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The data behind higher education enrollment trends

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” - Sherlock Holmes

The wise words of Sherlock Holmes are never more applicable than in the marketing industry. Often marketers leap to conclusions, whipping out a template-based strategy that chases the latest website trend or the hottest social media platform. But what is the marketing activity based on? What drives the actions? Before you can properly build a plan, you have to step back and take a big picture view of what’s happening in postsecondary education.

Higher Education Enrollment Trends

The biggest trend that needs to be addressed is the decline in enrollment. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “In spring 2017, overall postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.5 percent from the previous spring.”

This figure shows the decline across sectors over the past several semesters (measured fall-to-fall and spring-to-spring).

 image of declining higher education enrollment trends

Four-Year For-Profit schools have been hit the hardest. By contrast, Four-Year Public schools actually saw a slight increase. However, that doesn’t mean that all is well, even for those institutions. These are important signals in the overall industry trends that every school should be paying attention to.

Colleges are missing the enrollment mark

In other research, by May 1st, “Only 34 percent of colleges met new student enrollment targets this year.” To some colleges, this is disappointing, but not devastating — something to be corrected moving forward. But to many colleges, it feels like it’s time to hit the panic button. But let’s dig a little deeper. What’s behind the decline?

Fewer potential students means lower enrollment

According to Hechinger Report, there were 2.4 million fewer students enrolled in the Spring semester of 2017 than there were just a few years ago in 2011, when enrollment hit its peak. This is attributed to several factors including lower birthrates, fewer students graduating high school and more young adults being pulled into the workforce. Are there other contributing factors? Likely. Unfortunately, according to Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, there isn’t expected to be an uptick in college enrollment until 2023, meaning colleges will have to deal with a smaller potential student pool in the immediate future.

The data is clear. Postsecondary institutions are facing significant challenges. What options do colleges have?

Lowering costs isn’t enough

Many colleges have resorted to lowering costs to entice more enrollees, however, this strategy is probably not enough. According to Hechinger Report, a survey by National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) found that 58 percent of institutions relying on reduced tuition saw no increase in enrollment while some institutions actually suffered decreases.

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Intelligent marketing offers hope

If the data is certain about declining enrollment. Lowering costs probably isn’t enough. There are fewer available students and industry-wide pressure is leading to increased competition. The outlook sounds bleak, but it also presents an opportunity for intelligent marketers to shine. Sure, there isn’t a simple answer. However, start with a clear understanding of the audience your school is trying to reach and what their buying behaviors are. From there, a clear, measurable strategy can be developed and executed.

To learn more about an effective, measureable strategy for colleges and universities, download our eBook, “Inbound Marketing for Higher Education.”



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