Areas Colleges and Universities Should Explore to Boost Enrollment Growth

Like many industries in the United States, higher education has felt the pressure of rising costs and wages, labor challenges, and increased competition. Coupling that with declining numbers of students going straight from high school to college1, a high number of students starting college but stopping1, declining completion rates, and a volatile economy, it’s no surprise that the topic of enrollment challenges is top of mind for higher education professionals—and have been for some time.  

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported in February 2023 that although fall undergraduate enrollment started to stabilize in 2022 as compared to fall 2021 (down only 0.06%), postsecondary enrollment in 2022 was far below pre-pandemic levels:

  • Undergraduate enrollment was down 1.23 million from 2019.
  • Graduate enrollment was down 1.11 million from 2019.
  • Freshman enrollment was down 150,000 from 2019.

It’s a situation that has higher education institutions concerned for good reason. Community colleges have been hit hardest1, but it seems that the challenges are widespread. Some experts suggest that today’s generation is discerning about the college investment and questioning its importance.1 In addition, higher education leaders and analysts are predicting a college “enrollment cliff” starting in 2025, due to lower U.S. birthrates during the Great Recession. 2

Fresh Approaches Are a Must 

Forward-thinking institutions realize that confronting enrollment challenges is essential. That means identifying opportunities to grow the applicant pool and expand their program offerings and cater to a more diverse student population: different demographics, people in different areas of the country, and people in different stages of their lives.

Here are several areas that enrollment teams at colleges and universities should explore for growth potential:

1. Partnerships with professional development teams in companies

Professionals today often seek to improve themselves by expanding their knowledge in their chosen field. That might be through attending conferences and workshops or in-house training, but professional development programs are an area of opportunity for colleges and universities. Partnering with companies ensures their specific goals and needs are met, but an institution might also develop offerings based on leading industries in their geographic area. For employers, professional development is a recruitment and retention tool. For colleges, it’s an opportunity to expand their offerings and create potential pathways of transfer credits into their degree programs. In 2022, Amazon expanded its Career Choice program in the U.S. to pre-pay college tuition for employees at hundreds of education partners across the country—for associate and bachelor’s degrees, but also industry certifications. Guild is a “career opportunity platform” that connects employees with education and skills training programs, and companies like Lowe’s, Chipotle, and The Walt Disney Company give employees full or partial tuition coverage for associate and bachelor’s degrees, certificates, certifications and more at a long list of institutions, including the University of Arizona, Excelsior University, Yale University Online Executive Education, Oregon State University and Purdue University Global.  

2. Collaborative solutions with organizations in need

Many industries today are facing critical shortages of qualified workers. One example is health care, which was in crisis even before the pandemic worsened the problem. The current and future need for professionals from nurses to physicians to emergency medical professionals has given rise to educational partnerships between health systems and higher education institutions, like Emerge Education’s collaboration with Harrisburg University of Science and Technology to develop employees of UPMC and encourage Cumberland Valley High School students to earn certificates in areas such as such as Medical Assistant, Phlebotomy Technician and Surgical Technologist. There is room for more such partnerships. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing reports that demand for baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs remains high, and 76,140 qualified applications were not accepted at schools of nursing in 2021. Similarly, different areas of the country have challenges to address—such as worker shortages in various industries—that might spark ideas for co-created educational programs.

3. Programs for adult learners

The evolution of online learning opened up a world of opportunity for all students seeking postsecondary education. From busy full-time professionals entrenched in careers who are now seeking graduate degrees or professional certificates to those who didn’t complete or pursue bachelor’s degrees out of high school, adult learners are a ripe audience for colleges and universities seeking to expand enrollment.  The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 49% of all students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions were 22 or older—a number that is projected to increase to 51% by fall 2031.

4. Online programs for adult learners or traditional-age students from nontraditional backgrounds

Adult learners require flexibility due to their other life responsibilities, making online programs a natural fit, but students of all ages seek exclusively online programs as well. And McKinsey’s analysis of Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) total enrollment data showed that while the overall market for degree programs decreased 3% from 2019 to 2020, four of the largest open-access online education providers grew their enrollment by 11%.

5. Through alumni networks

Alumni are an important source of marketing for colleges and universities. Geographic areas with higher concentrations of alumni are ideal for further market research to determine whether the right number of prospects are there for further marketing and recruiting efforts.

6. Existing programs

While it’s wise to explore new opportunities and markets, every college and university should evaluate their existing portfolios as well. Are certain programs being under-supported or marketed poorly? Are the systems in place to make a program successful if given the right attention? Are your graduates leaving with the necessary skills to succeed in the workforce? An institution’s existing portfolio might very well be the least expensive but most impactful growth space.

View Our Webinar on New Markets to Boost Enrollment 

LeadSquared was recently joined by higher education enrollment and digital strategy leaders from National Louis University, American College of Education, Loyola Marymount University and Butler University to discuss enrollment challenges confronting colleges and universities today. This webinar, New Markets to Boost Enrollment, offered ideas from these colleges and universities about:  

  • New marketing and recruitment strategies 
  • What has worked well (and what’s been less effective) 
  • Tactics to promote both enrollment and retention 
  • How technology can foster student success 

Watch the webinar replay for an insightful conversation about expanding into new markets, identifying opportunities to encourage new demographics of students to pursue higher education, and diversifying enrollment.

Discover the complete higher education CRM to manage student admissions, LeadSquared. Book a demo to learn how LeadSquared can help you:  

  • Empower your admissions team to work smarter and get more done. 
  • Optimize the student experience to increase enrollments.
  • Simplify your IT demands to slash costs. 



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