Hear that? An alarm is ringing.
Research from the National Student Clearinghouse declares higher education enrolment dropped in the U.S. by 2.7 percent in the fall of 2021, following a 2.5 percent decline in fall 2020. No institution sector was immune; undergraduate programs at universities, community colleges, and private for-profit schools all took a hit. But one sector saw less of a drop than other institutions.
While universities and private for-profit institutions saw 3.8 percent and 11.1 percent declines, respectively, community colleges only saw -3.4 percent. And it could have something to do with their unique ability to adapt.
Because of their size and agility, smaller institutions are known to pivot and adjust their offerings rapidly to meet the demands of the marketplace. And in today’s COVID-19 era, more students are looking to enter the workforce sooner rather than later, resulting in an urgent and rising demand for professional training programs.
So whether you’re a polytechnic school whose goal is a high employment rate post-graduation or a four-year university with a stalwart mission to change the world, your mission is clear: Market your strengths.
Troubling enrolment trends are a wake-up call for all higher ed. institutions.
Downward enrolment trends are never a good thing in higher education. And when they’re seen across the board, something is really wrong. Which is why now is the time to act, no matter what sector your institution is in.
NYU marketing professor and author Scott Galloway is sounding the alarm. He says, “One of the industries that will struggle in the new normal will be higher education, an industry that may not be able to maintain a value proposition that makes sense in a decentralized and digital economy, where scale, speed, and personalization are the new relevant currencies.”
Yikes. Though he makes an important point: Students have more choices than ever.
- They can attend school from across the globe via a healthy Wi-Fi connection.
- They have leverage in the workforce as employers reel from The Great Resignation.
- They can take a digital sprint course from professors like Galloway to gather the unique skills they need without enroling in a year-long MBA program.
The options are growing faster than it takes a freshman to make a TikTok video.
What’s more, Galloway says an increasing number of males are opting out of higher education altogether, leaping straight into the workforce, simply because they can.
“Many fields that don’t require a degree are gender imbalanced, and the traditionally male-dominated jobs tend to pay better.” Galloway declares. “Women stick around because they have fewer choices.”
All of this is to say nothing of the disconcerting demographic “cliff” that anticipates up to a 15 percent drop in freshman prospects starting in 2025, due to the decline in birth rate in the 2008 recession and lasting for years after.
Needless to say, your marketing is more important than ever.
Know your higher ed.’s prospective students and market your strengths.
In order to overcome troubling trends, shifting priorities, and competing options, you’ll have to focus on who your prospective students are and how you market your strengths.
Community colleges and polytechnic schools: Center messaging around price and flexibility.
According to CollegeBoard, the average in-district tuition and fees at public two-year colleges in the U.S. ranged from $1,430 in California to $8,600 in Vermont in 2020-2021. When tuition and fees average $3,770 a year, that’s a great bargain.
As the rising cost of living continues to be a strain (along with the economic impact from the pandemic), students young and old looking for more affordable options closer to home may be your perfect prospects.
Emphasizing your institution’s versatile program choices (especially online courses) along with your more palatable tuition and fees could pique interest in your right-fit students.
And never forget the opportunity to market your differentiator. Your marketing strategy should be led by an idea that all of your audiences can get behind — and be a rallying cry.
Four-year universities: Feature your fast track programs and emphasize your value.
The University of Regina saw a spike in students aged 25 and older starting in 2019, jumping from 24.9 percent to 36.5 percent. It then leapt again to 38.2 percent in 2021.
According to The Regina Leader-Post, the faculties that saw the biggest jump were in arts, business, education, science, social work, graduate studies and continuing education. Online courses were in very high demand.
The U of R is hardly alone. The pandemic forced many either out of work, to reprioritize life goals and careers, or see higher education as a way to further their careers — or jumpstart new ones.
With the amount of adults going back to school, it’s safe to assume they’re not looking for the same experience as an undergrad. Fast track programs and online courses are going to be highly appealing to students who want the value of an education that only a university can deliver, combined with an abbreviated timeline that works with their schedule.
Focus your messaging around short-term program options that offer the same value as other long-term programs. And don’t shy away from the fact that a university offers something community colleges and polytechnics don’t: The pursuit of higher knowledge bolstered by experiences one can only get at a university — not to mention better lifetime earnings.
Your right-fit students will be the ones who want to pursue higher learning at a university known for its enduring purpose and mission — and offers non-traditional students a way to fill their knowledge tank.
No matter your higher ed.’s specialty, be set to adapt.
Students have more choices — and leverage — than ever before. With the demand in fast track courses and certain career training programs, students are proving they want to graduate and get into the workforce sooner than ever.
Demand is booming for “science of blue-collar occupation” degrees. Despite falling college admissions in general, enrolment in two-year agricultural sciences degrees rose 41% in 2021. Construction management went up 18%, and blue-collar technical fields are up an average of 7%.
According to Bloomberg, “The students in these programs are usually working in their fields of study and looking for advanced instruction in theory and broader business skills so they can move up to management jobs or start their own businesses, taking positions that in the past would likely have been held by four-year . . . graduates without specific training.”
Polytechnic schools and community colleges: Don’t hold back on adapting to the current needs of your prospective students. And market your newest courses even more.
Universities have the opportunity to become more agile in their offerings and marketing as well. Though traditional four-year schools may be less able to adapt to current market demands, highlighting the innovation and research that is taking place is something you can’t afford to not to do.
And while universities may not offer the breadth of short-term programs that their community college and polytechnic counterparts offer, that doesn’t mean they can’t get creative, especially in their marketing.
That alarm doesn’t have to be a threat. It can signal the call to ensure your higher ed. institution comes out on top by embracing change, zeroing in on who you’re targeting, and knowing the right messages to send.