At some point, colleges must stop blaming students who sat out the pandemic or economic factors Social forces attacking higher education for enrollment losses. Instead, institutions should assess whether the learning experiences they offer and the outcomes they promise provide students with a sense of belonging in the classroom and on campus, and ultimately a purpose for their education.
In the last two years we have witnessed a major re-evaluation of the US economy. The pandemic has turned our lives, habits and traditions upside down, including the way we think about college.
One possibility is how Gen X parents think about college for their Gen Z children. A national survey of parents conducted by Gallup and Carnegie Corporation in New York during the pandemic found nearly half of parents wish there were more post-secondary options. Even among parents who wanted their children to get a bachelor’s degree, 40 percent still expressed an interest in skill- and career-oriented educational opportunities. As a participant in a timeline As the student recruitment webinar I moderated last week put it this way: Colleges need to convince prospective students to enroll in higher education First Then worry about recruiting them for a Specific Campus.
Second, the labor market has shifted. Employers including the state of Maryland and Delta Airlines dropped degree requirements for some jobs in the last year. Other companies, instead of waiting to offer jobs to graduates, have flipped the traditional script and, in a war for talent, are offering educational benefits as part of the job. In other words, work first, graduate later.
Finally, students just emerging from the online and hybrid learning experience of the pandemic want flexibility in entering college. “There are students who feel very strongly that… ‘I should be able to look through the course catalog and decide which ones to take remotely and which ones to take in person,'” Gene Block, Chancellor of the University of California in Los Angeles, it told me last spring. In fact, a telling number in Clearinghouse data released last week was that student enrollment among 18-20 year olds at online colleges — which typically enroll working adults — rose 3.2 percent from a year earlier.
My research over the past two years has found that without a rethink of what is currently seen as the outdated student experience — like everyday interactions like learning in the classroom and navigating campus services — enrollment losses from the pandemic are felt to be endemic by what students feel is being pinched off and check out. For a glimpse of what could happen, look to New Orleans. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, author and journalist Anya Kamenetz reported in her most recent book: The stolen year: How Covid has changed children’s lives and where we are going nowthat “the collective trauma of the ‘Sturmkinder’ continues to have an effect on the next generation”. Even 17 years later, enrollment at the city’s public colleges and community colleges has never recovered to pre-storm levels.
To ensure there isn’t attrition across the country, colleges must not only re-recruit and re-enroll students lost to the pandemic, but also students who are in college now and those who are in the pipeline re-include them in higher education. There is no single approach to improving the student experience and reversing the decline in higher education enrollment, but here are three strategies for colleges to expand the student market:
Develop flexible academic programs and offer new qualifications. The traditional college experience that leads to a bachelor’s degree isn’t going away, but even before the pandemic, it wasn’t a market that grew significantly. Adding new majors or some online programs are just small changes on the fringes. Instead, higher education institutions need to develop new products that are more flexible in terms of length and location, and that appeal to learners whose motivation is not driven by this traditional experience. Take the full-year, two-and-a-half-year bachelor’s degree in health sciences from the University of Minnesota at Rochester, for example. Each student in the program will be assigned a coach and mentor from Mayo Clinic, and will be offered research experience, a paid internship at Mayo, and a digital portfolio to track their learning, among other things.
While this program leads to a bachelor’s degree, students also want college-certified credentials that can help them if they don’t complete the degree, or make the degree itself more valuable right away. Colleges should offer industry-recognized certifications alongside every bachelor’s degree that certify students have specific, in-demand skills—like data visualization for history majors or project management for psychology majors. Matt Sigelman, President of the Burning Glass Institute, told me that a certification in SQL, for example, can add $24,000 to the average salary of a marketing manager. Paul Quinn College now offers students at every stage of their undergraduate careers the opportunity to earn a variety of certifications, for example in Microsoft or in areas such as data science. One goal of the program is to give students opportunities on the job market even if they drop out.
Clarify the mission of community colleges and ease the path to four-year colleges. Community colleges suffered some of the worst enrollment losses of any sector during the pandemic. While the latest Clearinghouse data shows that enrollments at two-year colleges are beginning to recover, a third of this fall’s surge is attributed to 18-20 year olds — some of whom may have started, or could be, starting at a four-year college want to switch.
The dual purpose of two-year institutions—both to provide technical training and to serve as a transfer station—remains a source of tension at many community colleges. The drive to increase overall graduation rates in higher education has undermined the mission of two-year institutions in part because it has pressured colleges to award students with an associate degree without considering if they were just there to quickly get a specific one Ability to learn in a class for example. Only 31 percent of community college students do so when it comes to progressing to a four-year institution, and only about half of them graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
More colleges need to do what they’ve been talking about for years: improve community college credit and make the process nearly seamless. George Mason University offers automatic admission to qualifying students beginning at nearby Northern Virginia Community College and gives them a sense of belonging to Mason during their stay at the community college by providing access to the university’s courses, athletic events and computer labs . The university has also adjusted the curriculum in dozens of majors to ensure all credits carry over. Enrollment at George Mason increased slightly this fall, and about 66 percent of those new students are transfers.
Stop ignoring K-12. The Clearinghouse report found that community college enrollment also benefited from an 11.5 percent increase from dual enrollment of high school students. Colleges are in K-12 schools whether they like it or not. And given the severity of the learning loss during the pandemic, higher education could improve college readiness and the top of the recruitment funnel by penetrating deeper into middle and high schools with courses that prepare students for college and offering them credits or certificates who can be accepted this institution years later. Or colleges can start their own schools, like Arizona State University did with ASU Digital Prep, a K-12 online school that can appeal to parents who have started homeschooling their children during the pandemic.
Even as colleges try to boost enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, another enrollment challenge is looming on the horizon: the demographic cliff resulting from an expected peak in high school enrollment around 2025 or 2026. Historically, higher education has weathered such demographic storms with rising immigration and higher-than-expected high school graduation rates. You can’t count on both happening this time. But colleges can control their own destiny by looking beyond their current model to target different groups of potential students now.