What You Must Know about the Eight Year Decline in College Enrollment

It is not surprising that many people in the general public are unaware of the breadth and depth of the crisis facing higher education, but it continues to amaze me how much ignorance there is within higher education itself about the specifics of the challenges facing academe today. In the last two months I have presented data on enrollment declines, school mergers and closures, and other economic statistics to the membership of two higher education professional organizations. In both cases, the educational leaders in attendance were broadly unaware of even the basic statistics. The same is true for the higher ed institutions with which I consult.

Almost no one knows that 2019 was the eighth consecutive year of enrollment declines across all of U.S. higher education or that 3,000,000 fewer students attend colleges and universities today than in 2010 (including a decline in African American enrollments of 13%) or that institutions of higher education (IHEs) have increased their debt by 64% (and at least a quarter of all private colleges are operating in the red) or that tuition has increased by 40% while wages have stagnated or that states have reduced funding for public institutions by $9 billion dollars in the same period! Likewise, it is news to most that over 1,200 colleges have closed and two thousand brick and mortar learning sites overall are no longer operating across the country compared to a decade ago. These same individuals are also unaware of the geographic distributions of the declines with the worst hit regions being the Northeast and Midwest with decreased enrollments in 34 states overall. While the closures so far have been disproportionate for institutions with a for-profit tax status, most in higher ed do not know that the enrollment declines are spread across all sectors of higher education (community colleges are down 3.4% in the last year alone) with the greatest risk for the foreseeable future being in private, nonprofit institutions with less than 1,000 students.

On the other hand, there is no lack of stress and distress among those same individuals in post-secondary educational institutions and professional organizations, who are feeling the effects of substantially declining enrollments (and revenue), consolidations, layoffs, ongoing expense cuts, closures, etc. They are just unaware of the actual data and the underlying causes for the declines. As a result, their institutions are almost wholly unprepared to address the issues they are facing.

While the Great Recession finally made higher education accountable to market forces, there are five primary external causes of the extended enrollment declines, which have conspired to fundamentally alter the post-secondary education landscape. Those factors are:

  • Demographics (declining birthrates)
  • The Economy (low unemployment)
  • Economics (the cost of education and debt)
  • Societal Opinions about Higher Education (they have shifted broadly negative)
  • Growing Alternatives to College Programs

This article does not allow for an in-depth discussion of how each factor has negatively affected enrollment, but you can see an excerpt of a recent national webinar presentation here that provides much more analysis. In short, there are simply fewer traditional students available, who are less able and/or willing to borrow to pay drastically increased tuition, at the same time that industry is providing many alternatives to traditional higher education programs. Ironically, post-secondary education overall is growing, but traditional degree programs are declining. The value proposition for many students is simply no longer compelling enough to set aside employment or take on debt in order to enroll in a degree program—and the demographic challenges are baked in for at least another generation.

The good news is that despite the deep, structural challenges facing higher education today, we know what the characteristics are of the institutions that are managing to thrive in the current environment. Although every IHE has its own particular challenges and opportunities, there are common threads across the schools that are finding success, one of which is simply that they understand the reality and have a plan to address it. Several common factors are:

  • Dynamic Leadership
  • Capacity to Innovate
  • Deep Industry Collaboration
  • Aggressive Partnerships
  • Alternative and High Margin Revenue Streams
  • Retention of Existing Students
  • Differentiation in the Market (Programs, Services, Delivery, etc.)
  • Customer Value
  • Licensure Programs/Programs Required for Employment
  • Alternatives to Traditional Degrees
  • Focus on Sustainability
  • Finance as a Core Competency
  • Really, Really Good at Basics
  • A Culture that Promotes Success (entrepreneurialism, risk taking, collaboration, etc.)

The fact is that we are no where near the bottom of the higher education shake-out. The mismatch between supply and demand, the financial exigency that many IHEs are already experiencing, demographics, industry alternatives to higher education, etc., are all going to make the situation worse before it gets better. On the other hand, opportunities for those institutions that have many of the characteristics noted above and that define what they do as post-secondary education writ large rather than higher education, are likely to survive and even thrive.

While building a firewall against obsolescence is a complex and long-term project, the first step for at risk IHEs (which is most of higher education) involves self-education on the current reality and elimination of all denial about that reality. Whether an institution pursues a facilitated process or handles the process in house, it must be approached as an exercise with existential implications and a willingness to make even foundational change, cultural and strategic, in the interest of long term sustainability.

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