in 1989.
  • Between 2008 and 2018, the average cost of private college tuition rose by $7,390.

Technological Advancements

Students are becoming highly dependent on technological devices to complete their work. Potential students are also beginning to opt for the opportunities provided by the internet and technology as a whole, leaving the traditional college education behind. This, in its own way, fosters the decline in college enrollment. Well-paying jobs that are technology-inclined and based on digital skills have become vastly and readily available. Through the use of the internet and remote service as an information exchange tool, most jobs of this nature are accessible from anywhere in the world.

Also, freelancing has become rampant as it gives the individuals involved the opportunity to freely plan and use their time as it best suits them, unlike the regular 9-to-5 jobs with little to no life-work balance.

Today’s youth are increasingly seeing less need to pursue a college education when they can master a skill like programming, content writing, UI/UX design, graphics design, website and application development, and artificial intelligence, among others. Additionally, recent reports on CNBC suggest that many companies and organizations are beginning to employ candidates based on 21st-century skills instead of degree certificates. Companies like IBM, Apple, Google, and many others no longer demand a college degree from their candidates.

For example, in 2017, Joanna Daley, IBM’s vice president of talent, made it known to CNBC’s Make It that close to 15% of her company’s staff lack a four-year degree. She went further to add that the company does not spend time anymore searching only for candidates who attended college. Instead, it organizes coding boot camps or vocational classes related to the industry to select candidates with hands-on experience.

Technological advancements are undoubtedly one of the primary reasons behind a huge decline in college enrollment so far, and there are expectations that it will cause a much more significant decrease by 2025.

The Covid-19 Pandemic

Fear will often cause anyone to make a different choice than they would make under normal circumstances, and college enrollment decisions are not left out. The coronavirus breakout has thrown the world into an unprecedented panic as countries are now taking adequate measures to close down borders, not to mention the uncertainty it has caused.

The Princeton Review states that as a result of this, the majority of students will choose a school within 180 miles of their homes, while some others may stay back at home totally, according to CNBC. The high cost of college tuition alone is already outpacing family income, and with the current breakout of the coronavirus, there is bound to be a further decline in college enrollment.

As the global economy slows down, the prices of basic commodities have risen, and parents face an even challenge when it comes to making decisions on college enrollment. A CNBC review on college enrollment reveals that an astonishing 99% of families are of the opinion that financial assistance will be vital for college payment, with 87% stressing it as “extremely necessary.”

Colleges, on the other hand, are trying to adapt to the sudden change, and they have started to shift to online resources and events to boost college enrollment. They may even be willing to accept more students in order to cope with the scarcity of admissions that might accompany the period after the COVID-19 pandemic passes. For example, Reed College recently admitted 60 more students from the waiting list, while Franklin & Marshall College plans to increase its rate of acceptance by two percentage points to 32%.

The Way Out of College Enrollment Decline in America?

Various measures can be put in place to curb the issue of college enrollment decline in America. Here are some of the steps that have been and are currently being practiced to salvage the situation.

Increasing Student Academic Profile

A good number of colleges try to raise their academic credentials, thereby attracting more qualified students having better SAT/ACT scores and GPAs. The ultimate aim is to compete with more selective schools with a built-in residential base of scholars. However, amassing a substantial number of such students on campus to make up an active network always poses a significant problem.

Creating Sports Programs

A few schools rely on particular sports as a key solution to the decline in college enrollment. There is a higher chance of athletes living within the campus as practices create an additional reason to spend long hours on campus. EducationDive has highlighted how participation in the NCAA tournament has resulted in a spike in admissions for some notable universities, and the statistics are impressive.

Erecting Better Residential Facilities

A good number of schools have embarked on an all-out building campaign to establish new non-academic environments like fitness centers and dorms that attract students even more.  Several colleges are erecting new residence halls to draw in and retain students. Others have gone further by adding innovative amenities built to increase the tutorial experience outside the four walls of the classroom and are gradually switching to more conducive quarters like high-end, apartment-like suites.

This is a particularly risky strategy, given how many students are enrolling within 100 miles of home, and the numbers of traditional students have (and will) decreased significantly over the next 5-15 years.

Making Undergraduate Learning an Institutional Priority

As crucial as original scholarship and community service measures, the primary mission of schools ought to be to coach undergraduates well and prepare them for future career(s). Nonetheless, high educational standards and rigorous curricula alongside reliable support services that prepare graduates for winning lives and productive careers are equally essential. This is especially important given the number of students who have benefited from counseling on campus.  

However, the general public may not appreciate the analysis and emotional health activities by colleges and universities, but they are still going to settle for them as long as they do not run at the expense of the students.

Integrating Essential 21st-Century Skills Into the Curriculum

The integration of 21st-century skills into the school program from year one is essential in the sense that once students graduate after their four-year program, they can have their degree certificate alongside years of expertise in digital skills. We are seeing more and more institutions rolling out stackable certificates leading to a degree, as well as micro-credentials focused on learning that businesses and employers want and need as part of their curriculum offerings.

This strategy can better prepare students for their careers, as well as give students who solely have digital skills a broader skillset (and possibly higher pay). In addition, it might compel others who have just digital skills to pursue a university education to boost their income-earning power and gain broader information in their chosen career path.

Providing Scholarships to Academically Distinct Students

Students who display excellent academic performance through their high school education should be encouraged to pursue a university degree. Their intellectual skills must be developed by providing them with scholarships and free counsel sessions, especially those who cannot afford post-secondary education.

However, there needs to be encouragement for them to choose the right career path and provide solutions to issues facing society and the world at large. Incentives in the form of scholarships could possibly guide them in leaving their mark on the world as others have done in the past. The affordability question should not be a detriment to potential students’ realizing their talent and innate gifts through gaining a college education.

Harnessing Technology Advancement in College Education

Universities and colleges should also leverage technological advancements to create numerous opportunities for college students and to recruit a wide range of potential students. Perdia Education is a technology that helps grow online student enrollment. Remote secondary and post-secondary education through distance learning should be encouraged, especially for working students.


The decline in college enrollment is on the rise, and it doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. However, a bright future can be secured for colleges and students alike if school authorities and the government put in place proactive measures such as were discussed in this article.

The university is not a place solely meant for the attainment of a degree certificate; it doubles as an environment to build life skills like leadership, emotional intelligence, problem-solving skills, etc. Such skills are required for one to excel within the career world and enable graduates to reach their full potential as human beings.

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a top higher education consultant helping colleges and universities grow enrollment with strategic planning to make enrollment growth sustainable. Check out The Change Leader’s Strategic Enrollment Management and Strategic Planning services for higher education institutions.

See more articles, posts, and podcasts from The Change Leader on Higher Ed Enrollment.

Thanks to the contributor

Much of this article was written by Max Chekalov, who approached us with data and stats that talk about enrollment and what’s going on, especially in today’s environment of uncertainty. Thanks, Max.

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