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.
Higher education is misunderstood and struggling financially, but the majority of college and university presidents are increasingly confident that their institutions are financially stable. These seemingly contradictions were found in Inside Higher Education’s annual survey of 706 campus leaders.
Let’s set aside the obvious political concerns among presidents about the Trump Administration or the selection of the new U.S. Education Secretary that underscored many of the questions put to the presidents in the IHE survey, which was conducted in January and early February.
It’s really too soon to tell what the new policies will be toward higher education or what rollbacks of disliked Obama Administration programs and dictates are likely to occur. President Trump has paid scant attention to higher education during the election, the transition, and the first months of his tenure.
The higher education community will have a lot to say as positions and platforms become clearer. But these comments should be seasoned and informed after the fact and not anticipate the best hopes or worst fears before the first steps occur.
The findings that address the climate facing American higher education are the most fascinating.
Disconnect Between Academe and Much of American Society
Perhaps the most interesting finding is that the “2016 election exposed a disconnect between academe and much of American society.” Seventy percent of the presidents sense a growing level of anti-intellectualism in American life. Two-thirds of the presidents agreed that campus protests created optics that the American public interpreted as unfriendly to conservative views.
The presidents were especially concerned that the current political climate works against consensus views on science, including but not limited to areas like climate change.
A majority of the presidents agreed that higher education suffered badly in public perceptions, including in areas like campus diversity and inclusion. They believed that campus racial unrest “led many prospective students and families to think colleges are less welcoming of diverse populations than is really the case.”
Campus Leaders Frustrated with Media Focus on Wealthy, Elite Schools
These concerns extend to the heart of the higher education enterprise. Eighty-four percent believe, for example, that media attention to the rising levels of student debt makes a college education seem less affordable than it actually is. These presidents are also frustrated by the media obsession with a few institutions with large endowments that paints all colleges as wealthy when in fact most of them are not. The majority of presidents also agree that the construction of Taj Mahal-like facilities in rising competitive consumer wars contributes to these perceptions.
In addition, the presidents were concerned about the attitudinal gulf between their concentration on students as individuals who graduate as educated citizens and the “graduates as workforce” focus of most of American society.
Alison Kadlek, senior vice president and director of higher education and workforce engagement in higher education at Public Agenda, notes in the IHE survey release: “What we’re hearing is that the tight connection between education and socioeconomic mobility has been weakened for the public, and confidence in college as a certain path to economic security is waning….”
In other areas, there were signs of improving perceptions. Public college and university presidents were increasingly confident, for example, in the financial stability of their institutions. But among the uncertainties and anxieties faced, the one dominant feature remains a weakening public perception of American higher education.
Leaders Have Not Made Strong Enough Case for Value of Higher Education
One lesson seems obvious from the IHE’s survey. American higher education is not building a case that is sufficient – or, more troubling, even compelling — for the role it plays in American society.
Higher education leadership has failed to capture the narrative succinctly to explain the value proposition to American families and their children, politicians, business leaders, and the wider public.
The belief in the bedrock principle that higher education is the best path into the middle class seems increasingly at risk.
Leadership carries with it considerable risk. But if America’s colleges and universities lose control of their own narrative, they subject themselves to a broad-brush analysis that no longer resonates with key stakeholders, like the American families upon whom they depend for tuition and other means of support. Higher education also runs the risk of being painted less than comprehensively, defined instead by one issue or perception rather than the whole of its parts.
In a sense, the best solution is to violate the principle that all politics is local by thinking about how to craft perceptions beyond the college gates.
While it is heartening to articulate a series of high road value statements about the lasting importance of a college education that will always ring true, the message must also account for the realities that colleges and universities face in the 21st century.
In today’s climate, it may be as critical to stress how colleges and universities transform lives, meet workforce needs, and shape the development of American society as to rely on older arguments about educated citizens.
The goal is the same. It’s just that the language needs to be re-imagined and re-stated more clearly.