What are colleges to do in face of declining enrollment and changes in demographics?

What are colleges to do in face of declining enrollment and changes in demographics?
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In my last blog, I looked into future enrollment trends and made the argument that colleges are facing a demographic and existential crisis. With this blog, I attempt to provide some suggestions to weather the storms to come.

I have no doubt that over the next 15-20 years there will be both sufficient public pressure and an increasing realization among college and university administrators that a significant reduction in the cost of a college education is necessary. Smaller, resource poor, not-for-profit colleges in particular will have to focus on what they do best and decrease their administrative costs in order to survive. This, ultimately, will be what will increase the value of a college education compared with the cost, and increase enrollment and net tuition figures.

In the meantime, here are some ways I believe they might avert the crisis, and maybe even embrace the change in demographics.

First of all, enrollment growth targets need to meet current and future realities. The years of expansion, for many institutions, may be over. Targets are made and can be adjusted. If a target is based upon a reality and not a wish it can be met.

Admissions offices must more efficiently target students who are likely to enroll if accepted. To that end, curricula should be reviewed and adjusted toward the institution’s strengths and mission as well as with an eye towards evolving student interests. In some cases, scaling back low-enrollment programs will be needed. Perhaps developing lower-cost hybrid online programs that accommodate the needs of lower-income students and those with families or those who have to work.

The cost of college is major sticking point that cannot be avoided. Lower sticker prices are likely to be more important than net prices in increasing applications from students in the growing demographic trend groups. In addition, it is imperative that financial aid letters be more clear and transparent to make retention and persistence more likely. Families facing a huge financial burden have no real basis upon which to understand how much money they will have to pay given the information in the letters as they are now. The letters are self-serving and do all they can to get parents to agree and enroll their students, only to learn later that costs are not fixed, the grants can change and tuitions will go up. The result is that students are forced to drop out or transfer after their first year. That is a loss for both the college and the student.

Admissions offices should focus efforts on recruiting students and engaging faculty and counselors in high schools within 50-100 miles from the campus. They should also consider the positive power of word of mouth endorsements from students who achieve success, graduating and finding a good job or hoped-for career. This means that student counseling and assistance programs should be adjusted to meet the needs of a larger proportion of Hispanic, Black, low-income, and first to college students. The importance of a welcoming and supportive environment is crucial. This may mean that a re-structuring of student services, as well as a reduction in the utilization of on-campus housing and in their attendant costs will be needed. In addition, the merger or collaboration among neighboring colleges to share facilities and programs may reduce costs and gain more diverse options for students.

Colleges should also consider developing both college-community partnerships and direct and hassle-free transfer relationships with local community colleges.

A range of fees and options that meet both family and student needs and budgets should be considered. What many perceive as the country club spa approach to college amenities may suit the needs of some students but others do not have time or the resources to take advantage of them. Offering students and families the choice of what meal plans and college facilities that they want to pay for would be a way to make college more affordable for them.

The change in demographics and the challenges it creates for colleges and universities are a part of the reality over the next decade. That reality may seem like a crisis to some: those used to the status quo and those resistant to change. But, to the majority of college and university administrators who welcome the challenge of change and the opportunity to carry their mission forward with a new generation of students, this can be a time of creativity and commitment.

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