This year, overall college enrollment is down by 4% according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Community Colleges are hurting the most with a 9.4% decrease in enrollment. This is most strongly impacting first-year students, with an overall decline of 22.7% nationwide including four- and two-year institutions.
The only institution type that has seemed to emerge unscathed are private for-profit four-year colleges and universities which are seeing a 3% increase in enrollment compared to last year.
We view this rapid decline in enrollment as the first of multiple hurtles to come. Higher education cannot take another hit to enrollment numbers and therefore needs to plan for the long term. Each institution needs to evaluate their incoming student pipeline for the next three to five years at a minimum in addition to addressing student pricing concerns.
Typically, we see that as the economy declines, more people choose to enroll in higher education as seen during the 2008 recession. This has not been the case so far during the COVID pandemic and the current fluctuating economy.
In December 2019, NPR’s Morning Edition described how there were nearly 250,000 fewer students enrolled than the year prior. They contributed this to the thriving economy which typically drives higher education enrollment down as there are career opportunities available. At the time Angel Perez of Trinity College stated “We're in a crisis right now, and it's a complicated one”, but he had no foresight of what was about to occur with the COVID pandemic.
NPR also cited shifting U.S. demographics with fewer high school graduates. We expect this decline to continue due to low birth rates from 20 years ago.
What is the solution?
University leaders need to balance the needs of this academic year with the long-term sustainability of the institution. One way they can do this is by quantifying the strength of incoming student pipelines.
What kind of questions should institutions be asking about their future student pipelines?
Here are a few examples that we are thinking about at SightLine;
- How many incoming students are expected within the next 3-5 years based on current student pipelines from high schools and transfer institutions?
- Are high school student pipelines declining? And if so, how significant will the impact be?
- Are we highly dependent on incoming transfer student enrollment and how consistent are these pipelines?
- What will the financial impact be for the forecasted changes?
- How many additional pipelines do we need to add to meet long term institutional goals??
- What will happen if we simply maintain our current pipelines?
Once top feeder high schools are identified, public data is readily available to forecast what proportion of students will be applying and enrolling at your institution over the next 3-5 years. Regional demographic, population, and economic data can be merged into this analysis in order to identify the qualities of top feeder schools and to identify new potentially strong sources for marketing and recruiting.
It is critical to continue to build relationships with new schools and students now, in order to maintain or grow enrollment during such uncertain times. This is particularly important for small and medium sized institutions that rely heavily on a handful of feeder schools that may see fluctuating enrollments in the future.
How can SightLine help?
At SightLine, we have developed a survival analysis that is specifically tailored to help institutions evaluate the strength of their student pipelines, estimate future enrollments, and quantify the financial impact of current pipelines and what-if scenarios. This is probably information that Board Members will be asking for, if they are not already, and we are here to support you through these tough questions.
Interested? Contact us to see how SightLine’s data modeling can help your institution