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March 20

The Enrollment Cliff: A Call to Action for Higher Education


Since the pandemic, I’ve heard a lot of chatter about the impending “enrollment cliff.”

Prevailing projections imply that higher ed institutions will see a significant decline in new students after 2025. So what’s the worst-case scenario for enrollment marketing teams?

I was part of a compelling conversation with Tim Fuller, Founder of Fuller Higher Ed Solutions, about this subject on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast. He pointed out some sobering data from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).

The 10th edition of their Knocking at the College Door report predicts that most U.S. states will see a significant enrollment dropoff by 2037. Some states could see enrollment dip by as much as 24 percent.

I’m stopping short of pulling the alarm, but to say that college and university administrations should be concerned would be an understatement.

As of 2021, 70 American institutions shut their doors over a 5-year window (I think many of my readers should also note that nearly half of those schools were faith-based). So schools are already feeling mounting pressure to justify their value, and the enrollment cliff is still over the horizon line.

This is an opportunity for higher ed marketers to take the lead in clarifying their school’s value proposition. They can do so by articulating their brand messaging to attract mission-fit students.

I’ll discuss how higher ed marketing teams should prepare for the enrollment cliff, but first, let’s address why it’s happening.

What’s Causing the Enrollment Cliff?

In early March, Fortune published a blistering article about the ongoing labor shortage in 2023 that included several disquieting interviews with recent high school graduates.

Among growing concerns over student debt and cost of living increases was a troubling theme of high schoolers who felt disenfranchised during the pandemic. Remote learning forced many prospective college students to fend for themselves in navigating applications and degree programs without the usual support from counselors and teachers.

Even more worrying is a joint study by the Associated Press and Stanford University that determined over 200,000 students disappeared from the public school system during the pandemic’s peak. That tally accounts for elementary and high school children who switched to private education or homeschooling.

Yet, despite its fallout, it would be irresponsible to lay the enrollment cliff issue solely at the feet of the pandemic. Covid is merely another symptom of the dropoff, not the cause. The signs pointed to a crisis long before the illness gripped the world.

So let’s hop in our time machine to give the enrollment cliff some historical context.

Falling Birth Rates

In late 2019, months before the pandemic kicked off, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) published an insightful article regarding the falling U.S. birthrate.

Data traced a significant decline in births to the Great Recession in 2008. Economic uncertainty had gripped American households, and they were planning their families’ futures accordingly.

However, CUPA-HR’s findings confirmed an unfortunate reality: while the economy eventually rebounded, the national birthrate did not.

So what is the result? Over the next decade, the number of 18-year-old Americans will peak in 2025 at about 9.4 million. That number will then free fall year over year.

In 2029, the U.S. will have about 8.05 million 18-year-olds. That is nearly a 15 percent decrease from 2025.

This decline in our young adult population won’t just impact higher education. Our already struggling workforce will also shrink, and labor competition will be fierce. Therefore, schools must understand what they will be up against as the traditional student pool wanes.

Other Demographic Shifts

As the consequences of our dwindling student population become apparent, particular geographical regions will feel the brunt of the enrollment cliff.

In the conversation I referenced earlier, Tim made an astute observation about WICHE’s findings specific to some areas of the country:

“Those of us who live in states where cold temperatures and snow are a regular thing, generally speaking, our projections are not looking so good. An interesting contrast would be to look at the differences [among] Illinois, Michigan, and Texas. In Illinois and Michigan, you see a fairly steady decline over this period of time — not so much a cliff, but a decline. Whereas in Texas, you see some fairly robust growth and some really interesting things happening when you look at the ethnic breakdown as well.”
— Tim Fuller, Founder of Fuller Higher Ed Solutions

As you can see in WICHE’s map below, the data backs up Tim’s statement. Assuming we don’t see another black swan event like Covid, every state in New England and the upper Midwest can expect a substantial decline in enrollment across their institutions. Meanwhile, the state of Florida will see its student population increase by 18 percent from now through 2037.

Projected percentage change state map

There are a few notable deviations from the climate factor. For instance, you may have noticed the considerable spike in North Dakota’s expected enrollments despite being a rural cold weather state. However, that projection is primarily due to a booming Asian-American population, from which many prospective students will likely enroll in local colleges and universities.

While the enrollment cliff is a national problem, higher ed marketing teams must understand how outlying factors will impact your state or region for better or worse. That means crunching data and narrowing your target audience.

Steering Clear of the Enrollment Cliff

We’re a few years away from the enrollment cliff coming into view, but it will jolt many ill-prepared colleges and universities.

Yet there are some basic strategies your school’s marketing team can — and absolutely should — implement right now to soften the landing when the time comes.

Refine Your Watering Holes

Like the life-giving pit stops on the African Savanna where multitudes of different animals congregate, marketing teams can find their target audiences across digital and physical “watering holes.”

A common misplay I see in digital marketing, especially among smaller institutions, is schools trying to be everything for everyone all at once. Believe me when I say your enrollment efforts won’t gain traction by simply shouting your brand’s message from the rooftops.

It is more important than ever for colleges and universities to plant their flag in the ground and find their community niche. 

Determine where your mission-fit students like to hang out and revise your comm flow accordingly.

Invest in Non-Traditional Students

As the high school graduate supply diminishes, nontraditional students will become the new bread and butter for many schools.

Hopefully, you’re already investing in online learning initiatives and international admissions. If not, you must make nontraditional messaging a core of your enrollment marketing strategy.

Also, encourage your administration to review your school program offerings and class schedules and determine their viability for working adult learners. As more employed students pursue higher education, you must ensure your curriculums work around their time.

Reinforce Your Enrollment Marketing Pillars

The more things change, the more some stay the same.

Despite the unique challenges the enrollment cliff presents, your survival will hinge on fortifying the three pillars of your marketing strategy:

  1. An enrollment-focused website — Your school website is your most critical marketing asset. Ask yourself what your prospective student looks like and tailor your website to meet the needs of that audience. That means answering their questions!
  2. Effective content — Generate content that provides value. Again, consider what information your top-of-the-funnel prospects are seeking. Bridge an emotional connection through authentic storytelling that answers specific questions.
  3. Lead generation — Once you’ve made those connections through your website and content, you must strengthen those relationships with prospective students. Be intentional in following up with leads and give them a clear call to action.

These pillars are meant to support your enrollment marketing strategy as a unit, so don’t neglect one by forcing all your resources into another. The good news is that as groundbreaking technology like regenerative AI continues to evolve, your content marketing efforts will become that much more efficient.

The Enrollment Cliff is an Opportunity

A good number of college and university administrations are anxious about the future of higher education. That’s understandable, but the enrollment cliff isn’t a death sentence.

Higher education survived a pandemic that shut down the nation’s academic infrastructure with little warning. However, we know the enrollment cliff is coming, so the question is simple.

What do you intend to do about it?

If your higher ed marketing team uses this precious time to pivot and adapt to the challenges ahead, you can carve out a prosperous future for your school.

And if you need some help getting your enrollment cliff strategy off the ground, contact us today! We’d love to help your school move forward with confidence!

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Featured image by Jon via Adobe Stock
Map image via knocking.wiche.edu

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