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America’s colleges are facing more pressure than ever to retain existing students and attract new ones. Driven by a drop of nearly 224,000 undergraduate students, overall college enrollment declined for the sixth consecutive year in 2018 according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

A survey released this year by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that 52 percent of private colleges and 44 percent of public universities failed to meet their enrollment goals this past fall.

While these figures are undoubtedly worrisome, they merely represent the starting point of higher education’s enrollment crisis.

Spurred by the psyches of a generation whose consciousness was formed by The Great Recession, a shift in cultural values and demographics paints a very grim picture for American colleges.

With families forming later in life, the college-aged population is expected to decline a massive 16 percent by the mid-2020s, corresponding with a 10 percent drop of college-going students by 2029. 

The long-term viability of colleges will vary widely based on the quality of the institution and the region in which it resides. The South and West are expected to account for nearly 80 percent of the nation’s High School graduates by 2025, while the Northeast and Midwest—home to the highest density of colleges in the US—are expected to face precipitous declines. Conversely, the percentage of households with college educated parents continues to rise, as does the demand for elite and affordable institutions. Simply put, these macro trends and demographic shifts paint a terrifyingly bleak picture for the majority of private non-elite, mid-major colleges in the United States.

In hopes of counteracting such ominous trends, many colleges have dedicated substantial resources to attract online and adult learners, foreign full-pay students and more traditional students through strategic Enrollment Management (EM).

At its core, a well-conceived EM plan is a data-informed process that aligns an institution’s fiscal, academic, co-curricular, and enrollment resources with its changing environment to accomplish its mission and ensure long-term enrollment success and fiscal health. This best practice has quickly become the lifeblood to colleges and universities – serving as both the strategy development function of the institution in its efforts to retain and attract students.

It goes without saying that the practice of EM is a hugely competitive and highly complex beast – and continues to evolve and change at light speed, placing it at the top of the institutional hierarchy of colleges and universities. In terms of the competitive landscape, it is not only fierce across the spectrum of higher education, but now faces a fight against the mores and attitudes of a new generation – one that seems to view the necessity of going to college in a completely different light than almost every generation before it.

The rising crop of would-be college students, commonly referred to as “Generation Z,” has a different perspective on college as a must-do or must-have experience. Influenced by contemporary business leaders whom either bypassed or dropped out of college, an incredulous 13 percent of Gen Z have started their own business.

“They want to know it’s worth it,” writes Gene Lewis in What Brands Can Learn About Gen Z From Higher Ed, which appeared recently on Forbes.com.  “Gen Z students are faced with staggering costs for education, so it makes sense that they want their investments to pay off. Many institutions are beginning to more directly prepare students for careers with coaches, leadership and networking seminars – and admissions teams are offering prospects more tangible visions of their futures.”

The strategy to retain and acquire new students is diverse and complicated – and in many cases, antiquated. How quickly colleges and universities are adopting the best practices found in customer acquisition in Corporate America is essential to their ability not only to compete, but to survive.

Like many corporate behemoths that didn’t successfully transition into the post-digital era – such as Blackberry, Blockbuster, Sears, and Compaq – some colleges and universities will suffer the same fate if they don’t fully modernize and empower their Strategic Enrollment Management practice.

Institutions of Higher Ed have long been overly-conservative with their strategic enrollment and communications practices. This one-size-fits-all “Clock Tower” approach is antiquated, stodgy and disconnected with prospective students and younger generations who seek authentic messaging and connections from brands. The landscape is so flooded with traditional ivy logos and generic inspirational messages that it’s become nearly impossible for a prospective student to grasp what a college truly stands for and represents. It’s time for colleges to take more risks with their enrollment marketing; it’s time we see their unique values and cultures come to life.

The good news is there is lots of room to grow – and it starts with better branding and storytelling—the process through which brand identity is built. A college’s brand identity is what makes it instantly recognizable to students, alumni, and the general public. That identity determines how the institution is perceived and forges the connection between a university and its support base. It’s the special sauce that expresses its culture of opportunity and distinguishes it from the 4,000+ colleges and universities throughout the nation.

“Enrollment management has always employed marketing strategy as part of student recruitment, but increasingly, especially at institutions that are highly tuition-dependent, the overall institutional marketing strategy has to be completely in sync with enrollment goals and objectives. As marketing evolves to include brand marketing, one-to-one relationship marketing, social media marketing, and word-of-mouth marketing, and as institutional visibility, recognition, brand identity, and competitive market position play an increasingly prevalent role in enrollment success,” says Donald Hossler, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

It is vital that EM practitioners become expert brand strategists and brand marketers in order to successful leverage the assets of the college or university, effectively communicating and swaying consumers to become stronger net promoters.  If this is done well, the negative demographic trends of declining enrollment and the speculative attitudes toward higher education of the new generation can be reversed or at least mitigated.

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