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What to Do About Declining College Enrollment

by Sirley Carballo · Jul 08, 2022

In recent years, many higher education institutions have witnessed declining enrollment numbers and recruitment challenges. 

These struggles have not discriminated based on the type of school, even though enrollment challenges do hit institutions differently. From large public institutions to smaller private colleges, to community colleges, drawing students into the enrollment process is crucial for longevity and campus success. 

Although the higher education landscape in America might be changing, there are plenty of ways to be a smart and effective higher and postsecondary education marketer. 

In this post, we’ll explore how and why college enrollments are declining in 2022, but we won’t stop there. Keep reading to discover practical tools and marketing strategies that you can use now to combat the enrollment dip in higher education.

A woman looking closely at a computer with a frown. A chart with a downward trajectory.

Current Enrollment Trends

It would be remiss to discuss falling college enrollment without acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning in spring of 2020, higher education institutions were forced to accommodate distance and remote learning—even if they never had to do so previously. 

Even as a global pandemic reshaped the nature of in-person learning, admissions numbers at colleges and universities were already in a state of decline, with fewer students pursuing and completing degree programs. 

These dips affected institutions differently, and across the board, data illustrates that community colleges and low income families have suffered the worst.

Both financial and academic studies have revealed an important finding and trend in college education—many students are pivoting away from the traditional college path and opting for trade schools or the workforce. The higher education system must be aware of these preferences in order to make academic offers more compelling and to beat back a sharp and persistent decline.     

Reasons Behind the Drop in Enrollment Numbers

Declining enrollment isn’t simply the result of one major historical event or trend. Traditional undergraduate enrollment has seen a notable decrease over the last decade, and experts point to many reasons why this is the case.

  • Rising costs and financial commitments to obtain a college degree – Attending college is an investment, but the costs can be expensive. With a growing awareness of rising student debt, many prospective students are opting for less risky options for their future.
  • Expanded online options – With the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions had to think quickly about online degrees and remote offerings. Although these options add to a college’s academic portfolio, they involve less of an in-person commitment for students hoping to obtain online degrees.
  • Shifting need for degrees – Although this trend has yet to be proven universally, some companies may eventually choose to make hiring decisions based on technological skills and background instead of degree completion or college programs. Over time, this could further dissuade students from pursuing an official degree instead of job and life experience.
  • High school graduates are taking more time – Many high school seniors delay new college enrollments until they are able to experience a "gap year." This delayed path to postsecondary education allows students to discover career or life experiences, or to learn more about lower-cost community college options.
  • Slower economic growth – Even without current economic trends (including the presence of inflation and potential recession), middle class and low income students may already have a difficult time fulfilling the financial obligations associated with a 4-year degree. The larger economic culture plays a real role in how willing high school graduates are to jump straight to higher education.
Two college students holding books and smiling.

How Higher Education Can Combat the College Enrollment Decline 

For marketers, recruiters, and admissions professionals, the responsibility to keep numbers moving in the right direction (and produce a new generation of college graduates) can feel daunting. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), enrollment for first-time, first-year students rose 4.2% this spring.

There is always an opportunity to capture interest and construct compelling marketing campaigns geared toward new students considering a college degree. To stay mindful of the overall undergraduate enrollment landscape, take the following considerations into account. 

Use personalization in your marketing efforts to get students enrolled

Personalization means delivering unique messages to prospective students at each stage of their admissions journey. College-aged students may be inundated with communications and messages from many institutions at one time. It’s therefore important to help your content stand out through personalized persuasion.

Personalization necessitates having a more complete understanding about the individual student. This requires reliable, organized data that helps you deliver better messages in response. 

Personalized marketing is built upon having a working relationship with a prospective student, and it goes beyond simply treating that student as a number in line.

Build efforts around the student (not around your school) 

Higher education consulting firm EAB reveals that future students are 50% more likely to respond to recruitment initiatives when the content is student-focused, rather than centered on the school itself. Maintaining a student-centric focus can significantly change the trajectory of a marketing plan or brand strategy, and its impacts are significant.

Modern students want to be able to see themselves as a thriving member of a college community. When most of the information they receive is only about the school, some of that personal visualization is lost. 

Adapting messages to focus on the student’s needs, goals, and academic objectives can make enrollment seem more enticing and plausible. 

Four students looking at their cell phones with chat bubbles.

How to Connect With Gen-Z Students

Gen Z expects brands to communicate with them like they know who they are. Why should colleges and universities be an exception? Learn how to create personalized campaigns at scale with this guide.

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See the big picture within your target audience

To stop declining enrollment in its tracks, make efforts to include more than just the student in your marketing and recruitment initiatives. This means that you should produce and publish content that also speaks to families, parents, and guardians.

By adding these members to your campaigns, you’ll be able to better capitalize on the influence of the most important individuals in a student’s life. Parents are a dominant force in helping new students consider a college degree, complete required processes, and make eventual enrollment decisions.

Meet students where they are—on mobile

The modern student admissions journey should be viewed as a multi-channel process. Potential students are on-the-go and mobile, and this means that your marketing messages and administrative processes need to be similar. 

Remove roadblocks to enrollment by designing and optimizing all processes for mobile device compatibility. This includes allowing students the ability to learn, apply, and register via mobile channels.

Particularly for students wishing to enroll in online programs, the age of paper and in-person processes is a thing of the past.

How Element 451 Can Help with University Enrollment Decline

To reverse the trend of declining enrollment, modern higher ed institutions need contemporary and competitive tools. 

A comprehensive data platform like Element451 can help schools build better engagement by putting people first—a proven strategy for increasing enrollment, regardless of the current enrollment forecast.

Features like personalized marketing campaigns, automated student experiences, prospect nurturing, and actionable insights make it easy to quickly understand what’s working and what isn’t. 

With clear and transparent data, enrollment and recruiting professionals can combat declining enrollment while adhering to better industry standards.

Beat the Enrollment Decline this Year

Despite current data and trends, it’s important to note that millions of young adults are still actively pursuing new college degrees every single semester. The opportunities for enrollment growth are present, but it requires time and investment to create positive changes along the path to educational attainment.

Don’t take chances on your enrollment and recruitment strategies this year. Book a free Element451 demo today to start your journey towards student-centered enrollment planning.


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