The Agile College

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It’s time for a sobering reality check. The consistent year-over-year enrollment gains many institutions experienced earlier this century may have been more about favorable demographics than they were brilliant growth strategies.

But demographics aren’t our friends anymore. 

What are the biggest demographic challenges that higher ed is going to be up against in the next two decades?

Dr. Nathan Grawe, Author and Professor of Economics at Carleton College, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about his new book, The Agile College, and the enrollment growth strategies higher ed needs to consider to successfully navigate the new demographic changes that are coming.

The Coming Demographic Challenges for Higher Education

Higher ed is going to face two major demographic challenges:

  1. Changing composition of student bodies due to migration and immigration
  2. The number of people being born

The first challenge moves slowly, and we’re largely adapting to it. The second challenge, however, is more complex and more urgent. 

Before 2007, the United States was actually producing children at a rate greater than the replacement rate. After the financial crisis, however, young families responded to the economic uncertainty by pulling back on their fertility.

If we flash forward 18 years, the traditional age college student market will start to contract in the mid 2020s.

What projected demographic trends has COVID started for higher ed?

Melissa Kearney and Phil Levine at the Brookings institution have looked back at the 1918 flu pandemic. Their research revealed that pandemics both reduce child births and have financial consequences. Putting those two things together, they estimate that we might see 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021 than we otherwise might have. 

Kearney and Levine are pessimistic about what the pandemic will do. Now, maybe they’re wrong. We can hope families will delay babies rather than forgo having them, but we can’t assume that. The aggressive stimulus packages over the last 18 months may have mitigated the financial fallout of the pandemic enough to soften the blow to the birthrate. But again, we won’t know for several more months.

How to Cope With the Coming Demographic Reality

No one predicted COVID, but we have seen a demographic cliff coming for several years. We’ve encouraged ourselves by saying, “Let’s recruit our way out. If the pool is shrinking, let’s find new markets.”

To some degree, that approach makes sense. We have more work to do around access — particularly related to race and ethnicity — and can certainly boost numbers from historically underserved markets.

But we won’t recruit our way out. That’s not realistic. It’s absurd. We’re going to have to look at additional strategies. 

Like retention. Perhaps the cheapest student to recruit is already on campus. If we can increase retention, then it’s possible that even though the number of students who walk in the front door remains the same or declines, we might have stable or increasing enrollments in total. 

We also need to talk about how to change the academic program. And we might have to think differently about who we are and how we identify ourselves. Certainly, given the size of the decline in fertility we’re seeing, we’re going to have to look beyond recruitment if we intend to find solutions. 

If you could start a university from scratch, who would you build it for?

“I teach at Carleton, which is a residential liberal arts college,” Nathan said. “Frankly, if I were to create an institution, I would probably start with that kind of education because it’s what I know.” 

But that doesn’t mean it’s the only kind that would work.

We have about 150 million workers, which means millions of opportunities for two-year institutions that focus on the adult learner market. Without much market penetration, those schools can offset the decline in traditional age students. 

Then, we have campuses that focus on people of a certain ethnicity or region. If you’re in the northeast, which is declining, you may be in trouble. The mountain west colleges, though, might pick up a windall. 

That said, institutions of all types can find successful paths forward.

Next Steps to Prepare for the Future of Higher Education

  1. Start with your mission. Whatever’s going to happen next must align well with your mission. Often, campuses don’t change until they face a crisis. Unfortunately, people will grasp at anything in a crisis — even if it’s a set of tactics that don’t line up with each other or the mission. You don’t want to do that. Keep the mission front and center.
  2. Be realistic about the markets you serve. Some institutions have a small number of feeder schools. You can easily get enrollment data to see what’s coming down the pipe in those schools. Even if your feeder schools aren’t shrinking, others might be. If that happens, the institutions that typically recruit in those schools will start to encroach on your territory. Be realistic; be prepared.

“Once you know what your mission is and you know the size of the challenge that you potentially face, then I think it becomes clearer what needs to be done,” Nathan said.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Nathan Grawe of Carleton College. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

Purchase The Agile College here.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.