There is a potential 10-15% drop in “traditional” incoming college students projected to occur starting in 2025. It is being called the Enrollment Cliff or the Demographic Cliff, but no matter what you call it, higher education will be affected. The 2008 economic recession caused a decline in U.S. birth rates as people either put off starting a family or had fewer kids.
Birth rates did not increase at the same rate as the economy improved, meaning there will be fewer college-aged individuals in two or three years. Institutions have been able to anticipate the cliff for some time now. Some colleges and universities have already begun to implement tactics to survive and thrive.
A recent Mongoose discussion looked at what institutions around the country are doing to prepare for the 2025 Enrollment Cliff. Mongoose’s Kelly Iler, a former Assistant Director of Admissions at a 4-year private University, and Jeff Meece, a higher ed veteran with 25 years experience in Enrollment Management, offered their insight on the subject.
Not All InstitutionsWill Be Affected in the Same Way
Population projections are not the same across the board. Some areas of the country will see a slight increase in the population of 18-year olds in the next ten years, depending on demographics. According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the projected change in the number of high school graduates will include more Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander students.
“Regardless of whether they’re drawing prospective students from nearby states or their own backyard, Institutions need to build a strategy to compensate for a smaller pool of prospects.” - Kelly Iler, Mongoose
Retaining Students Improves Revenue
When faced with declining enrollment, the tendency of schools is to focus on recruiting more high school graduates. It will always be important to have a strong number of incoming freshmen, but retaining the current students you already have is just as important.
It costs less to keep current students engaged and enrolled at your institution than it does to recruit prospective students. The students attending your institution are already connected. Engaging current students and making sure they’re supported will increase retention, which can only improve your institution’s net-revenue.
“We have a tendency to think that enrollment is our main revenue source. The big goal is getting more revenue, so the idea is to explore more ways to get revenue outside of focusing on recruitment and one of those ways is definitely retention and giving more attention to that.” - Kelly Iller, Mongoose
Focusing on retention does not mean abandoning recruitment, it just means institutions should consider where time and resources can make an immediate impact.
“When it comes to improving retention, schools think of things like academic advising, housing, and student activities. I challenge folks to think of it on another level. How is the support staff engaging with folks? People we’ likely never think of as enrollment managers. Those are the people who are going to help students decide whether they are going to stay on or not.” - Jeff Meece, Mongoose
Improving language services on your campus is also important. Hiring admissions advisors, counselors, and staff members who are bilingual or multilingual will allow your institution to better assist students and families who speak languages other than English. Financial Aid concepts and complicated colleges processes can be even more difficult to understand when there’s no one to communicate with in a native language.
Make The Application Process Easier
It became more common for institutions to shift to test-optional and test-blind admissions during the pandemic due to issues with in-person testing. The Enrollment Cliff present an opportunity for institutions to change their processes for evaluating a prospective student’s readiness to attend and be accepted.
Higher ed staff members need a criteria to determine who is eligible to attend their institution, and it makes sense to ask how much of a hindrance that process is to students. Schools that make it easier to enroll and attend classes will see their enrollment numbers increase.
“There’s so much apprehension and confusion from students and parents, that it’s really an opportunity for colleges to become more customer-friendly. During your Fall Preview Days, during different events that you have on campus, go through what your enrollment process looks like.” Jeff Meece, Mongoose
The process that has worked for years might not be as effective in the years leading up to and after 2025. One useful resource mentioned in our discussion was this Facebook group of College Admissions experts where tips and best practices are shared to help families make decisions during the college search process.
Lean On the Opportunity of Higher Education
The Enrollment Cliff focuses on a decline in the number of 18-year olds, but that is not the only demographic of people who attend college. Whether your institution is a community college or a 4-year university, people of all ages should be included in your recruitment campaigns.
It is proven that the more education a person has, the higher their income will likely be. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, college graduates make almost a million dollars more over their lifetime than high school graduates. Look at the 39,000,000 students who have some college experience but no degree and create messaging that speaks to the opportunities available at your institution where people can earn degrees that improve their income and professional outlook.
“Plan new ways to educate your students that you aren’t currently recruiting. The traditional audience of 18-20-year olds are no longer your sole audience. Consider what we’ve learned from the pandemic and how online and hybrid programs can be attractive, if reimagined. This will appeal to students of any age.” - Jeff Meece, Mongoose
Transform your undergraduate students into graduate programs through focused recruiting, and extoll the benefits of adding a degree to their resume.
Learn more about the Enrollment Cliff of 2025 and ways to prepare for it in our FYI episode below, and be sure to register for upcoming FYI events!