Rethinking the Enrollment Decline in Higher Education

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 108 with Guest Mike Petrilli

Table of Contents

Rethinking the Enrollment Decline in Higher Education - Changing Higher Ed Podcast 108

Rethinking the enrollment decline in higher education can help you transform your institution’s strategic planning for sustainable success. 

In this episode of the Changing Higher Ed podcast, Drumm McNaughton engages in conversation with the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Mike Petrilli, whose recent article presents a strong argument for optimism despite fewer students enrolling in traditional colleges and universities. 

The downward enrollment trend has induced panic among many in the higher education industry, but Petrilli offers data-based evidence suggesting the trend is neither surprising nor a cause for despair. The Upside of the Downward Trend in College Enrollment is a thorough and encouraging analysis of the factors behind this decline, the implications for students and institutions, and the necessary changes higher education institutions must make to improve students’ odds of success.

As America emerges from the global pandemic, researchers and academics are poring over the data for insights into the widespread repercussions of COVID-19 on the higher education industry. Over the course of the past two years, nearly one million students that might have enrolled in higher education under normal circumstances seem to have been lost entirely to our educational system.

“Those million students include many young people who could be very successful in higher education. And it’s a problem that they’re not putting this time and energy into getting their degrees.”

Dozens of articles about the drop in enrollment predict catastrophic ramifications for the future of America. Monty Sullivan, president of Louisiana’s community college system, suggests that these lost students have forfeited their futures.“The conventional wisdom,” explains Petrilli, “is that that massive decline is bad. And in some respects, it is.”

“We have a million adults in this country that have stepped off the path to the middle class. That’s the real headline.”

But in contrast to such assumption-based attitudes, Petrilli’s article provides real data to support a different perspective. Pre-pandemic data clearly shows that far too many students had been enrolling in higher education. “Almost a million kids [were] dropping out every single year before the pandemic. And overwhelmingly, that was because they were students who were not prepared to succeed in higher education in the first place.”

It’s quite possible, says Petrilli, that many of these lost students would have dropped out of college anyway, even if they had enrolled. The number of students who drop out of college, Petrilli notes, “works out to about 900,000 young adults leaving college with no degree or certificate – each and every year.”

Could it be that this so-called disastrous enrollment decline in higher education is a direct result of some or most of those future dropouts skipping college altogether, at least for now? If so, that could be a very positive thing. These kids are likely getting jobs, building practical skills, and exploring their options – without investing enormous resources that they are unlikely to recoup. It’s Petrilli’s hope that these young adults will find that higher learning comes in many forms and carve their own paths to success, with or without college.

Enrollment Volume and the Importance of Rigorous Admission Standards

Most of us are aware that college isn’t the best answer for every student. We now have the data to prove that it’s a fact: far too many students have been entering colleges and universities without the credentials and skills they need to graduate. Petrilli’s article points out that according to  “Completing College” from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center 37.8 percent of college students drop out with no credential to their name.

It’s true that earning a college degree is associated with positive outcomes: college graduates tend to earn higher incomes. Holding a college degree is also correlated with physical health, successful relationships, and other markers of overall happiness. Those outcomes, however, come with an important caveat.

The promise that attending college will set these kids up for success in life is only true if they earn a degree – and for those who drop out, shame, embarrassment, and a sense of failure can follow them for the rest of their lives. The adage that the greatest cost of education is not receiving one does not apply to these students: having enrolled in college and ultimately dropping out, they’ve incurred great costs in tuition expenses, room and board, travel, books, supplies, wasted time, and – worst of all – the psychological cost of having failed.

Higher education institutions, across the board, must take a holistic approach to enrollment and measure each prospective student’s chances of success. College enrollees that are vastly underprepared are certain to drop out, and the institutions that admit them, to begin with, are to blame for lacking any meaningful standards for enrollment.

By the end of high school, each student has a file full of various assessments measuring their scholastic aptitude in basic subjects like reading, writing, and mathematics. They’ve collected teacher reviews, report cards, standardized testing grades, and other measurable data. Petrilli adds, “You can look at academic skills – even just the basics – and say, ‘Okay, you need to be at this certain level in order to matriculate to college, not end up in a remedial course, and have a good chance of completing a degree or credential.’”

Using past performance as an indicator of future success, students’ test grades, teacher reviews, and graded assignments are combined to measure their cognitive aptitude, maturity, non-cognitive skills, and all the other attributes that help students succeed with college-level work. “I think it’s fair to say that ‘college-ready’ means something different depending on the college. But in general, I think we can also agree that there’s a certain level below which kids are just not going to be able to succeed doing college work.”

“If your business model means that you have to take kids who are reading at a sixth-grade level, then something is wrong with your business model.”

The downward enrollment trend is predicted to continue. The Great Recession, which caused a reduction in birth rates, means that there will be fewer students overall when those kids come of college enrollment age. What does this all mean for colleges and universities – and what about community colleges? For Petrilli, open access enrollment policies at community colleges harm both students and faculty.

The Problem with Open Access Community Colleges

Students and faculty alike suffer from community colleges’ model of boosting enrollment by offering access to anyone regardless of academic performance. Too many of these students arrive vastly unprepared and, as a result, leave mired in debt and with nothing to show for their investment. For this reason, Petrilli refers to the so-called college wage premium as the “college completion wage premium” – without earning a degree, students do not benefit from higher incomes and better job prospects.

Community colleges regularly admit students who operate at an elementary-school academic level. “I’m talking about students who are reading at the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade levels, and likewise with their math skills.” That may come as a shock to most people, but not to those who work at open-access community colleges. Faculty at community colleges end up with classes of students that can’t absorb required reading and other planned assignments, causing teachers to further lower their class standards.  

“We live in a world of probabilities, and for a kid with a sixth-grade education, the probability of them succeeding in a community college is very close to zero.”

Most community colleges advertise open-access policies, meaning enrollment is available to anyone with no application required. Because of this, students of all ability levels enroll – including those with the lowest basic skills. Those students test into the lowest courses, but there is no admission cutoff. Students who enroll often possess academic skills on par with elementary schoolchildren.

The role that community colleges play in the problem of over-enrollment is in dire need of scrutiny and change. It may be time to reorient and refocus community colleges to be more career-oriented, rather than a low-cost way to get your Associate’s Degree and move on to a four-year college.

An Inevitable Enrollment Decline in Higher Education

“These institutions had it coming.”

College is simply not a great option for students who lack the fundamental cognitive and social skills to thrive in a college environment. Yet colleges and universities work continuously to boost enrollment rates in every way possible, including by admitting students whose chances of successfully completing a degree are close to zero.

Not all students are fit for college, “And so,” Petrilli adds, “We shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve got this massive college dropout problem.” Institutions are admitting far too many students that are drastically underprepared for college, and the numbers just don’t add up.

Pre-pandemic data shows that until two years ago, the percentage of high school graduates considered “college-ready” represented about one-third of all students. “We usually get about 35, maybe 40 percent of high school graduates to that college-ready level by the end of 12th grade,” says Petrilli.

Paradoxically, the pre-pandemic data also shows that before the pandemic and the resulting drop in enrollment, twice that number of students – two-thirds of all graduating seniors – were on track to attend some type of college or university in the fall after graduation.

The numbers show that four-year colleges and universities are simply not the answer for most students. If only one-third of all students leaving high school have the reading, writing, mathematical skills, and all the other non-cognitive skills needed for completing college, pre-pandemic enrollment rates were twice as high as they should have been. Half of the kids who were heading straight to college simply shouldn’t have been admitted.

Benefits of Delaying College Enrollment

Taking a gap year can be a great option for many students to explore new pathways to a successful life, on their own terms and according to their personal definition of success. Some of the students who delay their college enrollment will never return to higher education, but those who truly want to earn a four-year degree and enjoy college-level work will most likely find their way back. As Petrilli notes, “Our education system is good at providing second, third, and fourth chances,”

Engage in Honest Conversations with Kids About College

From an early age through adolescence and high school, students are told that going to college is crucial to succeeding in life. An enormous amount of pressure is placed on these kids from all angles. The pressure to enroll is baked into our educational system, and this pressure is reinforced by cultural and social expectations, as well as parents and authority figures.

No one wants to tell a child or young adult that they aren’t cut out for college, even when their records, grades, test scores, and teacher reviews clearly show that they are underprepared for college-level work. However, avoiding these tough conversations does a huge disservice to students with a minuscule chance of college success. “We need somebody in the system [who] is able to talk honestly to kids without demeaning them.” Petrilli is adamant that we need to start having more honest and practical conversations about our kids’ realistic chances of college success.

Increased Demand for Trade and Skill-Based Programs

How can we really take to heart the idea of giving kids multiple pathways starting in high school so they can be successful?

When students arrive at college and find themselves out of their depth, they face mental, psychological, emotional, and monetary costs. While parents, teachers, and advisors may encourage them to push on, some simply lack the aptitude to succeed and graduate.

There is an urgent need to expand programs that provide training in specific, skill-based trades and vocations. In today’s hot job economy, there are many opportunities for people with no college education to earn incomes on par with college graduates, and the demand for these vocations and trades is likely to continue.

The Demise of Vocational Education

The old system of vocational education was riddled with problems by its very design: lower-class students from poorer backgrounds, including minority students, were systematically put on track for vocational training while access to colleges and universities was limited to wealthier, upper-class families. This flawed system segregated the wealthy from the poor and fell into disfavor because of the inherent racism and classism that kept lower-class kids in low-paying jobs, blocking them from moving up and climbing out of poverty.

As we reimagine an expansion of programs and options for students, the focus must be on providing resources that create opportunities instead of limiting them.

Shifting Parental Attitudes and Expectations Around College

Parents may be pushing hard for their children to attend college, but that’s not always the case. “Parents are not saying they want college for all; there’s a huge amount of support for career and technical programs.” Petrilli points to polls that indicate parents are primarily concerned about making practical choices that set their kids up to succeed and launch them on a path to happiness.

They care about investing in their kids, but they’re also aware of the incredible cost of higher education and are concerned about making wise investments. Parents weigh the risks and benefits to make good choices by asking:

If they understand that the chances of their child graduating from a four-year college are very low, they may be more likely to consider alternatives to traditional higher education. This is especially true if they understand that the so-called college wage premium only applies to those who earn a degree. There are many costs and no benefits for those who drop out.

Parents aren’t the only ones who should be engaging in conversations about alternative options for kids who are underprepared for college. Others share a responsibility to openly and honestly talk to students who may be better off not giving it the old college try:

  • Teachers
  • Advisors
  • Guidance counselors
  • Role models

Fortunately, cultural sentiments about college are shifting away from the college-for-all mentality. American culture is changing, and college and university leaders have a responsibility to change with it by examining their schools’ admissions standards, business models, educational outcomes, and value propositions.

College Enrollment Begins in Early Education 

“We need to do a dramatically better job in the early years.”

Petrilli, whose focus is on younger students, admits that by the time students reach age 18, it’s far too late to change outcomes like the probability of succeeding in a college environment. Those challenges are the work of educators with access to kids at a much younger stage of life. “What we see in the data is that it’s very hard to help most people once they approach adulthood – we need to fight and win that war when they’re 5, 6, 7 years old, which is why I’m passionate about education reform.”

Moving Forward

Some higher education institutions, especially community colleges, need to rethink their approach to enrollment. Some schools will be forced to transform for the better if they’re going to survive, and others will likely consolidate or close.

  • Colleges and universities must implement standards for admissions that reduce dropout rates and improve the chances of success for enrollees
  • Remedial education programs should be expanded at many schools without stigmatizing students in need of extra support
  • Schools must expand resources for students from low-income families, minorities, and first-generation students to improve their chances of success
  • Students on the bubble can benefit from models like the CUNY ASAP program
  • Teachers, advisors, and parents must start having difficult conversations with kids who are highly unlikely to succeed in college environments
  • Alternatives must be expanded for students who are nowhere near ready for college

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Many of the kids coming out of high school are nowhere near ready for college. No amount of remedial education will get them up to speed in time to make a difference and, in fact, that problem is going to become even worse with the learning loss we’ve seen during the pandemic. Institutions must be willing to set a standard for what it takes to be successful – and be willing to tell certain students that they aren’t a good fit.
  • For kids who are in the bubble, meaning they may be close to college-ready but not quite, evidence-based programs like the CUNY ASAP program are worth considering. Other institutions should attempt to replicate what CUNY and others are doing to help provide extra support to these students as they enter their freshman classes.
  • Colleges, and especially community colleges, need to take a hard look at their business models. If those models require convincing young people to engage in college-level studies that are unlikely to facilitate any return on investment, the business model must change. This is especially true for those students who are highly unlikely to earn a degree. If those institutions are unwilling to innovate, it’s probably time for them to close.

About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a Higher Education Consultant, CEO of  The Change Leader Consulting Firm, and an international leader in transformational change for Higher Education.  

Links to Articles, Apps, or Websites Mentioned During the Interview

Podcast Guest 

See more articles, podcasts, and webinars about the enrollment decline in Higher Education with insights to help you manage student enrollment. 

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