Much has been written about the significant demographic and economic changes sweeping American higher education: greater college attendance, less preparation for college, fewer higher school graduates, increased college cost, and declining financial aid.
Undergraduate enrollment in Canada more than doubled between 1980 and 2012, from 550,000 students to over one million. Since 1995, the number of full-time undergraduate students rose at a particularly high rate, going from a half million in 1995 to 793,000 in 2012. Graduate enrollment grew from 77,000 in 1980 to 190,000 in 2010, with enrollment in full-time master’s programs between 1995 and 2010 alone increasing from 40,000 to 80,000. (See the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada “Trends in Higher Education, Volume 1—Enrollment” and “2013 Back to School Quick Facts.”)
Despite these increases, Canada is likely to see a decline in the 18 to 21-year-old population in the coming years. This decrease may be somewhat offset by increased university attendance rates, but this also means that Canadian institutions will be contending with a smaller pool of potential students—much like their U.S. college counterparts. This will no doubt increase competition from other Canadian institutions, but also from American institutions that may become more aggressive in pursing Canadian students to help plug the demographic holes in the U.S. college-going population.
Funding is also a problem for Canadian colleges and universities. Changes in provincial funding coupled with rising costs mean that prospective Canadian students will find it harder and harder to pay for university.
With that said, there are five strategies that Canadian campuses can employ to meet these challenges, stay competitive, and fulfill their missions:
1) Research Canadian and U.S. markets
It’s imperative for Canadian institutions to know as much as possible about their market, their students, and their competitors. With competition increasing for Canadian students, from other Canadian campuses as well as American institutions, analyzing the motivations of prospective students and the offerings of competing campuses can help you position your campus more competitively.
2) Devote as much attention to student retention as you do to student recruitment
Here’s a quick question: If your institution wanted to grow by 5 percent next year, how would you do it? The answer may seem to be to recruit 5 percent more students. But you could accomplish that goal by recruiting 2.5 percent more and increasing student retention by 2.5 percent. Simply put, it is far more cost effective to retain a current student than to recruit a new one. That’s especially true when considering what it will take to recruit new students in the increasingly competitive Canadian market.
Increasing retention requires campuswide commitment. Early-alert systems to identify at-risk students, solid advising to guide students through the college experience, engagement from the faculty, and strategic retention planning are just some of the elements you need for successful retention initiatives. However, the investment you make in retention tends to pay tremendous dividends—more revenue from returning students, increased graduation rates, and coming closer to fulfilling your campus mission. I am positive that the most successful Canadian institutions in the next decade will be those that make student retention a priority.
3) Create online connections with prospective students
Canada has one of the highest social marketing usage rates in the world, with one-third of all anglophone Canadians checking social media daily and 14 million checking Facebook on a daily basis. Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking outlets provide excellent opportunities to connect with students and start building the relationships that promote enrollment. Likewise, look for ways to connect with students on your school’s website and open the door to communicating with your online visitors.
4) Look abroad for students
In addition to researching U.S. markets, cast your recruitment net overseas as well. With Canada’s resources, infrastructure, and reputation for cultural tolerance, you have an inviting destination for prospective international students. Again, research is key and can help you identify which international markets could have the highest yields for you.
5) Be strategic so that you’re prepared for tomorrow’s changes today
Simply put, being reactive will not yield success for your campus. It is very important to not only look ahead but plan ahead. Strategic enrollment planning will help you identify obstacles to the success of your campus, maneuver your institution to avoid those pitfalls, and identify new routes to long-term enrollment success.
I will be discussing these challenges and strategies at our Canadian Enrollment Management Workshop, coming to Toronto on February 25. My colleagues and I will address issues related to student recruitment and retention. I hope you can join us. You can also send me an email and we can discuss your enrollment challenges in Canada. Whatever you do, I encourage you to stay in front of the coming demographic changes for Canada and keep your enrollment growing.