Higher ed faces numerous crises, with enrollment plummeting to pre-Recession levels and student success in decline. Although community colleges are recovering, 40 million people in the U.S. who enrolled in a two- or four-year institution stopped out along the way. But an annual survey that was conducted over the course of three years finally provides higher ed with a way to address these challenges. It just requires colleges and universities to meet current or prospective students where they are.
Conducted by the Lumina Foundation in partnership with Gallup, “The State of Higher Ed 2023” surveyed 6,000 current students, 3,000 people who stopped out without a degree, and 3,000 more who have never applied to a college or university. As higher ed nears the looming enrollment cliff, the report sheds light on how to increase enrollment by revealing why these people left or never attended and what would keep them enrolled or compel them to reapply or apply for the first time.
Overcoming Financial Barriers to Enrollment and Retention
Understandably, a major problem in current and former students’ minds concerns their loans. There are currently $1.3 trillion in student loans, which is the second highest form of debt in the U.S. under home ownership. Although the vast majority of participants said they would be more likely to reenroll or stay enrolled if a certain percentage of their loans were forgiven, colleges and universities won’t be able to capitalize on this possibility after the Supreme Court’s recent decision to negate the Biden Administration’s Student Loan Forgiveness program.
While a current dilemma is who will now fund these loans, a more pressing problem is that students aren’t able to pay them back, in part, because they are graduating with degrees that don’t lead to high-paying jobs. This comes despite the high number of available jobs currently on the market and the low unemployment rate.
Luckily, the Georgetown Center for Education in the Workforce recently released a report that determines how much the likelihood of young adults getting a good job can be improved by following a few strategies for student success and employability. Some of these strategies involve making specific changes to a high school diploma, community college education, and/or university credits.
Another possible solution is to provide a more well-set-up internship program that can help bridge the current workforce gap.
Similarly, a separate factor that negatively affects retention is the lack of transparency on how much tuition actually costs. The true sticker price isn’t realized until the parent, guardian, or student signs on the dotted line, and this could result in students and their families choosing a school that’s too expensive for them.
Conversely, the actual cost of tuition can even be much lower than the advertised price, thus driving away students from enrolling who thought attending was still expensive when it wasn’t. Some institutions like St. John’s College have seen the merit of and afforded a tuition reset.
Rethinking Support Systems Beyond Traditional Channels
All three demographics suffer from mental health and emotional stress, which is keeping them from enrolling or staying on campus. To combat this problem, higher ed needs to reject the current mindset that students should come to faculty and staff for help.
Although right to a degree, campus employees must understand that current and prospective students deal with more challenges than previous generations did. In addition to the pandemic causing learning loss in math and reading, more students are having to balance a full-time job while taking care of dependents, whether they are children or parents.
Colleges and universities need to meet students where they are, like Arrupe College has done. The two-year institution, which is part of the larger Loyola University Chicago, identified the barriers that could prevent students from succeeding and implemented a model that has been improving enrollment retention and graduation rates.
Helping Students Feel Like They Belong
The report found that students of color are more likely to stop out if they don’t feel like they belong and to create more of a sense of belonging, there needs to be more diversity. While true, colleges and universities should focus on not just increasing the diversity of their students but of their faculty, staff, and board members. Of course, it’s important to be more inclusive just for the sake of inclusivity, but there are also many benefits of increasing minority and women leadership in higher ed.
One institution that has been going above and beyond to increase a sense of belonging for minority students is the UK’s Lucy Cavendish College, which not only attracts underrepresented students but has incorporated many programs that inspire them. Lucy Cavendish is part of Cambridge University, which, as many people inside and outside of higher ed know, is one of the most elite institutions in the world. Up until recently, the majority of students attending Cambridge came from elite private schools.
At Lucy Cavendish, 90% of its student body is from public schools. This is incredible, but it could lead to some problems. Public high school graduates who come to a college that’s associated with a university like Cambridge will likely feel out of place when everyone around them went to some of the top prep schools in the country. It’s the same for any student from a low SES background in the US who attends an elite school like Harvard. But Lucy Cavendish has identified and implemented a successful program that ensures these non-traditional students feel like they belong at Cambridge. More U.S. colleges and universities should consider implementing similar support systems to prevent male Black students from stopping out.
Reproductive Rights and “Divisive” Education
Despite what political figures might claim or the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Roe v Wade, liberal and conservative students aren’t as divided on such controversial issues as reproductive rights. Regardless of party affiliation or political leanings, the majority of liberal and conservative students say they would rather attend either an institution that provides more access to reproductive rights or an institution that’s located in a state that does. Of course, a higher percentage of progressive students hold these positions in general, but still, a majority of conservatives agree with them.
The same holds true on the basis of whether to attend an institution that allows the instruction of all viewpoints on divisive topics such as race, gender, or racism. Both liberal and conservative students agree. This tells us that today’s students have different values than earlier generations have shared and that, unlike some politicians would like us to believe, these students won’t change their belief systems based on what they are exposed to. They know how to think and what’s important to them and will naturally migrate to what they value. Colleges or universities shouldn’t take certain topics or rights away from what their students want or need.
While institutions have the ability to change their own policies, none of them can provide access to, for example, reproductive rights if their states have made them illegal. Higher ed leaders who want to, but can’t will have to deal with not only current and prospective students not wanting to enroll but faculty and staff choosing not to work there.
Similarly, states that outlaw DEI will likely face lawsuits for trampling on First Amendment rights, which state that the government cannot put any law into practice that prohibits free speech. We’ve seen time and time again that you can’t legislate morals and ethics, like with the War on Drugs.
At the end of the day, students do value and want a postsecondary credential. The problem is just getting them enrolled, giving them what they need, and preventing them from stopping out. This involves meeting students where they are rather than expecting them to come to you. Some say students have to develop grit, but higher ed should create situations that are favorable for them so that people can complete their degrees. If they are worried about taking care of their parents, what is going to be a priority for them? It’s not going to be their education. Give students the chance to prioritize both and more.