I’ve recently had the honor of leading sessions at a number of conferences, including the AACRAO SEM conference, the Noel-Levitz annual national conference, the ACT enrollment planners conference, the AIR conference, the Society of College and University Planning conference as well as other gatherings. I’ve also helped coordinate a number of Noel-Levitz polls regarding enrollment trends and enrollment planning. I can’t help but make a few observations about what I’m hearing, whether in these sessions, in the hallways, in these polls, on the phone, or while on college campuses.
My three observations about enrollment goals and planning for the future
1. Almost everyone is well aware of a number of very significant demographic changes that will occur among high school graduates in the next five years. Almost all the leaders I talk with are aware that in most states there will be significant declines in high school graduates and there will be a significant change in the racial-ethnic mix coming from the high schools. Noel-Levitz’s recent white paper, Back to the Present: Strategic Planning for the Coming Demographic Change, provides an excellent overview of these projected changes.
2. Despite the demographic projections, most institutions plan to grow their traditional-age student enrollment in the next five years.
3. The most important observation of all. When I ask groups how many have high-quality strategic enrollment management plans to bridge the gap between the demographic projections and their enrollment growth plans, only about 10 percent say they do. This is consistent with our findings from our 2009 benchmark poll in which respondents indicated that only 13 percent of four-year privates, 18 percent of four-year publics, and 17 percent of two-year colleges have written strategic enrollment plans of excellent quality.
The main reasons I hear people giving for putting off planning
Many of the folks I talk with are very concerned about the disconnect of the demographic projections and their institution’s lack of high quality planning. Others are somewhat less concerned because they believe that one or more of the following will happen:
- The college-going rate in their state, and possibly surrounding states, will increase significantly due to the results of specific programs designed to increase these rates, and the resulting increases will buffer the declines in high school graduates.
- Their institution will broaden its marketing and recruiting net outside its primary market or state to counteract the projected declines. When I ask to which markets it will expand, the answer is usually to demographic markets that also may or will be declining. We then usually talk about why the future will be much more competitive than it is now, and that it will not be easy to increase market shares where populations are declining.
- Higher education survived just fine when there were demographic slumps like this in the past, and it will survive just fine during this projected demographic decline also.
Let’s hope for an increase in the college-going rates; it would be a win for everyone
I don’t know what is going to happen anymore than anyone else. Personally I hope that the college-going rate increases dramatically so that students, higher education, and this country all prosper. Wouldn’t that be great!
However, if the college-going rate doesn’t improve significantly, then elementary math says that there will be fewer students going on to higher education in most states, and there will be winning schools and losing schools. The winners will consist of colleges that already have strong reputations for quality and value or will have high-quality strategic enrollment plans to address the changing demographics. The losers will be the ones that don’t have one of these two characteristics going for them.
Accept the risks or invest in high quality planning
If I were in a leadership post at a college or university right now, I wouldn’t be taking the risk that the college-going rate is going to increase or that a simple solution is going to work in a possible extremely competitive environment in the next five years. At minimum, I would be a champion for realistic enrollment goals for traditional-age undergraduate students. Possibly these enrollment goals should include fewer traditional-age students and more adult students during the next five to ten years.
The other route to go is much more complex–to develop and implement a strong strategic enrollment plan with at least a five-year planning horizon. In order to be truly strategic, and, therefore, to increase the possibility of being successful, investments must be made now in taking a data-informed, analytic approach (market research, pricing and discounting research, recruitment research, demographic research, student retention research, etc.). In such a challenging environment, successful enrollment decisions most likely will be based on facts and analysis, and much less from anecdotal observations and hunches. Based on this research, business decisions (yes, I said business decisions) must be made very soon regarding where to make investments, what are the risks, what are the expected returns on these investments, what are the programs that should be down-sized, etc. This planning process must be an open process in order to make the best decisions and get the best possibility for enrollment success. This process must be a living process that is continuously monitored and evaluated, resulting in continuous change. And finally, this needs to be led and coordinated by one or more who have experience in these critical areas.
So it’s your institution’s decision. Take the chance that a simple solution will successfully address the demographic changes that are coming your direction, or reduce your risks and make the significant investments in true strategic enrollment planning. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big risk taker, especially on such a big issue as my school’s future enrollment and fiscal health. Be a champion for high quality strategic enrollment planning. Take another close look at the demographic projections. Emphasize to your leaders these demographic projections and the critical choices of taking risks or investing in the insurance of strategic planning.
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