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The Enrollment Cliff is Coming for Higher Education…But Not for the Reasons You Think

The Enrollment Cliff is Coming for Higher Education…But Not for the Reasons You Think
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The Enrollment Cliff–a term dramatic enough to make you picture a team of enrollment pros in a raft without paddles, careening toward a waterfall. That waterfall is supposed to show up in 2025. The problem is it’s only 2023, and the raft is already starting to take on water. The question is, how can enrollment teams make sure they are in ship shape by the time 2025 rolls around, and how can they turn that supposed waterfall into an easy float trip?

The 2025 Enrollment Cliff is Real...Kind of

The Enrollment Cliff isn’t fiction, but it might not be as dramatic as the name suggests. In 2007, the US had the most babies in its history, and a general fertility rate of 69.9–the highest since 1991. Then the Great Recession hit, but it didn’t stop fertility in its tracks like the name “Enrollment Cliff” suggests. Rather, it sparked a steady decline in birth rates over the next 12 years, or so. By 2020, the total fertility rate had hit an all-time US low of 56.0–and for now that looks like the new normal. This leaves two big takeaways for enrollment pros:

  1. The Enrollment Cliff likely isn’t going to hit as dramatically as the name suggests.
  2. The negative effects of the demographic cliff and a declining fertility rate are still very real and will be progressively felt over a long period of time.

To continue our metaphor, that means schools are unlikely to crash over a waterfall, and more likely to take on water and plug holes until they eventually sink. It’s a less dramatic narrative, but it’s no less deadly. And for a higher education industry already struggling with its identity and margins, the timing could not be worse.

Higher Education on the Brink of the Enrollment Cliff

If you’re feeling secure about your school’s current position, congratulations; you’re thriving in an uncomfortable enrollment landscape. The list of universities that have closed since 2020 is getting scary-long. 43 institutions of higher education in the US have either closed, merged, or announced that they will soon.

Many of those measures have been taken abruptly, without any warning to the students or faculty affected. And their reason for closing is almost the same: lagging student enrollment. Perhaps this is just a post-Covid blip. It’s more likely, however, the canary in the coalmine that points to struggles threatening higher education as a whole.

Why Colleges are Struggling with Student Enrollment and Recruitment in 2023-2024

Full disclosure, I taught high school in the Southeast US for 5 years before making a career pivot to writing. Thousands of students–most from lower to middle-class, hard-working families–passed through my doors. What I found teaching them was highly instructive.

First, they were terrified of student debt–much more than my peers and I were in the early 2000s. They had grown up in the shadow of the Great Recession and were wary of economic instability. This meant they wanted to make money faster and more efficiently.

80% of them had jobs outside of school. All of them–save the aspiring TikTokers–wanted an education that favored hard skills and a clear track to a stable salary. So they gravitated toward vocational programs like welding or culinary arts. Even my best students questioned the value of college to their long-term goals.

My experience, it seems, was indicative of overall trends in how Gen Z views higher education.

In a 2022 survey, only 51% of Gen Z teens wanted to get a 4-year degree–down from 71% just two years prior. This comes down to a few key reasons:

  1. Financial concerns–including student debt
  2. Alternative paths to education and credentials
  3. Uncertainty about their career direction
  4. High levels of stress

We’ll talk about financial concerns, career direction, and stress levels, but let’s start with number 2: Alternative paths to education. This is the enrollment cliff before the Enrollment Cliff.

Today’s learners view education through a transactional lens. It’s a means to a definite end that they would reach with as little cost or inconvenience as possible. Perhaps this is how it always should have been.

They favor independent, self-paced learning with practical skills acquisition and a clear return on investment. And if college doesn’t optimize their future earnings while maximizing their time, then they’ll find another path.

That’s why many embrace on-the-job training, Youtube courses, and intensive programs that efficiently prepare them for specific jobs. Since the majority of them don’t believe their job will exist in the next 20 years, they view learning as a lifelong necessity rather than an initial 4-8 year investment.

That’s a tough climate for schools married to a 120-credit, contiguous college experience, often followed by required master’s and doctoral degrees. And it’s why many students are pursuing other avenues than college. Between 2019 and 2021, undergraduate enrollment shrunk by over 6%. Those are glaring pre-Enrollment Cliff numbers.

The good news is, college has actually never been more valuable. People who hold a bachelor’s degree earn around 84% more over a lifetime in the workforce than those who hold only a high school diploma, the jobs are more stable, and as the rate of people holding graduate degrees skyrockets, it allows students to become more competitive. The question is, what are the best ways to communicate this value and make the monumental task of college feel doable? That’s where enrollment professionals can make an impact.

How to Save Higher Education? Personalization.

Finances, career options, and stress are difficult talking points, but enrollment pros are in a position to directly mitigate them. Personalized follow-up and outreach that addresses each of a student’s pain points allows you to be helpful and empathetic. There’s even software now that uses AI to auto-generate personalized responses to most situations.

The solution may seem simple, but it’s effective. Ask students what they’re struggling with and where they need help getting over the finish line. Then provide the tools to make it possible.

Today’s students embrace personalized help when it comes to financial aid, academic advising, personal finance, and other subjects. Now, AI-supported tools help provide that interaction at scale. It’s an important step to assisting college students and prospects who feel more overwhelmed and stressed than ever.

Enrollment professionals are prepared to have those kinds of conversations. They steer students responsibly, especially when it comes to their academic futures and financial options. But they need help, which is where personalization tools come in. To see how Halda supports these conversations, we'd love to have a conversation. Or, if you want to try out our tools right now, explore our personalized demo environment.

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