Classroom Administrator

Declining enrollment trends create an opportunity for higher education institutions to think creatively and act now to increase their pool of potential candidates.

Positioning Higher Education for Enrollment Growth

  • William LeClaire
  • 12/13/2013

In a recent Washington Post article, experts cite declining high school graduation rates and high tuition as the two biggest factors leading to a decline in enrollment at American colleges and universities. Schools are having trouble filling their classrooms, and are facing financial concerns as a result.

While the tension created by increased competition for fewer students cannot be ignored, Bill LeClaire, managing principal of CliftonLarsonAllen’s higher education practice, believes the situation offers an opportunity for institutions to think creatively and take steps to increase their pool of potential candidates.

“Things may turn around somewhat in the next two to three years,” says LeClaire. “The difference is that this bounce is not likely to be like the past. Institutions need to prepare for a new kind of student.”

“We all know colleges and universities have been fighting over limited freshman for years,” LeClaire adds. “The decline has happened over a long period of time and has been more destructive than the latest recession. Schools are changing business models with respect to tuition discounting, professor-to-student ratios, program cuts, and personnel cuts. We believe that incoming freshman classes will be much more diverse and will contain many more students from families not familiar with college.”

LeClaire says that taking a wait-and-see approach may leave you playing catch-up to others, and outlines steps schools can take now to reverse enrollment trends and position themselves for future growth:

  • Solidify your relationships with top existing feeder schools. It is important to maintain your ground, plus these schools can alert you to any changing demographics they are seeing.
  • Identify what your target market is now and what you feel it should be in coming years.
  • Revisit marketing efforts to see if the intended audiences are being reached.
  • Survey beyond your traditional students to determine what drives them to seek a college degree and what factors they consider in a school.
  • Target more scholarships to first-time college families.
  • Highlight success stories of your school’s graduates, and demonstrate earnings potential differences for college graduates.
  • Consider facilities, such as housing, to provide attractive options for non-traditional students — like military veterans and others who may look for different things than traditional new high school graduates.
  • Consider possible uses of space for commuting students such as those retraining for a new career.
  • Study whether your technology systems are in sync with student expectations and desires.

Although these efforts may be spurred by current enrollment trends, they have value and can produce positive results in any education marketplace.