June 15

The Demographic Enrollment Cliff: Forecasting the Great Dropoff


by | Jun 15, 2023 | Featured, Strategies, Podcast

The proof is in the data pudding: higher education is racing towards a demographic enrollment cliff over the next few decades. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should despair. There is hope during days of declining enrollment!

However, we should be sober in assessing the demographic reality of our country and the effects it will have on enrollment marketing. 

Due to ethnic, lifestyle, or regional indicators, hundreds of colleges and universities could be facing a long-term enrollment crisis.

Tim Fuller helps us prepare for the inevitable demographic enrollment cliff. Tim Fuller, Founder of Fuller Higher Ed Solutions, thinks schools need to get back to the basics and be intentional in their recruiting efforts if they want to survive.

In our conversation on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast, Tim suggests schools can’t go on with business as usual, and that starts with utilizing your data to come up with creative, strategic solutions. 

The WICHE Data

So where can you go to get the demographic data you need to make good decisions? 

Tim started off our conversation on the demographic enrollment cliff by explaining the data source every college or university should be looking into. 

The best source I found for looking at what this demographic enrollment cliff looks like is the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (wiche.edu) and their periodic publication called Knocking at the College Door

When you go to that publication, what it allows you to do is pull up your state or your region—or for campuses that have more of a national footprint, you can look at things nationally—and look [at the data around] birth rates, migration and so on. 

[In their publications, WICHE is] projecting high school graduates out to 2037. It’s helpful data to look at to get kind of a general picture of what your state looks like. 

But the WICHE data also goes deeper than that and breaks down those projections by the ethnic background of the projected high school graduates.

For example, you might look at a state and [not see a] demographic cliff at all. [It might] look fairly stable out to 2037. But that state also might see that the Caucasian graduates projected are in a steep decline and the Hispanic graduates are in a quite vigorous ascent. 

So if you are a campus that has not been particularly successful in attracting and serving the Hispanic population, you can’t look at the overall projection and go, “Oh, we’re fine.”

You really have to go deeper and look at that [ethnic] breakdown [in order to] be ready not only to attract, but to serve an increasingly diverse student body well, so that you’re ready to maintain your enrollment numbers, if not try and grow them. 

As you can see, this is some very helpful data to be looking at for us as education marketers and also the budget and program planners on staff.

The data on the WICHE site can help you plan for the demographic enrollment cliff.

Source: wiche.edu

Analyzing the data is the first step. Then, you’ve got to begin to answer the all-important question of “Now what?”

Teaming Up to Avoid the Demographic Enrollment Cliff

To answer the “Now what?” question, you might start off with an all-hands-on-deck brainstorming meeting.

But Tim gives a different kind of advice that I think is much more effective in the long-term.

Not everything is fixed by meetings. 

However, I do think it’s important for there to be a strong working relationship between the enrollment team and the marketing team. 

Regardless of what the org chart says about who reports to whom, there needs to be a strong working relationship so that there’s good learning from each other and good cooperation when it comes to the need to pivot.

[For example,] if we need to pivot in some way toward attracting post traditional learners, and that’s never been a priority for us, how do we do that? 

In some cases, it might require those important professionals in both of those offices to learn some things together about some new ways of doing things. 

If we are facing a demographic enrollment cliff and the supply side of prospective students on the traditionals will be less, then we better be intentional, sharp, focused, and strategic in the way we go about recruiting whatever’s left. 

[In order to be focused and strategic,] we need to make sure that these two partners, enrollment and marketing, are together on the same page.

Now, sometimes [enrollment and marketing] need to team together [and push back on] the other people on campus who would say, “Oh, no! That’s not the most important thing,” whether it’s advancement or the academic side of the house, or whatever it would be. 

So I think that partnership is vital for a whole bunch of reasons. 

One of the most important roles of a chief enrollment officer is bridge builder. 

You have got to be regularly building those bridges and walking across them to your internal partners on campus.

As a higher ed marketer, I’ve continued to learn a lot, because I listen to the people who are doing enrollment. 

It’s that partnership that will drive a lot of the things we need to do to pivot during this impending demographic enrollment cliff and the ways that we need to engage with one another.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Tim Fuller to get even more insights into:

  • A long-term projection for the demographic enrollment cliff (5:58)
  • The Great Resignation’s impact on college campuses (24:10)
  • 5 enrollment metrics your school needs to watch (33:58)

Tim Fuller helps us prepare for the inevitable demographic enrollment cliff. This post is dedicated to the loving memory of Tim Fuller, who sadly passed away in his sleep on the morning of June 9th, 2023. As a leader in Christian higher education, trailblazer, storyteller, and family man, Tim’s profound impact and cherished friendship will be deeply missed.

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