Scott Jaschik recently interpreted the findings from the 2017 Survey of Admission Directors, sponsored by Inside Higher Education and Gallup and drawn from a sample of 453 admission directors. While the full discussion of these findings is too complex for this space, the general conclusions, especially those specific to enrollment patterns, are telling.
Nearly two-thirds of colleges missed enrollment targets
The most startling finding is that “only 34 percent of colleges met new student enrollment targets this year by May 1, the traditional date by which most institutions hope to have a class set.” This number is down from 37 percent a year ago and 42 percent two years ago.
At the public doctoral institutions, the story was a bit more rosy, but even there only 59 percent of the institutions met their May 1 enrollment target. Only 22 percent of public/bachelor’s/master’s institutions, 27 percent of community colleges, and 36 percent of private colleges and universities met their May enrollment targets.
This is a growing issue since most colleges and universities are heavily dependent on tuition revenue; hence, the size of the incoming and returning classes directly impacts their financial bottom line.
Admissions leaders see fundamental shift in enrollment trends
The reaction of admissions leaders is especially interesting. For this year, 55 percent said that they were very concerned while 30 percent said they were somewhat concerned. This number increased slightly from the 54 percent who were very concerned a year ago and more dramatically from the 31 percent who expressed deep concern two years ago.
There seems to be a growing recognition that the numbers will not support older, more favorable patterns of enrollment. In short, admission officers understand that something fundamental has changed.
That’s a good beginning for those worried about how demographics, consumer whim, political expediency, sticker price, tuition discounting, and retention and graduation rates intersect to produce this softness in the market.
The IHE/Gallup survey also looked at how colleges and universities are reacting to this softness, asking about the tools that admissions officials will use to strengthen their market share. Among the key findings:
- Many colleges, especially private institutions, appear to be focusing recruiting strategies on students with the capacity to pay full tuition and fees.
- In the realm of international student recruiting, many say that American higher education has become too dependent on students from a few countries, but most admissions directors don’t think that’s true of their institutions.
- While most colleges don’t check applicants’ social media, some do — and some applicants are being rejected or having acceptances revoked because of their posts.
- Officials at many colleges, more public than private, say they are stepping up recruitment of rural and low-income white students in the wake of the election, and a small minority of colleges is stepping up recruitment of conservative students.
- Admissions directors strongly believe that higher education has an image problem with ramifications for enrollment patterns — and that image problem may be the worst for liberal arts colleges.
- Admissions directors — from both public and private institutions — believe they are losing potential applicants because of concerns about debt. But private and public college admissions leaders differ on how much debt is reasonable.
- The idea of free tuition in public higher education is seen by most private college admissions directors as a threat to their institutions. While admissions directors in public higher education are more open to the idea, they have areas of skepticism as well.
Enrollment solutions being considered are incremental, not systemic
What’s striking about the tools employed by the admissions officials is that they are tactical and incremental. Those surveyed do not appreciate that the solution must be more comprehensive and linked to a broader view of how higher education must adapt to the complex intersection of the changes that are buffeting it. Their solutions are scattershot and more like a band-aid applied to surface wounds, with no apparent connection among the challenges and opportunities that American higher education faces.
The problem is simple to diagnose. America’s colleges and universities utilize operating and financial models developed in the 1960s and 1970s that no longer work for them.
It was possible to disguise the growing crisis now affecting higher education when improving demographics, state and federal government policy, and a simple “revenue must meet expense” financial accounting successfully disguised what was coming. The assumption was that rising family incomes would overcome recessions and any attempt to cap revenue built into older tuition models. But the global economy has changed and the path ahead is far less certain.
That’s not to say that the sky is falling on America’s colleges and universities.
Each institution must find its own unique solution because their historic circumstances, market positions, and financial resources differ.
It is a call for action. The trustees, administrators and faculty must have the stamina to lead through creative solutions and at a faster pace than the incremental changes suggested by the IHE survey.
Brandon Busteed, the executive director for education and workforce development at Gallup, wrote a stimulating and thought provoking op ed earlier this month. The article’s title captured Busteed’s summary opinion: It’s Time for Elite Universities to Lead in Non-Elite Ways.
Mr. Busteed argued that America’s colleges and universities have traditionally followed the lead of America’s most elite institutions, an approach he argues has produced an “arms race of extensive new facilities, substantial growth in administrative staff, and the expansion of postgraduate degrees and programs.”
Citing the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Busteed reports that these trends caused 30 years of unprecedented growth in tuition rising “more than 400 % since the early 1980s and far outpac(ing) the cost increases of all other goods and services during the same time frame.” Busteed concludes, rightly so, that the pace is unsustainable.
For Mr. Busteed, the solution is for elite institutions to lead in non-elite ways. This does not mean simply ratcheting up financial aid since more aid is not the same as reducing costs. Instead, he asserts: “the real conversation should be about how to reduce the actual cost of college – and that is the difficult conversation higher education leaders don’t want to have.”
His solution is for elite colleges and universities to both talk the talk and walk the walk. Specifically, they should offer “associate degrees, certifications, non-accredited boot camps, employer- or industry-specific workforce programs, and even build…active partnerships with their local K-12 school districts.” He wonders “whether elites will have the foresight and the will to lead us in that direction.”
Change Often Moves at Snail’s Pace Especially at Elite Colleges and Universities
First, Mr. Busteed is right to infer that America’s colleges and universities are often places of cultural inertia. On most college campuses, process overrides other considerations. Shared governance among trustees, staff, and faculty often produces thoughtful change.
But change can move at a snail’s pace, especially at the handful of well-heeled elite colleges and universities relatively unconstrained by financial, political, or cultural pressures.
It’s a kind of “rule by committee” at times in which winning the debate can be as important as settling on the policy direction. The process can look more like the production of sausage even if the end result is appealing.
Less Wealthy Colleges & Universities Often Most Innovative
Second, change is hard. But the advocates for change face unique and idiosyncratic differences on every campus. Rather than argue that less wealthy colleges follow the elites, it may be just the opposite.
Under-endowed colleges and universities are the most willing to make change. Simply put, they have no choice.
These institutions are tuition-dependent and their survival requires some mix of planning, gambling, and luck. American higher education is not a monolithic pecking order in which the less fortunate emulate the wealthy. Those days ended in the last century when financial aid discounting disrupted archaic financial planning models to produce the current financial crisis in higher education.
Third, American higher education is highly decentralized. Expanding graduate and professional degree programs means very different things at a major research university compared to a rural, four-year liberal arts college. Further, colleges identify what they do and what programs they offer by their mission and purpose. Each category – indeed, every college and university – has a different purpose. Not all of them train America’s workforce in the same way or contribute to local and regional economic development in lock step.
Active Community Partnerships are Part of Most Colleges and Universities
Fourth, it is wrong to assert that colleges and universities are failing to build active community partnerships. In fact, most of America’s colleges and universities are eager and integrated community participants, deeply involved in basic education locally, and active in promoting regional, social, cultural, and economic initiatives.
Where would West Philadelphia be, for example, without the decades-long work of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University in their local community? There are hundreds of these examples across America.
That’s not to say that America’s colleges and universities must not evolve to match their programs to develop the workforce and assist in economic development based on the pressing needs their regions face.
In fact, the mission and purpose of any institution must always reflect the society that surrounds it. Yet these institutions must also help set the agenda for where society will head.
Colleges & Universities Must Plan Individually and Act Collectively
It’s not enough to follow the trends sanctioned by the actions of elite institutions. It’s critical to have the courage to lead locally based on what challenges face them at home. To do so, America’s colleges and universities must plan individually and act collectively.
Higher education is not a monolithic industry with a defined and inflexible pecking order but a collection of decentralized colleges and universities – large and small – that reflect the genius, strengths, and pitfalls of 400 years of history.
America’s colleges must find new ways — and new words — to describe their importance and differentiate more sharply their contributions to society. But the pronouncements and policies of a handful of elite colleges and universities is only one place among many from which the majority of higher education’s institutions can find and refine their future.