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Non-Traditional Students | 4 minute read

Avoiding the Enrollment Cliff: How to Rebuild Your Enrollments After an Unprecedented Recession

We’ve known for years that there’s an Enrollment Cliff on the horizon for traditional higher education. Because of COVID, we got to the edge even faster.

Population trends have shown us that, by 2030, the number of high school graduates in the United States will drop rapidly.

Picture2Figure 1: The Enrollment Cliff (Knocking at the College Door, WICHE, 2016)

As Jim Shaeffer—President of Eastern Shore Community College—points out, this means the higher ed marketplace is about to get much more competitive.

“Kids are not graduating from high schools at the same rate as in the past. With the student population getting smaller, the competition for those students grows larger,” he said in an interview with The EvoLLLution. “I marvel at the lack of urgency across many campuses in responding to the reality of the traditional undergraduate enrollment cliff.”

The Recession Has Not Driven Enrollment Growth

Since the pandemic began, we’re starting to see that urgency. Historically, during a recession, colleges and universities have seen enrollment multipliers for every percentage point increase in unemployment. At universities, the multiplier for enrollments in degree-granting programs is 1.9%, and at community colleges it’s 2.5%.

But this recession—created by the coronavirus pandemic—we didn’t see enrollment growth in degree programs. In fact, enrollment overall dropped 3%.

This makes sense, because our programs haven’t kept pace with learners’ needs.

According to Strada, fewer than 1/3 adults understand the available career pathways or skills offered by degree programs. A further 38% of Americans say relevance is a key factor in their decision to enroll in any given offering. And finally, 68% of adults considering enrolling in an education program prefer non-degree pathways.

Picture1Figure 2: Strada Public Viewpoint Surveys of Americans During the Pandemic (2020) 

But this isn’t bad news. This is great news! Because colleges and universities are already positioned to deliver on the needs of today’s learners… they just need to reprioritize.

Retooling with Continuing Education at the Forefront

Continuing Education and Workforce Development units—the groups that develop and deliver non-degree offerings—are your ticket to transformation in this environment.

These units have historically supported institutional revenue growth while offering credentials that bridge skills gaps.

CE divisions maintain tight alignments with employers and industry groups, and remain focused on developing, launching and iterating courses and programs that get people jobs. These are the exact departments on your campus who serve the growing population of adults who need credentials, and who respond to the market demand for non-degree options!

As Jim Shaeffer, quoted earlier talking about the Enrollment Cliff, said in the same interview:

“CE has the proven ability to design, develop and deliver programming to meet fast-changing labor market demands. To remain competitive, it’s essential for universities to start with the employer and then work backwards to program development.”

But lots has to change to bring CE out of the shadows where they’ve traditionally done their work.

“If you look at the history of CE, we have been out there doing things that main campuses don’t typically pay attention to,” Shaeffer explained. “We need to show why CE is important and that we add value to the student and institution.”

For continuing education leaders out there: it’s essential to more clearly communicate the impact of your work to your colleagues across the institution. They may understand from a high level what you do, but it’s essential to show—through data and anecdote—how you’re actively delivering on the mission of your institution while helping to keep it relevant.

For provosts and other senior campus leaders: it’s time to lean on continuing education. These folks turn coal into diamonds weekly. They deliver transformative experiences that change lives, and they do it without the benefit of programs eligible for financial aid. They’re the glue tying the institution to the community. And they get results.

The future of higher education is in finding ways to serve people at every life stage. It’s in diversifying and democratizing access. It’s in lifelong learning.

Continuing Education has to play a leading role for us to stay relevant and impactful.

To learn more about what it will take to update higher education’s recession playbook, download this whitepaper!

Updating the Higher Education Playbook to Stay Relevant through Future Recessions (1)