Back to Blog

Is the Enrollment Cliff Real? And How Can Higher Ed Marketing Prepare For It?

Is the Enrollment Cliff Real? And How Can Higher Ed Marketing Prepare For It?
Table of Contents

What a simple question. What a complex answer. The dreaded Enrollment Cliff–the presumed loss of potential students after a sharp decline in US birth rates–has been lurking on the higher ed horizon for years. Whether it lives up to this melodramatic moniker remains to be seen, but before we explore that, let’s go through a bit of the backstory.

What's Causing an Enrollment Cliff?

In 2007 the US experienced the most births in its history: 4,316,233. The general fertility rate peaked at 69.9–the highest since 1991. Then the Great Recession fell on top of us, and squashed that birth rate. Starting in 2008, the US experienced a decade-long year-over-year decline in birth rates until they bottomed out in 2020 at 56.0. The more dramatic news outlets have gone so far as to brand it “the Lost Decade in US Fertility”, and even the most euphemistic among us have to admit it represents a significant decline.  

How does that affect long-term prospects for higher education? We’re still not sure, but it definitely presents some issues that will need to be mitigated. First, the “Enrollment Cliff”–sometimes called the “Demographic Cliff”–is a bit of a misnomer. In 2008, the general fertility rate was actually still relatively high at 68.8. The next year, 2009, it was 66.3. That’s hardly some precipitous drop–hardly a “cliff”.

More accurately, it’s a slope. The drop to 2020’s rock bottom general fertility rate–the lowest in US history–was a steady, but gradual one. For higher education this means that the struggles with student recruitment are less likely to be felt as a sudden drop, and more likely to manifest as a gentle lag that picks up steam over the course of a decade-plus.

That means 2 things:

1. The Enrollment Cliff likely isn’t going to hit as dramatically as the name suggests.

2. The negative effects of the declining fertility rate are still very real and will be progressively felt over a long period

The question is, what does this mean for Higher Education, and how can University admissions teams reasonably prepare for it?

The Value of College

Is college still worth it in 2023? Emphatically yes. Even apart from its social and emotional benefits, the value of college is still remarkably high. College is the gateway to most of the world’s most prestigious careers, and graduate degrees are an increasingly crucial way for people to distinguish themselves within the workforce. From 2011 to 2021, the number of people in the US with master’s degrees increased by just over 50%, while the number who earned PhDs bumped by a staggering 54.5%. As advanced degrees become a more baked-in part of educational expectations, each student represents heightened value to the higher ed system.

Even if students don’t pursue graduate education, college has still never been a better indicator of long-term affluence. Although the numbers vary based on degree and occupation, people who hold a bachelor’s degree earn around 84% more in the workforce than those who hold only a high school diploma.

The jobs are also more stable. For instance, when the pandemic hit and there was an immediate, dramatic rise in unemployment, this was felt much more heavily by the population without a post-secondary education. And as jobs and tasks become more automated, areas that cater to those without a post-secondary education–customer service, manufacturing, and retail, etc.–are poised to feel that pain more acutely

Of course, if you’re in higher ed, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Heck, you probably got into this field because you wanted to promote something meaningful and life-changing for students. The trick is to communicate that value within an increasingly unstable messaging landscape (more on that later).

Untapped Demographics Leading Up to the Demographic Cliff

Students whose parents did not go to college often have a tougher road. They sometimes don't have the same monetary resources, support system, or family expectations that keep them in the classroom. Still, first-generation students are far from a lost cause.

Birth rates have dropped across all female demographics over the last 15 years or so, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of kids being born who could still attend school.

College is ubiquitous and seems like one of the most pervasive shared life stages. However, only around 35% of the overall population over the age of 25 have bachelor’s degrees. Raising that number in the future, despite population trends, is possible through efforts to attract and retain first-generation college students.

Recent studies suggest that appealing to this demographic–while challenging–is absolutely feasible. The cynical among us might say that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze–that it’s too inefficient to commit one’s resources to attracting and retaining first-generation students. On the surface this might seem true.

Students whose parents went to college are more likely to start and complete their bachelor’s education, while those whose parents did not often have a tougher road. They often don’t have the same monetary resources, support system, or family expectations that keep them in the classroom. Still, first-generation students are far from a lost cause.

Navia Winderling, Director of Enrollment at the University of Washington-Tacoma, knows the viability of first-generation college students from experience.

“We have a lot of first-generation students–we’re at almost 60%.” It can be a tricky demographic to appeal to, Winderling admits, but for schools willing to put in the work, it’s worth the investment.

The Role of Personalization in Recruiting First-Generation College Students

"We try to act almost like big brothers and big sisters to our students, because a lot of them are so new to the process." -Navia Winderling, Director of Enrollment, UW-Tacoma

Personalization creates a lasting connection with first-generation college students. “A lot of people don’t want to scroll the website to search for information, so we use Halda DLPs that meet them where they are,” explains Winderling. "We try to act almost like big brothers and big sisters to our students, because a lot of them are so new to the process."

These personalized content experiences give prospects a meaningful starting point that feels tailored to their needs. “Our students are like ‘Holy cow, I can just get the information I need based on what I want right now,” she continues.

This commitment to personalization represents a huge shift for UW Tacoma, which had favored a more traditional approach, “We used to spend a lot of money on name-buys, but we weren’t getting quality leads with that money,” explains Winderling. “Now we’re spending comparable money to what we’d spend on those, and getting tangible leads…It’s a huge value.”

“Of all of our 5,810 Halda leads (from March of last year to today), 450 of those are first source Halda leads that have submitted applications. So about 9% of Halda leads have applied!”

These more curated, personalized content experiences help students feel supported and taken care of throughout the consideration, application, and enrollment process. It’s an avenue for boosting enrollment that has generated meaningful results for UW-Tacoma and other universities looking to cater their outreach to new student populations.

The results are encouraging, and help build a bridge over the enrollment cliff to a sustainable long-term enrollment strategy.

Optimistically speaking, every university has a path to sustainability even as we face the realities of the new enrollment landscape. The fact is, a birth rate cliff doesn’t have to mean an enrollment cliff for schools willing to refresh their connections with today’s students.

If you’d like to discuss new strategies for personalization and connecting with today’s students, we'd be happy to sit down for a conversation. You can even test out our tools to see how they might function on your own website.

Every 0.85 Seconds

Halda personalizes the experience for a prospective student.

How often are you personalizing the experience for your students?