14 November · Episode 181
Tough Times Ahead for Higher Education Enrollment
42 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton
Dive into the complexities of higher education enrollment–navigate through its current challenges, and uncover strategies for the tough times ahead.
In this podcast, we dive into the complexities of higher education enrollment, navigating through its current challenges and uncovering strategies for the tough times ahead. The higher education landscape is facing unprecedented changes, with student demographics shifting and financial pressures mounting. These changes are reshaping how colleges and universities must embrace an adaptive approach to student recruitment and retention.
Higher education enrollment is at a critical juncture, as discussed by seasoned experts Drumm McNaughton, Bill Conley, and Bob Massa in this episode. Drawing from recent reports by the National Student Clearinghouse and the College Board, they explore changing demographics, public skepticism towards higher education, and the unintended results of trending financial strategies.
The Shifting Landscape of Higher Education Enrollment
Enrollment patterns in colleges and universities are undergoing significant transformations. There’s a noticeable trend of students opting for more flexible, career-oriented programs over traditional four-year degrees. This shift reflects the evolving needs and preferences of the student population. Alongside these trends, racial demographics in higher education are also changing, presenting new challenges and opportunities for institutions.
Financial Realities and the Need for Transparency
A key focus of the podcast is the financial dynamics of higher education. The discussion highlights the disparity between the advertised prices of college education and the actual costs borne by students and how the trend hurts recruitment and enrollment. This gap, exacerbated by widespread discounting practices, underscores the need for greater transparency in communicating the true costs and financial aid options to prospective students.
An Adaptive Approach to Student Recruitment and Retention
Bill Conley and Bob Massa emphasize the importance of adaptation to align higher education with market demands, particularly in terms of employability and workforce readiness. They suggest that institutions may need to revisit and potentially revise their missions to reflect these changing expectations, underscoring the need for strong enrollment management leadership.
Predictions for the Future of Higher Education Enrollment
The podcast also delves into predictions about the next two demographic declines and their impact on future enrollment. The discussion revolves around the need for colleges and universities to innovate and adapt to these changes. Strategies such as strategic mergers, collaborations, and program adjustments are proposed to help institutions stay relevant and viable.
The Role of Leadership in Navigating Challenges
The episode underscores the need for bold and creative leadership in higher education. The host and guests advocate for strategic decision-making and innovation as key to navigating these challenging times. They call on leaders to be proactive and adaptable in their approaches to managing enrollment and steering their institutions through this period of change.
Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leadership and Boards
As the landscape of higher education enrollment undergoes significant changes, we offer three key recommendations for leaders in this sector:
- Embrace Adaptability: Leaders must be willing to adapt their strategies and practices to align with the evolving needs of students and the job market. This may involve re-evaluating institutional missions and embracing more flexible, career-focused educational models.
- Financial Transparency and Support: It’s crucial for institutions to provide clear and transparent information about the true costs of education, including a breakdown of financial aid opportunities. This approach not only aids in student decision-making but also helps in building trust and credibility.
- Innovative Leadership: In these challenging times, leaders need to exercise innovative and strategic thinking. This includes exploring options like strategic mergers, collaborations, and program adjustments to ensure the institution’s viability and relevance in the changing educational landscape.
The landscape of higher education is evolving rapidly, demanding a proactive and adaptive approach from leaders. The ability to align educational offerings with the emerging needs of the job market, maintain financial transparency, and exercise innovative leadership will be key differentiators in navigating these complex times.
As we move forward, the insights shared in this episode serve as a guiding light for higher education administrators and policymakers. The journey ahead may be fraught with uncertainties, but with strategic planning, empathy, and a willingness to embrace change, higher education institutions can not only survive but thrive, shaping a future that resonates with the needs of the next generation of learners.
In essence, this episode is a call to action for higher education leaders to step up, embrace the challenges head-on, and reimagine the future of higher education in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, and forward-looking.
About Our Podcast Guests
Our Guests are both Principals at Enrollment Intelligence Now
Dr. Robert Massa, a seasoned professional in higher education enrollment, began his career in 1974 at Colgate University and retired in 2019 from Drew University. His career trajectory included key positions at Union College, Johns Hopkins University, Dickinson College, and Lafayette College. Massa’s expertise extends to teaching, currently as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California. He is known for his insights on data modeling in admissions, financial aid strategies, and non-academic criteria in admissions, contributing to several national publications and speaking at conferences. His educational background includes a BA from the University of Rochester and an EdD from Columbia University.
William Conley began his career in education as an AP History teacher and coach at Delbarton School, transitioning into higher education enrollment management in 1980. His notable career includes roles at Lafayette College, Drew University, Case Western Reserve University, and Johns Hopkins University, before retiring in 2020 from Bucknell University. Throughout his forty-year career, Conley significantly improved admissions metrics and developed strategic infrastructures for recruitment and retention at each institution. He has been actively involved in professional organizations, holding leadership positions and contributing to publications in the field of higher education. Conley is a respected voice in higher education, frequently quoted and sought after for his insights and expertise. His educational background includes a BA from Colgate University and an M.Ed. from Harvard University.
About the Host
Dr. Drumm McNaughton, host of Changing Higher Ed®, is a consultant to higher education institutions in governance, accreditation, strategy and change, and mergers.
Changing Higher Ed Podcast 181 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guests Bill Conley and Bob Massa
Our guests today are Bill Conley and Bob Massa from Enrollment Intelligence Now. Our listeners may remember Bill and Bob from a previous show where we discussed the enrollment cliff and the pandemic. Since retiring from Bucknell University, Bill’s partnered with his longtime friend Bob Massa, the former Dean of Enrollment at Johns Hopkins University, to assist universities in overcoming their enrollment challenges, especially at how things have changed in the COVID era. And what institutions must be thinking about to ensure their enrollment meets their goals and needs going forward.
Bill and Bob join us today to talk about the recent data that came out from the National Student Clearinghouse and the College Board, what’s going on in higher ed enrollment, and why it’s important to change how institutions are doing business in this new normal.
Bill, Bob, welcome to the program, or I should say, welcome back to the program.
[00:01:29] Bob:Thanks a lot, drum. Nice to be here.
[00:01:31] Bill: Yeah, and I think if I recall correctly, it was about three years ago, I think maybe September 2020, and we had all learned how to spell COVID by that point.
[00:01:40] Drumm: Yes, unfortunately, we did have to learn how to spell COVID and, you know, things have changed a little bit, except we now have a Gen P for pandemic.
[00:01:50] Bob:That’s right.
[00:01:51] Drumm: So you gentlemen are experts in enrollment. And I think this is going to be a really interesting program, especially for presidents who are struggling with it.
So before we get started into the meat of the program, if y’all wouldn’t mind, just giving our listeners a little bit of background on who you are and how you came to this area.
[00:02:10] Bob:Sure. Well, thanks drum. again, my name is Bob Massa. I started in higher education actually in 1974. I think it was about three years old at the time. At Colgate University, where I was, an assistant director of financial aid and, eventually became an assistant dean of admission there. I moved on to Union College in a couple of positions in 1989, became the Dean of Enrollment at Johns Hopkins University, followed by 1999 at Dickinson College as their Vice President for Enrollment.
Took early retirement in 2009, much too early, and I went back to my son’s alma materLafayatte college to become their, DP for communications and marketing, their first position there. And then, had another unsuccessful attempt at retirement, became the senior vice president for enrollment at Drew university and finally did.
retire from full time campus based work in 2019, And formed, Enrollment Intelligence NOW with my good colleague and friend, Bill Conley, who I’ve known for many years in 2020.
[00:03:10] Drumm: Well, thanks, Bob.
[00:03:12] Bill: The listeners will note some overlap. I’m a Colgate graduate, and unbeknownst to me, I was in my senior year when Bob was already a professional admissions officer in financial aid, but my career in admissions began in 1980 in an overlap at Lafayette College. I then went on to be Director of Admissions at Drew University, where Bob finished his, second retirement before full retirement, and then went on to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
And in 2002, essentially succeeded Bob, as Dean of, Enrollment and Academic Services at Johns Hopkins University, from which I went to Bucknell University for, a final nine years as a VP for Enrollment Management, and joined, as Bob said, with Bob to start Enrollment Intelligence NOW, and our focus is, primarily on coaching and mentoring, new and young, less experienced leaders in enrollment. Also, consulting with presidents to help them understand the context in enrollment management. So, we’re really very pleased to be here and hopefully we can share some insight with your, listeners.
[00:04:31] Drumm: Well, I’m looking forward to hearing all these new things that are going on. But before we get into that, two quick things. One, there was some interesting reports that came out a couple of weeks ago. I don’t want to get to that, but y’all have been in this business for a long time. I would assume that you’ve seen a few changes over the years.
[00:04:51] Bob:Mmm, just a few.
[00:04:52] Bill: Just a few. Well, I think the biggest factor that I’ve seen is that we’ve experienced a lot, and they were short term. There always seemed to be a finite period, whether it was a recession, whether it was a little blip in the decrease in high school graduates, etc. But they were always somehow easy to… work our way out of both as an individual institution, but as an industry, and I would say the major change accelerated by Covid is the fact that this is, what we’re looking at, is not a short term blip, which recovery is going to be relatively quick. So that’s my biggest take that this is a really long range reality that in my 40 years, I could never have said I faced.
[00:05:43] Bob:Yeah. And I think, a combination of factors here, that, college presidents and VPs for enrollment and other senior officers will certainly know and identify with. One is, public skepticism. of the value of higher education. It’s, I don’t think it’s ever been higher, and that in part is due to the rapid increase in, at least the list price, of colleges and universities.
And I think the other, quite frankly, when you look at it, is the decrease in the number of students who are actually going on to college. the percentage of the high school graduation class I should say that are going on to college and we’ll hit on that a little bit later. So we not only have a demographic decline, but we also have a decline in the percentage of those who are graduating, going on to college. So combined with increased costs and increased price, those two are different, and decreased perception of value. those are all converging, I think, to, to give us challenges that, frankly, we haven’t seen before, to that extent.
[00:06:44] Drumm: Yeah, not to be trite or anything, but it almost seems like a perfect storm.
[00:06:48] Bob:That’s right. I think it is
[00:06:51] Drumm: So the reports came out just recently, the college board report and national enrollments. The pricing power has evaporated. Let’s unpack those reports starting with the college board report.
[00:07:11] Bob:In terms of overall with prices, which is what the college board really reviewed. The public four year in- state list price or sticker price, if you will, increased about 3 percent for four year colleges before adjusting for inflation in the private non- profit for year institutions, prices increased, from last year to this year, about 4 percent before adjusting for inflation.
But that is not the story. The story really is the net price. and after adjusting for inflation, the average net tuition and fee price, paid by, first time enrolled students, who are in the state at public four year institutions, actually decreased, In, 2012, 2013. so more than 10 years ago, the price was about $4, 200, in, 2023 dollars and it declined, and get this, I mean, this is really significant. It declined to an estimated $2, 700 in ’23 -’24. So, not quite half, but, a great decline in price, adjusting for inflation, net price that is. And in the private sector, in, non profit, four year institutions, the price declined from, roughly $19, 000 in, in current dollars, 20 23, way back in 2006, 2007, to an estimated roughly $16,000 today. So about $3,000 less, than it costs, 15, 16, 17 years ago. in, in terms of net price, and people don’t understand this, they look at the list price. We know that, at least from several surveys, recent surveys, the last of which was just released, on Tuesday by the Art and Science Group, that about 40 percent of prospective students who are looking at colleges cross those colleges off the list, completely because of the quote unquote sticker price.
If the sticker price is over, say, $40, 000, they’re not going to look at it. and, it really. drives home, I think, the point that colleges need to do a much, much better job of disclosing and promoting and marketing the net price through both the net price calculator and through other marketing messages that will get across, particularly to students who go to under resourced high schools that simply don’t have the college counseling resources to help these students go through the process, particularly at those schools, to help these kids understand that it’s not going to cost them anything close to what the list price is. and that’s a major challenge, one that is not new, but has been exacerbated, I think, by this decline in public perception, of colleges and universities value, and the increasing list price, even though that list price is, less, in, 2023 dollars, than it was, back 15 years ago.
[00:10:14] Drumm: Those are interesting thoughts, and I’m sure we’re gonna cover it a little bit later in the program. Discounting has obviously decreased, and then also tuition resets. Those are things that are more important now. Bill, comments, thoughts?
[00:10:29] Bob:I would just say before Bill gets in that discounting has not decreased. Discounting has increased considerably.
[00:10:34] Drumm: Oh yeah, for sure.
[00:10:35] Bill: Yeah, I guess that’s where I was going to ask Bob if indeed the net price to the consumer is less than what’s the narrative that we hear is that almost $2 trillion in debt and families can’t afford it anymore. Is it because the colleges, to the point that Drumm just raised, the discount, the colleges are absorbing a higher burden?
[00:11:02] Bob:I think so. And of course, so that’s the good news, bad news, right? So if it’s actually costing students less today in real dollars in 2023 dollars than it did 15 years ago. That means good institutions netting less and when they net less they can provide less. And so that’s the conundrum, and, you, you get what you pay for, but in higher education, we try to do it all and to provide the same level of service and support that we did, 15 years ago, while netting really less revenue. and that’s why we’re seeing, throughout the country, both in the public institutions, public flagship institutions, for example, West Virginia University, and in the private institutions, most recently, I think I read about Bradley University cutting some, 40 or so faculty positions. That’s why institutions are hemorrhaging to some degree.
[00:11:55] Drumm: it’s interesting, though, when we compare net price to 15 years ago to now, as you know, having been lived through that, we go, yeah, okay, so it costs less, but the perception of students coming into it is no, it doesn’t matter whether it’s, 15 years ago less price net than it was, this is what I have to pay, and I’ve got to take out a student loan to do that.
So where is the value in that if I can’t pay that student loan back for 20 years, if not longer?
[00:12:29] Bill: Well, and I think the other factor is too that we haven’t introduced the CPI, what actually people are earning and we do know in this period of time, the top 1 percent has done exceedingly well. And that, adjusted for inflation, incomes have not done very well overall in the same period of time.
Bob, I, one of the things that I, you probably had read, Paul Tough, wrote a very interesting article in the, New York Times Magazine. That was dedicated to higher ed. It was called “Not U”. As in our people doing universities anymore, but the article was for most people, the new economics of higher ed making going to college a risky bet and what he unpacked, and there were a couple of economists in there is that, the college wage premium, you know, the one that colleges have used in the value proposition, has continued to be strong that they college graduate out earns in wages on non college graduate, but it’s the college wealth premium that has dissipated because of paying a higher price one.
They can’t afford the loans. They have to take on and how that impacts their ability to buy a home, which is, the equity builder, etc. So what do you make? Is that something that Americans are feeling that they understand that premium isn’t what it used to be?
[00:14:01] Bob:I think, in terms of value proposition, a recent study just came out, I think, by the Chronicle of Higher Education, that showed actually optimistically, that only about 20 percent of the, the families that were surveyed, thought that college did not educate students well, and, almost 80 percent thought that they did, but that doesn’t speak to your question, about the value. I mean, we could have a good education, right? But what is that going to mean in terms of my ability to, to get a job? And I think that’s where colleges have fallen short. Although many of them are placing,on their websites and in their marketing materials, outcomes, information to help parents and students understand what actually their graduates are doing after graduation and are earning. So I think, again, it’s a, it’s an issue for, colleges and particularly college presidents and their staffs, to make absolutely certain, that they are focusing in on those outcomes.
[00:15:00] Drumm: Let’s move on to the National Student Clearinghouse report that came out. That was another one that really helped understand who’s going to college and what’s going off. What did that report say and what are some of the implications?
[00:15:15] Bill: Yeah. thanks. And I’ll take a first swipe at that, Drumm and Bob and that, just for, definition purposes, the national clearing house basically contains the records of almost like 95 percent of enrolled post -secondary enrolled students. So it is the definitive data source. This particular study that, is an annual, what we call the census report when classes, incoming and returning, are measured.
This report. was measuring, year over year, how enrollments looked. They had about 9 million students in the report, about 55 percent of colleges in this data set. And so that’s a significant number. In short, I would say this was cautionary good news. Very cautionary. In the report, one of the, newspapers that talked about it said “as much as it shows some encouragement, that is 2. 1 percent increase in enrollment in, post in higher education over last year, that it’s still pointed to storm clouds ahead. And let me unpack that a bit. So, overall enrollments up 2. 1%. But first year enrollment is down 3. 6%. and that’s a difference. So they account for who’s enrolled totally with including the new first years, but then they take the first years out and say, okay, what’s happening there.
The credentials, undergraduate credentials, certification programs, they’re up 10%. graduate, certificate programs, are up 6%. BA degrees are about 1 percent up. So what’s carrying this is, not traditional four year public and private nonprofit institutions. And let me talk a little bit about the demographics or the, the race profile. The white student profile is basically flat. And, the Asian, and Latinx are up both, 5 percent but they’re very small ends, relative to the white population, and so what we’re continuing to see is, four, and HBCUs, by the way, are up very strongly. but the predominantly white institutions, four year and, public and private, are struggling because the white population is, as we know, declining. In the first year cohort, private, enrollment is down 4%. Public is down 6%. And the for profit four year programs are up 11%.
[00:18:13] Drumm: Wow.
[00:18:14] Bill: And in this first year cohort, community colleges are flat. In the enrollment picture, they look more robust. So what’s happening? And, one of the things, the head of their research arm for, the clearinghouse, talked about the discrepancy, the unusual pattern in the discrepancy between continuing and incoming students could be a harbinger of challenges ahead. And Bob, alluded to this earlier. What we’re seeing is, beginning, the demographics high school graduate numbers are starting to decline doing it rather rapidly, and the college bound rate of those declining high school graduates is also declining. In 2009 70 percent of high school graduates went directly into higher education. 2016, 70%, 20 22, 62%. And in some states, I think in Indiana, I think Bob maybe as low as 53%.
[00:19:32] Bob:That’s right.
[00:19:32] Bill: So this report, the National Clearing House, doesn’t really tell us anything about the pipeline. It just reports what the pipeline is delivering or not delivering. And what I would say is that, In a different demographic report, 75 percent of counties in this country have experienced population declines, and 75%, I would say, probably a disproportionate number of those are in the Midwest and the Northeast. And those colleges, especially private, small liberal arts colleges, are highly clustered in the Midwest and the Northeast. And if you’re a president of one of those colleges, or frankly, a regional public in these areas. the demographics are very daunting. and so four years ago I wrote an article for the Chronicle that was called the Great Enrollment Crash. We’ve heard now the enrollment cliff. And what I would say to the presidents, it’s not a cliff. It’s not really a crash because then it’s well, we have no choice. What it is is more like a long, steep downhill.
[00:20:59] Bill: And 2025 will be the first significant trough on this downslope because of the birth dearth that came out of the Great Recession 2035, which at one point pre-Covid seemed to be like a point where we start seeing an improvement, but COVID created yet another birth dearth.
And so what we’re seeing is a review, or a revision of expectations in 2035, we should see yet another trough likely to be deeper than the one that we’ll see in 2025. So. I’m an optimist by nature, Drumm, and Bob knows that, but I can’t spin it like Pollyanna. I think what we’re seeing is a long, long haul that is going to require significant adaptation, particularly for traditional four year colleges that count on heads on pillows and, dare I say, butts in seats. This is going to be a tough haul. So, that’s the clearinghouse, and I think this report may be viewed as the most positive one they’ll release in many years.
[00:22:22] Drumm: Okay, so I think we’ve done a good job of setting the stage and we would say, “Presidents, you’re in for one heck of a roller coaster ride for the next few years.” So what should presidents, what should colleges be doing? You know, how can they mitigate this? I know we’ve got an oversupply right now of colleges. We’re starting to see an acceleration of closures, mergers, those type of things. What can colleges, what can presidents do to mitigate these challenges that they’re facing and going to continue to face?
[00:22:59] Bob:The first thing is to acknowledge that there really is a demographic challenge here. And those of us who have been around a know that we faced these before. Faced them in the late seventies. We faced them in the early nineties. We certainly faced them at the end of the first decade of this century. But all of those were different in that, we could, easily recover by changing a few things. Some undergraduate colleges, increased graduate programs, for example, or all, female colleges, went co ed, all male colleges, went co ed, and then there was always a recovery, , but today, not only because of, what happened in, 2007, 2008, in terms of the economics and the vast decline in birth rates then, but also as Bill just mentioned, the decline in birth rates because of COVID, which will, really plague us in the higher education field for, for years to come.
So I think the first thing is to realize that this is, we’re serious this time, this isn’t crying wolf. This is the real thing. And I would also encourage college leaders not to look at the, the clearinghouse data, with rose colored glasses. you know, enrollment’s up 2. 1 percent. Sheesh, we’re recovering. the devil is in the details. at least, half of that, is, actually 40 percent of that, is in the community college enrollments, and half of the community college enrollments is because of dual enrollments from high school. so, that’s great for the community colleges and it’s great for the students but down the road that’s going to mean for four year colleges, that students entering as freshmen will have advanced credits and will get out probably in three years rather than four, which means again, a revenue issue for those institutions. I think, we’ve for example, in Virginia, a 2 percent enrollment boost,in spite of all of the challenges that they’ve been going through.
but some colleges, in, in that state, the regional colleges. are experiencing enrollment declines, whereas places like UVA and Virginia Tech and William Mary aren’t. So, one of the challenges, of course, to enrollment growth is that, many students are choosing to enter the workforce instead of going right to college, while others are certainly questioning whether colleges are worth it. So I would say that, again, I’ve said this before, it really is It’s critical, to pound home, the value proposition, to make very clear what the net price is. And I know that’s difficult for schools, because you can’t just say the average student pays whatever, whatever it is, because there’ll be students who are paying more than that. There’ll be students who are paying less than that. And if you set that as an expectation, then you could… going to disappoint some people, and, and the yield is going to be impacted as a result. So I think it’s really important, to be able to, to break it down, by perhaps GPA, perhaps income, what students in different categories are actually paying, and to get that information out front, quickly, because, again, it’s important, for value perceptions, for students to be able to, and parents to be able to understand what they’re paying for. The other thing is, every college and university is going to be looking at new markets for them, and so to think that, if I only go to Florida or if I only go out to Southern California, and I’m a school on the East coast, that’s going to solve the problem. Well, it’s not, because everybody else is out there too. So I think, being distinctive in terms of what you’re offering, being creative, and, understanding what, if you pardon the expression, what the market demands. All of those are critical and the whole, liberal arts education being one that, , that teaches students critical thinking and teamwork and the ability to work with others. That’s all critical, but that’s not, I hate to say it, that’s not selling today. So colleges need to be able to serve that because that’s at the core of their mission while, at the same time, showing that they’re very sensitive to what’s needed in the workplace today, and, and actually demonstrating, firsthand to respect to students and parents how that’s actually being done.
[00:27:16] Drumm: One of the things that colleges should be publicizing is employability, and the colleges that I’m seeing that are doing the best are doing that, in fact, some of them have even said within six months, 90 or 95 percent of all our graduates are employed with good jobs. The employees are saying they need teamwork skills. They need critical thinking. They need all of these things to make them more job ready. So I think understanding what your market really is, is critical, but it’s also getting the employer input and then publicizing it like you said.
[00:28:01] Bob:And I think also it’s important for presidents in particular to demand an in depth analysis of their applications over time, where they’re coming from, where the declines are, and also what the enrollment yield is in those particular markets, because rather than, casting the wide net, I think it’s important for enrollment managers and presidents need to be aware of this, to focus in on areas Where they’ve seen significant decline, versus other areas where they’ve been quite stable.
So, it’s, again, the devil is in the details, and presidents need to insist on specific data, that show that. Translation
[00:28:41] Bill: I learned a term, recently, “clustomer”. And this notion that, even though the tools are there to, differentiate your market, still a lot of colleges are treating the customer as a “clustomer”, that they’re all the same and they’re not. So I’m a real believer in this National Student Clearinghouse, not for this, you know, annual aggregated report, because If you’re sitting there and you’re saying, Oh, that’s not me, or no, we’re doing better than that, but using that platform to really understand, of the students you’re admitting, well, first of all, of the students who apply, where else have they applied? The clearinghouse won’t tell you that, but they’ll tell you where they landed if they’re enrolled. And so you learn a lot about that. I would say that one of the things that I’m hoping colleges will be more aggressive with is their mission. Bob is not the first to say it, but he helped me learn it, which is no margin, no mission.
Most institutions, as we’ve said, have taken it on the chin to lower the list price and their resources for developing and improving, the delivery continue to get thinned out. And so the question is, “Are missions just really old” and do they not and many of them at liberal arts colleges won’t speak directly to the connection between being career ready and their academic preparation and their program.And I think you need to really go back to your mission. Students and parents, by the way, do not visit the college mission section of your website. They just know what is being delivered, but how colleges behave and how they adapt is embedded in the mission statement. And if that mission statement is irrelevant, given the current realities and long term realities, these are not short term changes, then look at the mission statement, upgrade it, and because how can you move the faculty if they say, well, we’re not doing that because that’s not our mission, well, adapt the mission.
And the other thing I would say is, looking clearly, as Bob said it, what is your market? The majority of students travel no more than 100 miles to college, and that’s why even if everybody’s not recruiting in Southern California, it’s not happening. Those students, by and large, their parents, if they went to college, didn’t go to a private, liberal arts college in the Northeast. And, they’re not likely to do it. So anyway, I think the idea of scaling to demand, and we brought up earlier West Virginia, there is no question that the demographics, the high school graduation rate in West Virginia and the contiguous states, is going down precipitously, and it will not change in another 20 years. They’re already adapting, scaling to the demand. And I think that’s not a bad thing if you’re a small liberal arts college enrolling 1800 students, maybe you’re better off at 1200. and so I, I think that’s another thing. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but I think that’s an area where there has to be serious consideration.
[00:32:26] Drumm: So, so far we’ve talked about price sensitivity and the markets. We’ve talked about knowing what your market really is. Aligning mission with demand and adapting to long term changes, scale to demand. What about understanding what your unique value proposition is and building on those core strengths? Are those important?
[00:32:48] Bob:Those are critical. I can’t emphasize enough that institutions who know who they are, who are true to their mission, and who can articulate it well and promote it well are going to, even in this challenging environment, are going to succeed. I live in the Baltimore region of Maryland and, one of our institutions recently, the, Notre Dame of Maryland University, acquired the Maryland University of Integrated Health, which was located about 30 miles away from Baltimore in Laurel, Maryland. And it, it was an institution that was having some enrollment problems, number one, but number two had programs that were very much related, to Notre Dome’s programs in nursing and health sciences. And that institution, Notre Dame of Maryland, just acquired Maryland University of Integrative Health, and basically will absorb its graduate programs next year and the year after, and will promote itself as the first comprehensive university to have a dedicated integrative health school.
Now, they’re building upon their strengths. They’re very strong in the health sciences. and they’re a regional institution. they’re not a national institution. They draw students primarily from Maryland and the contiguous states, but to be able to play to their strengths and say, we’re the first university to have this integrative health program that includes nursing and physical therapy and other areas of health is going to be a big boost I think to their overall Market position now, these are graduate programs, but I guarantee you that they’re going to promote those graduate programs to their undergraduates as some institutions have already done. One was Spring Hill Institution in the south, will guarantee that, that students who graduate with an undergraduate degree will be able to get into with much reduced tuition, the graduate program. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Notre Dame in Maryland, Institute is something like that as well.
[00:34:51] Bill: One of the things I would mention about, the value proposition, what I can continue to see is institutions talking about features rather than benefits. And I’m not talking about climbing walls or lazy rivers, but what the consumer, and I hate to use that business term, but, at this ticket price, it’s the biggest thing other than a house that parents are going to purchase, and they don’t want to hear three bathrooms. They want to know what value, what benefit does that have at your institution to say you have this, and that? And so I think a much more rigorous crosswalking between academic features, extracurricular features, and why that matters and why that is a difference maker for your students in the competitive world. So get away from features, get into benefits and make it a rigorous exercise.
[00:35:54] Drumm: I’m starting to see a lot of that in the mergers area as well, where institutions are acquiring other institutions to really scale up the reputation of their particular program. It’s a great idea for doing a merger to be able to offer a world class program and say education or business or whatever.
[00:36:19] Bill: Since 2018, there have been 95 college mergers in the last 5 years, which is 4 times as many as in the previous 18. So I find it interesting that those mergers are not, you’re not going to see a lot of private liberal arts colleges. But, Bob and I both, worked in Pennsylvania where, you know, they’re cheap to jowl and you wonder over the next 10 years, do they need to have five chemistry departments within 40 miles? Is there, and we know there’s some institutions like the FEN group in Boston that have shared utilities and, other overheads, to lower some costs, they’re not so anxious or willing to do something more in terms of sharing academics. But I do think that may not be a merger, maybe we don’t need to duplicate within such a narrow geographic \range so many programs. Let’s split up and be famous for something, then not everything.
[00:37:32] Drumm: We’re seeing a lot more of that.
[00:37:34] Bob:That’s a big challenge for colleges, particularly in the Northeast. I mean, when you talk about, and I don’t know the exact number, but you talk about Pennsylvania and New York and the States of New England, each of them have three digit numbers of private colleges, over a hundred, my little state of Maryland has 18, Texas has a handful, California has more, but,the bottom line is with all of those small private colleges. it’s very difficult to distinguish yourself in that field. And so this is one of the reasons I think why it’s, absolutely critical for presidents and chief enrollment officers to focus in on their mission, to, describe in very much detail the benefits, and to, to make it affordable for students. That’s easier said than done, but it’s got to be done in order for them to not only survive, but thrive.
[00:38:23] Drumm: Well, that sounds like three takeaways for presidents right there. What do you guys think?
[00:38:29] Bill: Well, I would put a cap on it, and this sounds self serving, given where we started about our background in enrollment management, but I would say number one on my list as a takeaway, invest wisely in enrollment management leadership. It is still stunning to me, Drumm, that there are too many institutions, even though they know that net tuition revenue, undergraduate particularly, is their lifeline, and they don’t put a priority on the leadership position and the tools that leader needs to fight the good fight. So I think that would be number one in my list. Again, I know it sounds a little self serving, but I don’t think there’s any other way around it.
[00:39:17] Bob:And I think I would go one step further and saying, understanding that there’s really no single solution to this, to this, enrollment and revenue stress that we’re feeling, so that everything that you do, as a college president, as a higher education leader, has to have a relationship to your enrollment.
How is this policy going to impact the enrollment? How is this academic program, whether it’s here or whether we discontinue it or whether we start a new one, how is it going to impact the enrollment? I think everything that you do needs to have an eye on its impact on your ability to attract and retain and graduate students.
[00:40:02] Bill: Yeah. And then I would just wrap up and say that again, no margin, no mission. And I would really ask the presidents to dust off that mission statement and be honest about how it has been perhaps inhibiting your ability, your institution’s ability to adapt. And I think that is really something that is fundamental, but this is an unprecedented period of time in higher education.
I think it’s the first time it really is in a no growth, in fact, negative growth. environment and it’s not going to turn around any time soon. So I don’t like to end on a downer note, but I think in our toughest times, we become bold and creative. And I think that’s what it’s going to take.
[00:40:56] Drumm: Well, very good. Well, gentlemen, Bill, Bob, thanks so much for being on the program. It’s been a fascinating conversation for me and I look forward to the next time we get together.
[00:41:06] Bill: Same here. Let’s, let’s hope it’s not another three years.
[00:41:10] Drumm: Exactly. Let’s hope it’s not a crisis time, in three years.
[00:41:14] Bill: Truth through that.
[00:41:30] Drumm: Thanks for listening today and a special thank you to Bill Connolly and Bob Massa for their sharing with us their insights on higher ed enrollment and what presidents can do to change how they’re operating and thinking in this new normal that higher ed finds itself in. Join us next week when we welcome back Tom Netting, our Washington reporter, who’ll be giving us an update on what’s going on at the Department of Education and in Congress.
Thanks for listening. See you next week.