Fall enrollment in 2021 across most institutions is on the decline. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse indicated in a recent report there has been a 3.5% decline in enrollment year over year. While total enrollment has reached historic lows, interestingly several institutions have reported that this year’s incoming freshman class is projected to be larger than any other in recent history. Institutions such as The University of Houston, The University of Dayton in Ohio, Old Dominion and others are showing encouraging trends toward growing enrollment.
Deferred enrollment may play a significant role for universities as they plan for the 2021-2022 school years. Due to a large number of institutions going remote during the COVID-19 pandemic, many students are responding by deferring their college experience to travel, participate in a gap-year program or work. This appears to be a growing trend. According to SimsponScarborough, 40 percent of incoming freshmen in 2021 said they were likely or highly likely to opt for a gap year before pursuing college admission. While the peak of the pandemic heavily influenced this survey result, students’ preferences for getting started with a higher-education program have forever changed. The key question is, what is the role of higher education institutions in supporting students while they opt to take a gap year?
There are new opportunities for institutions to create improved seamless transitions for students pursuing deferred enrollment options. Notably, more of this year’s applicants found themselves on waitlists due to an increase in deferred students enrolling at the institution. This resulted in many waitlisted students enrolling at other institutions with open spots, as evidenced by the increased applications across institutions. This means that institutions better prepared to accommodate deferred enrollment requests are well poised for what could be their highest enrollment in recent years, and should capitalize on new momentum they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Here are three solutions institutions may consider to support students and new enrollment growth.
Keep deferred enrollment students engaged
Institutions should always be innovating and thinking of ways to stay ahead of the curve. Whether that’s providing students with more access, providing more support or being proactive, institutions should assume that growth is conditional on their ability to engage students. Keeping an open line of communications with all students could be a key to improving engagement and reducing enrollment melt.
It’s no longer enough for institutions to be passive and reactive when it comes to helping students get what they need to succeed. Instead, set up automated campaigns that set reminders when paperwork is due or allows them to easily set appointments with relevant staff.
Most importantly, make it simple for students to connect on the device of their choice, or even switch channels as necessary. For instance, a student might prefer texting in the morning and email at night if he or she has a more nuanced question requiring greater detail. Whatever the case may be, don’t allow a lack of infrastructure to keep students from getting the help they need.
Improve the employee experience
It might seem counterintuitive to focus on employees when the imperative is to improve the student experience. However, when the employee experience is lagging, students are impacted by a negative workplace environment. Technology can help improve the systems and services support staff need to stay in-tune and engaged with students.
A positive student experience cannot happen without first resolving productivity issues and employee morale. While these areas typically fall within the HR department, IT is playing a bigger role due to the number of employees working remotely, and the technology required for them to do their job well.
Students pick up on cues when employees can’t do their job fully or feel limited in their role. When employees are frustrated and lack the infrastructure to answer questions, students might feel as if the institution isn’t attentive towards their needs. By helping employees be more efficient in their jobs, students will ultimately get greater satisfaction by getting the support they need.
Develop programs that keep students engaged beyond graduation
The days of an undergraduate degree being table stakes and a Master’s being seen as a career differentiator are over. But that doesn’t mean higher ed is doomed. Rather, there is a unique opportunity to engage students throughout their career lifecycle with Continuing Education Certificates that are less expensive than a typical Master’s program, but keeps a student’s skills fresh.
Institutions once looked at students in silos. They saw undergraduate and graduate students as two separate entities and sought to attract graduate students based on the programs they wanted to fill.
But with the enrollment cliff on the horizon, higher ed administrators need to think differently about engaging students from their first touch throughout the entirety of their career. The institutions that successfully navigate the enrollment cliff will be those that can creatively incentivize students to continue building their skills through continuing education.
With an unprecedented number of students entering their first year at a college or university, it’s time for institutions to re-imagine many of the old systems in place and think about how to capitalize on their increased interest. Given that institutions are expected to rebound sharply after remote learning, it would be a missed opportunity to not adapt to changing student needs. Ultimately, the institutions that stay stagnant will struggle the most as the impact of the looming enrollment cliff intensifies.