The enrollment cliff has everyone a little on edge. People are burned out and frustrated. Leadership is looking for bigger gains in shorter time frames. And traditional students just aren’t showing up in ways they traditionally have.
It’s so clear that higher ed is at an inflection point. Thank the pandemic. Thank technology. The economy and unpredictable job market. The changing student landscape. What you need now more than anything is support. Ideally in the form of a soothsayer to tell you where and how to invest your time, energy, and resources. If only.
Our advice: take a deep breath and read this post.
While soothsayer we may not be, we do have some perspective on what lies ahead. And our record for predicting changes in the market has proven accurate for more than a decade. Long before the recommendations below became standard practice in enrollment management (they all sound so obvious now, right?), we advised colleagues to:
We know, it’s all old hat now. But a decade ago, very new to international enrollment management teams.
Today we are facing some pretty significant headwinds. Post-pandemic changes to how students evaluate universities. Growing financial pressures facing families. Increasing importance of careers and the ROI of your degrees. Heightened interest in certificates and shorter paths to career growth. Political divisiveness harkening back to the US civil unrest of the 1960s (or 1860s?). Are you factoring social justice including climate activism into your marketing plans?
These factors are all part of the student and parent mindset as they evaluate investments in university level education. The pool of nontraditional students is much larger and more diverse than the shrinking traditional student pool. And yet, the international student pool is one that is growing and projected to grow dramatically in the coming years.
If you’re ignoring any of these market segments, we strongly advise you don’t. Our analysis of and predictions about what influences student decision making, the tools and processes you need in place to be both efficient and effective, this counsel has been spot on for a very long time (our blog records act as our receipts).
You’re in the right place. Read on to be sure you are able to anticipate what is next and what to do about it.
- Analyze your student journey using a non-traditional assessment of the many touch points that are highly influential. We present on this topic regularly now.
- Pursue enrollment growth where the market tells you to and, here’s the hard part, get your faculty to adapt their coursework accordingly. (No, really, stop laughing. You do need to do this).
- Develop a plan for marketing certificate programs in a way that will minimize cannibalization of your full degrees and beat your competition to the punch. Trust us, if you are not on top of this, others will be eating your lunch in the next 5 years.
Three enrollment growth opportunities
The enrollment cliff looms. Other student pools show more promise. Namely, international students, adult learners, and underprepared students. These are your growth opportunities. If you haven’t read our recent post “Where the Viable Students Are,” you’ll want to check it out.
In short, global student mobility by some estimates will grow from roughly 6M today to 10M+ by 2030. And right now, the Some College, No Degree market is so important with over 40M students who’ve already demonstrated interest in higher education.
Your to-do: Do your homework and find the new markets that fit your programs. Which market segments are the best options for your institution to pursue? What adaptations do you need to make to your outreach and your student services to deliver on your promises? Consider where the job opportunities are here in the US and in your global markets. Our market research team goes deep and produces targeted marketing plans based on the unique characteristics of each institution we engage.
It's all about their careers
Not that it was ever never about careers, but in this post-pandemic, mid-inflation moment students are hyper-focused on the ROI of a degree. International students always have been. But increasingly, it’s top of mind for every student we talk to - domestic and international.
Your to-do: Communicate the value of your degree. Back it up with stats about post-graduate employment. Showcase employers who hire your students. Build that employer network you always tout but don’t actually have in place. (If you don’t believe us, talk to your graduates and ask them how much support the institution actually gave them in finding their jobs. You’ll be surprised at the percentage who say their university career services totally let them down even though they are happy with their academic experience).
When you find the right stories, feature partnerships with companies and organizations. And absolutely tell alumni success stories. Your student ROI is a priority message. Pro tip: use stories from graduates 2 to 5 years out. Much more relatable than those further along in their careers.
Certificates and shorter routes to achieving career growth
When in doubt, look to the numbers. A recent and telling study by the RAND Corporation (we’ll delve deeper into this in an upcoming post, stay tuned) paints a picture. It examines Ohio’s stackable credential pipelines in three fields – health care, manufacturing and engineering technology, and IT – between 2005 and 2019. What they found: job certificates led to 16% increase in earnings. For healthcare certificates, make that a 20% increase. Stacking certifications, well that led to a 50% increase.
Got your attention? It seems pretty clear that certificate programs are meeting some very real needs your prospective students want. Ignore this stuff at your peril.
Your to-do: We’re always talking about the urgency of bringing a student-first approach to everything you do. Offering certificate options is absolutely a student-first concept. If your leadership is not already talking about this, then it’s time you bring it up. This is an important trend and gateway to reaching new students with what they want. Getting this wrong will eat away at your traditional degrees. Not doing it will send students to other institutions that are getting it right.
How students interact with media
Not so long ago higher ed was getting its feet wet as it tiptoed into digital marketing. Facebook and Google were a big deal. And just as these platforms became business as usual, TikTok and Instagram Reels take center stage. Now, in what is becoming a familiar cadence, technology is morphing yet again.
The next big thing: AI-driven chatbots that will vastly improve the way prospective students interact with you. Yes, many institutions are already heading down this path, but adoption is about to pick way up. As usual, academic institutions will be less nimble (a nice way of saying it) than they should be.
Your to-do: Find an entrepreneurial partner with industry knowledge and a growth mindset that can help you navigate and keep pace with the digital evolution. You need to learn how to see what’s coming, what’s already passed, what’s a wise investment, and what’s not.
We’ll be that partner for you as we have been for others. We’re already thinking beyond the future you’re worrying about right now. Be in touch.