Advice & News

August 12, 2021

How Leaders Can Face Enrollment Decline


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During 2020, college freshman student enrollment declined by 16 percent and overall enrollment fell by over 560,000 students. Budget deficits totaled more than $120 billion and over 650,000 employees lost their jobs. In addition to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities face continuing challenges in a declining number of high school graduates; changes in the college-going behavior of those who do graduate; public attitudes about college costs and whether college is worth it; family economics and employment; technological requirements for remote learning; reductions in the number of international student applicants; and other threats to enrollment and tuition income.

So, where should campus leaders start in rethinking enrollment management strategies if new student enrollment is likely to stagnate or decline? Well, about 63 percent of the 3.2 million high school graduates aged 16-24 in 2019 were enrolled in higher education. This means that about 1.5 million high school graduates were not enrolled. Since high school graduation is a good indicator of academic potential, these students represent a sizable population of potential students.

Rural communities, in particular, are a potential source of students. As reported by rootEd Alliance, 32 percent of high school students live in rural communities and small towns; only 34 percent of rural youth aged 18-24 are enrolled in post-high school education, yet many are Pell-eligible; less than 30 percent have an associate degree or higher; and less than 5 percent of philanthropic dollars go to meet the needs of rural communities.

From a young age, students in suburban communities and larger cities are encouraged to prepare for and attend college. For rural youth, this is not the case. One reason is that colleges do not recruit them. Yet, 80 percent of the jobs that pay middle-class wages (about $65,000) require post-high education and training. And these communities are in upstate New York and central California as well as in Maine, New Hampshire, Appalachia, and Southwestern Missouri.

The Success for Rural Students and Communities Act was introduced and sponsored by a bipartisan group of Congressmembers. According to reports, the legislation would allow rural communities to design programs to help their young people prepare for college and earn the certificates and degrees that will help them start productive careers and attract entrepreneurs to the communities. This Act is intended to help overcome the poor employment, poverty, and health outcomes in rural counties.

The 2008 Higher Education Act established a grants program for rural-serving higher education institutions (20 U. S. C. Sec. 1161q) but was never funded.

While rural communities are eligible for federal GEAR-UP and TRIO grants for students from low-income families, these programs do not meet the needs of rural students. According to rootEd Alliance, which provides technical assistance to support rural students' college attainment and success, a strong program to support college preparation and attainment in rural communities should include the following elements:

  1. Support students beginning in the critical middle school years and continuing seamlessly through college graduation. Provide college, financial aid, and career counseling. Options include a community college, a four-year college, military service, or technical school.
  2. A variety of eligible applicants to encourage competition, cost-effectiveness, and innovation. Encourage more colleges to recruit and more students to apply.
  3. Adequate funding to support ten high quality grantees in a variety of rural communities across the country. Use these federal funds as matching funds for private donations. Ensure that schools and students have access to broadband.
  4. Dedicated resources to support research on, and dissemination of, practices that are most effective in rural areas for the purpose of continuous program quality improvement. Study and replicate, this is a key to successful programs.
  5. 20 percent non-federal match requirements to provide incentives for greater state, private sector, and philanthropic investment in rural students and communities. Create partnerships with schools, colleges, technical institutes, etc.

In companionship with the proposed Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP) and the Rural Postsecondary and Economic Development Grant Program, the Success for Rural Students and Communities Act will provide the incentives and support for communities, colleges, businesses, and students to join in altering this landscape.

So, college presidents and vice presidents for enrollment management, advocate for the Bill, visit rural and small-town high schools, and partner with the community and local employers. Be "barrier removers." You will have started on a win-win-win solution to enrollment woes.

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