Dec 21 2023

The Enrollment Cliff: How Technology Can Help Higher Education Confront It

Finding ways to convince students of the value of a college education is the single biggest challenge universities face today.

In the past, it was a rite of passage: Students graduated high school and enjoyed a final summer at home before heading out to the next stop on their educational journey. For many, college wasn’t a matter of whether they would attend but where they would go.

Now, economic uncertainty, fears about diminishing returns on their tuition and other investments, increased opportunities to work in the trades, and other factors have experts warning about a coming enrollment cliff for higher education institutions around the country.

The phenomenon starts with the financial crisis of 2008 and relates to the birth rate of American children, which peaked around that time. Fast-forward 18 or so years, and higher education observers who have spent the past three years enduring a pandemic-related enrollment plunge can’t rest easy, even as those particular enrollment drops have stabilized.

In just a few years — as early as 2025 or 2026 — higher education enrollment could experience another steep drop-off. And while pandemic-era enrollment dips helped contribute to the closure of a handful of universities, a sustained decrease in enrollment at the bottom of the cliff could trigger an existential crisis for many more institutions.

“Students are anxious about the cost of college and the horror stories of student loan debt. The idea of ROI is the strongest it’s been for the generation entering college age. There are a few factors contributing,” says Elaine Rubin, director of corporate communications at Edvisors. “Families are more in tune with the fact that financial aid may not be enough to make college affordable.”

RELATED: Learn how technology infrastructure can keep up with rising HBCU enrollment.

Results of a new survey by Niche, which gathered insights from over 24,000 U.S. high school seniors for an inside look at the college search and admissions process, point to additional challenges that may push kids toward alternative postsecondary plans:

  • Ninety-six percent of students said they faced challenges in the search and application process, specifically choosing where to apply, writing essays, paying application fees and coordinating campus visits.
  • Less than a quarter of students said they were confident that they could afford college.
  • Interest in enrolling farther than two hours away from home is on the decline, potentially pointing to financial concerns with enrolling at out-of-state schools.

Some education leaders are already seeing these student sentiments have a real-world impact.

“Every university in the U.S. is already feeling the effects of the enrollment cliff. As a result, a number of the smaller and less well-endowed institutions will close their doors or merge with other universities in the coming years,” says Shai Reshef, president of the online University of the People.

Reshef believes the universities that survive the plunge will be those that can “utilize technology to reduce their operating costs and expand access especially to nontraditional students, such as working adults and single parents.”

Here are four more ways higher education institutions can adapt technology to fight the enrollment cliff.

1. Steer Even More into Online Instructional Opportunities

COVID-19 got us started, but to survive the enrollment cliff, Reshef says universities must push even further into using technology to expand online learning opportunities.

“Universities need to attract and serve more nontraditional students, such as adult learners, working parents, underserved minorities, rural students and military members, to supplement the declining numbers of traditional-age college students,” he says. “Online education opportunities can better serve those student populations, increasing access and likelihood of enrollment.”

Universities that can ensure a plethora of online learning options are available, not just for graduate or specialized courses and tracks, are well positioned for the future.

LEARN MORE: Can technology help community colleges avoid the enrollment cliff?

2. Launch Qualified Students into the Workforce Sooner

Four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars can seem like a far-off dream for some students. So, some higher education leaders are looking to solutions that will get college students credentialed sooner in ways that lead to meaningful employment earlier on. Mark Leuba, vice president at 1EdTech, is working to build an ecosystem where microcredentialing is the norm.

Leuba forecasts that “digital wallets” full of these verified credentials will make for more employment opportunities going forward, calling it an increasingly emerging solution. In addition to offering decentralized identification, this would push institutions to not limit learning within the confines of four-year degrees.

“Learning is going to happen in many different environments, and we need to go up a level to develop solutions from the individual’s point of view, not the point of view of the school,” Leuba says.

All of this might make universities more competitive when vying for high school seniors who are heading out to get technology credentials that can lead to lucrative jobs, such as cybersecurity roles, much more quickly than a four-year degree.

“The shelf life of a skill now in technology is six to nine months — an incredibly fast pace,” Leuba says. “So, people are pursuing directions that are going to get them into the workforce more quickly, and they are looking for alternatives where the formal degree — an important goal and major milestone and nothing that should be put aside — doesn’t have to be the point at which a person moves into the workforce.”

3. Use Tech to Facilitate More Face-to-Face Interactions

Kyle Jones, chair of the computer science and information technology department at Sinclair Community College, is reading the book Generation Z Goes to College for a reason: He’s learning how to better use enrollment data to help match students with the right programs for their futures.

The biggest thing Gen Z needs, according to Jones, is “face-to-face interaction, where we see most of our growth in enrollment.” 

He hears it from his 4,200 students each year in computer science and IT: They’ll remind him of a personal connection or interaction that motivated them, such as when he came to their high schools to talk to them.

“They want to have a connection, something that makes them feel good about themselves, something that makes them feel like they’re going to make a difference or make some changes,” he says, He says he believes this naturally leads to an interest in cybersecurity careers.

Face-to-face meetings help students make those connections through conversations about why the major matters, he says, “but not until we talk to students are they making the relationship between what they would do and the difference it would make.”

He recommends focusing on the tech solutions needed to facilitate the right meetings between the right people. 

4. Use the Application Process to Select Students Based on Fit

To truly overcome a massive evolution in how and why students apply to college, Andrew Wheatley, director of curriculum for grades 7-12 at Lakota Local School District in Ohio, says that there also needs to be a paradigm shift.

“I have thought for years that the way students pick colleges is backward. Students shouldn’t choose colleges; colleges should choose students, more similar to sports,” he says. “Students put together a resume and portfolio and enter it into a clearinghouse. Then, colleges send students proposals for why they should pick that college. Students choose from the proposals they get.”

There are so many good schools out there that kids never hear about, and that can mean missing a great fit and possibly scholarship money, he says.

Though no technology system exists right now to support his idea, the future might call for it as the enrollment cliff approaches. Wheatley says that if there is a potential void and therefore opportunity, universities and technology companies are likely to explore ways to fill it as the enrollment cliff approaches.

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