This Just In: The Sky is Not Falling

The enrollment cliff is real and scary, but the data shows that higher ed is not in a free fall.

3 minutes
By: Jon Boeckenstedt
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If you work at a college or university, no doubt someone at some time has mentioned “the enrollment cliff.” It sounds ominous, and evokes images of Wile E. Coyote, realizing that there’s nothing between him and the ground.

Is the enrollment cliff real?  Yes. Is it something you should be aware of?  Yes. Should we all freak out? Probably not.

For one thing, enrollment has already started to fall, and it has little to do with demographic changes; COVID-19, the economy, the labor shortage, and other factors have already taken their toll in the new enrollment data we’re seeing, especially at community colleges. Different segments of higher education will feel these changes differently. Many factors contribute to enrollment trends in America.

Higher Education has a long view on its markets. We can project out at least 18 years to see what the population of prospective students looks like, and we can see bumps up or dips down well before they arrive. WICHE has done an excellent job of documenting and publicizing these data for quite some time, and I’ve visualized it every few years to make it more accessible.

Here are the takeaways:

  • At the highest level, high school graduate numbers will start to decrease in about 2025. By the time we get to 2037, numbers will be about at the same level as 2015. The world did not end in 2015, by most accounts.
  • Of greater interest is the mix of students, by both ethnicity and income levels. You can read more about how the interplay of those factors might affect things by reading Nathan Grawe’s book. The numbers behind the numbers are critical.
  • Since almost all college students enroll at a college within 500 miles of home, regional numbers are also important. If you’re in New England or the Middle Atlantic states, the cliff is bigger than if you’re in the Southeast. Type also matters: if you’re at a community college, it’s much worse than if you’re at a state flagship.
  • Colleges can respond fatalistically (woe is me!) or opportunistically (what can we do to think about new markets?) Good admissions and enrollment management people should help their institutions navigate the waters ahead.

When people start discussing these things on your campus, be sure to be well-versed in the real data behind the hype. You’ll become much more valuable to your institution if you do.

Jon Boeckenstedt

Jon Boeckenstedt

Jon Boeckenstedt is the Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University in Corvallis. He has over 35 years of experience in enrollment management and admissions, and has special interest in data visualization and the appropriate application of corporate strategy to higher education, and is the author of three blogs: One on higher education data, one on important trends and topics in admission and enrollment management, and one focusing on Oregon higher education. Jon is an Iowa native, and holds a BA in English and an MS in Marketing and Management.

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