How can college survive?

The demographic tide that lifted higher education enrollment and tuition is starting to ebb.  This new reality is fraught with both challenges and opportunities for U.S. institutions.

“The declining number of white affluent  high-school graduates will place at risk many tuition-dependent colleges," wrote Eric Hoover in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "Meanwhile, optimistic observers predict that population shifts will compel institutions to transform themselves by embracing underrepresented students like never before.” 

Answer: Access

Higher education is in a massive upheaval as the number of prospective students and tuition dollars shrink for a number of schools looking to fill their institutional pipeline.  For example, a Washington Post analysis of fall enrollment data at 80 colleges and universities in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC, found that 20 schools had experienced declines of more than 5-10 percent since 2010. 

For years, increasing access and opportunity has been an important--though at times elusive--goal in higher education.  According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the number of black and white students will decline, as compared to the number of Hispanic and Asian-American graduates which are predicted to increase drastically.  Furthermore, the nation will also see a rise in first-generation and low-income graduates--the students that 4 year selective colleges/universities have had difficulty serving.  As such, institutions have little choice but to diversify. 

In many ways, the new reality in higher education provides clarity.  With the traditional model, colleges sought to achieve their revenue, applicant and test-score goals by raising the sticker price, adjusting discount rates, and balancing need-based aid and merit aid.  Such tradeoffs will not disappear, but fine tuning is no longer sustainable.  Instead, many institutions will have to build a financial model that works well with new financial and demographic constraints. 

The X Factor: Holistic admissions

The new reality may also diminish the reliance on  test scores.  Administrators profess to want students with grit and determination, but continue to attach great importance to ACT and SAT scores that favor students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.  As Hoover explained, “Overreliance on standardized testing and institutional obsessions with traditional measure of quality can have harmful consequences, argue Donald Hossler and David H. Kalsbeek in recent SEM Quarterly article.  Enrollment management tactics have often been used in ways that work against low-income students.”  Some colleges will have to admit more students with lower test scores and give more weight to other measures of ability and college readiness.

To ensure student success, colleges and universities will also have to provide services that will enable admitted students to thrive.  Many colleges are, according to Hossler, “ignoring the demographic imperative” by failing to invest enough in the programs needed to help a more diverse student cohort.  Thus, institutions must build a new educational infrastructure that optimizes learning and career preparation for this new cohort while at the same time building a new financial model. 

Tools for enrollment professionals

AACRAO's 100th Annual Meeting. Achieving institutional goals and addressing demographic challenges requires thinking and operating differently.  AACRAO will be holding a half-day preconference workshop on "The Registrar's Role in Enrollment Management: Setting Priorities and Getting Results" at its 2014 Annual Meeting . The workshop is designed to help define the role of the registrar in enrollment management as higher ed continues to evolve. There are many ways in which the registrar's office contributes to the success of the enrollment management model, and to institutional success in the broader sense. This workshop will provide insights into registrars’ top priorities with regards to supporting their institutions' enrollment goals and strategic plan. To get the most updated information and analysis on enrollment and other issues affecting higher education professionals, attend AACRAO’s Annual Meeting in Denver, March 30-April 2.   

AACRAO's SEM Conference. Enrollment professionals may also benefit from AACRAO's other professional development opportunities, including the most recent Strategic Enrollment Conference, held in Chicago, which provided useful ideas and analysis for professionals. Find the whitepapers featuring faculty presentations from the SEM Conference here.

Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) has become integral to enhancing student success at institutions of higher learning.  By promoting clarity of institutional mission from the perspective of student access and success, SEM provides a paradigm for cutting through the clutter of competing priorities to focus on what will best serve student needs and support their educational attainment. The conference covered: Holistic admissions, focused on international student recruitment, competency-based assessment, enhancing diversity and numerous strategic topics.