Look to the Sides, Not Down

The impending enrollment cliff may not be as bad as it sounds, but higher ed institutions will need to look beyond high school classrooms for prospective students.

3.5 minutes
By: Savannah Wan
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Four-year institutions have long relied on fresh high school graduates to fill classroom seats, but what happens when there aren’t enough students to go around? 

Birth rates plummeted during the Great Recession in 2007, leaving a projected 15% decrease in college-bound students in its wake. The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education reported that there will be a peak of high school graduates in 2025, but a sharp demographic cliff will follow. WICHE further projected that class sizes will decrease significantly between 2026 and 2037, which is predicted to be equivalent to the 2014 class size. 

So, is this enrollment cliff truly the boogeyman it’s cracked up to be? 

Dr. Mark Kornbluh, provost at Wayne State University, said otherwise, “You know, four-year institutions have a great deal to offer students. We are much less vulnerable to this impact than regional universities based in small areas.” 

Source: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, Knocking at the College Door, 10th edition, 2020.

Public research universities will likely not experience the same blow as many smaller universities due to the sheer number of resources those institutions have at their disposal. The programs and facilities available, however, will likely increase competition among universities to bring in more students. 

Candace Boeninger, vice president for enrollment management of Ohio University, stated, “I think that the competitive nature of universities is here to stay, and I think in many ways for students, it’s good.” 

The competition that the enrollment cliff will bring may even make colleges tighten their standards to give students a better return on their investment. On the other hand, Kornbluh stated, “I think that there are going to be changes in the overall ecology of universities, that will affect different types of students and different types of institutions differently.” 

It is difficult to say whether or not all universities will keep the status quo or if they will loosen or tighten enrollment requirements, as all institutions have different needs. 

New Avenues

There may have been a birthrate decline nearly 18 years ago, but that does not erase the existing population of adults without a college education. 

“Despite the fact that we know there’s a declining number of 18-year-olds, I expect that the state’s total student population is going to grow significantly over the next five years, and a lot of that will be more re-skilling and upskilling and to help more adults get college degrees,” said Kornbluh. 

Unfortunately, many adults feel that soul-crushing student debt is no longer worth the payout. After all, 57% of Americans think college costs aren’t worth it, and 75% think it’s too expensive for the average person to afford. As of September 2022, 2% of college graduates were unemployed, and 33% were underemployed, meaning their jobs do not require college degrees. Despite these discouraging post-grad statistics, higher ed professionals still advise those questioning the validity of a college degree to consider applying. 

“The data is clear that students who pursue and persist and complete a college degree have better outcomes regarding their long-term earnings, for example,” said Boeninger. “And in many cases, their general satisfaction is higher than in some other populations.” 

Although 33% underemployment seems grim, the majority of graduates are employed and make approximately $22,000 more than those with only a high school diploma or equivalent.

As time progresses, institutions must change to meet the needs of students from various backgrounds. With the evolution of college campuses after COVID-19 and the demographic cliff, Kornbluh proposed a solution for adult learners. 

“We’re making changes to our curriculum in which we will give working adults credit for prior experience,’ said Kornbluh. “If  you’ve worked in a field and gained certain knowledge, you may not have to take introductory classes, so there are ways to make college work for people.” 

Traditionally, college undergraduate programs have been marketed to fresh high school graduates. Changing the curriculum is one way that colleges are evolving to accommodate this new student pipeline. 

“They’ve been out in the workforce before they start college,” said Kornbluh. “We help them get the advanced knowledge and recognize that they’ve already gained some knowledge through their working experience.” 

This restructuring of curriculum goes hand-in-hand with shifting the marketing demographic from 18-year-olds to those in their mid-twenties and early thirties. 

“We must do more with adults and help them get their careers. And get their college degrees at a slightly later stage in life,” said Kornbluh. “One of the ways to offset the decline is to reach more 25-year-olds and 27-year-olds and communicate more clearly the value of higher education.”    

The landscape of higher education is changing drastically, and institutions must adapt to survive the 2025 enrollment cliff. Although real, the threat is not as dire as the term “cliff” implies. 

“I don’t think there will be a fatalist approach that any successful institution will take because they will look at their offering,” said Boeninger. “They will look at the demands that students and families have and try to figure out how to match those in an increasingly meaningful way over the span of time.”

Savannah Wan

Savannah Wan

Reporter

Savannah Wan has a bachelor’s degree in English, with a minor in creative writing from Wayne State University. She is a freelance writer who primarily writes about higher ed, mental health, race and gender.

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