It’s pretty much inevitable that enrollment in U.S. higher education will be down for 10 consecutive years. The latest estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse show fall ’20 enrollments down 2.5% over last year. This will further the slide for spring ’21, which will end up being a decade’s worth of dropping enrollments for degree-seeking students. All told, at the peak in spring of 2011, 19,610,826 students were enrolled in U.S. higher education. By spring of 2020, that number had eroded to 17,458,306. I predict it will dip under 17 million this spring – making it a net loss of more than two and a half million students over the last decade.
This enrollment decline has taken place against the backdrop of well-intentioned and well-funded college attainment campaigns across many states and from many high-profile supporting organizations. Despite the big push to get more Americans into and completing college, the numbers have gone in the opposite direction. And they won’t improve any time soon. The latest data reported by Strada Education Network last week was an eye-opening reminder that declines will continue. The percentage of aspiring adult learners who believe education will be worth the cost dropped from 77% to 59% since 2019; those believing education will help them get a good job dropped from 89% to 64%. On top of continued declines in the perceived value of higher education, the population age demographic of traditional aged college students is going to drop by roughly 15% between 2025 and 2030 – just about when many colleges hope to recover from the lingering financial hits caused by Covid-19. Given all this, it’s quite possible that the enrollment decline will continue for at least another full decade.
The reasons for the past decade-long decline in degree-seeking enrollments are many and they’ve been apparent for a long time. Anyone paying close attention to rising college costs, declining confidence in higher education and the growing number of high-value college alternatives could have predicted a continuous enrollment decline. But many colleges and universities continue to behave as they always have – which is to react slowly (if at all) to student and market trends, double-down on the degree as their only mode of education, and allow costs to rise unfettered. Higher ed is going to need a whole new playbook to reverse or at least slow its decline. We’ve rallied this year to “flatten the curve” for Covid. Higher ed needs to rally to “dent the decline” in enrollments.
But how? The formula is pretty obvious. Universities that have expanded their educational offerings beyond degrees, offered degrees and non-degree education in multiple modalities (on-campus, online, hybrid), worked to lower or freeze tuition costs, and that have paid careful attention to supporting student work readiness and aligning with high-growth employment opportunities are those that are thriving right now. As I’ve argued recently in The Economist, higher education desperately needs a “relevance renaissance,” whereby it must work to achieve four strategic goals:
1. Higher education can’t limit itself to a degree-only mindset. There are many high-value non-degree educational offerings that colleges and universities can offer to further their mission and diversify revenue.
2. Higher education needs to look at growth and scale as a driver of higher (not lower) quality. Some of the most successful universities today are enabling increased investments in learning science and the quality of education by growing enrollments rapidly.
3. Higher education needs to pursue cost reduction strategies. And this is not to be confused with increased financial aid. Those are two very different things.
4. Higher education must operate as a customer-centric sector. ‘Customer’ means students, parents, alumni, taxpayers and employers.
The current situation in higher education is akin to the fable of the frog in the pot. The myth goes that if you put a frog in a pot of water that is slowly brought to boil, the frog won’t detect the increasing danger until it’s too late. Let’s hope higher education doesn’t view this steady decline in enrollments as anything other than an urgent crisis which requires immediate and significant action.