At some point, colleges need to stop blaming the students who sat out the pandemic or the economic factors and social forces buffeting higher education for enrollment losses. Instead, institutions should look at whether the student experience they’re offering and the outcomes they’re promising provide students with a sense of belonging in the classroom and on campus and ultimately a purpose for their education.
Over the last two years, we’ve witnessed a great reassessment going on in the U.S. economy. The pandemic upended our lives, habits, and traditions, including the ways we think about college.
One way is how Gen X parents are thinking about college for their Gen Z kids. A national survey of parents conducted during the pandemic by Gallup and the Carnegie Corporation of New York found that nearly half of parents wished more postsecondary options existed. Even among parents who wanted their children to get a bachelor’s degree, 40 percent were still interested in skills- and work-focused training opportunities. As an attendee at a Chronicle webinar about student recruitment that I moderated last week put it: Colleges need to persuade prospective students to enroll in higher education first then worry about recruiting them to a specific campus.
Second, the labor market has shifted. Employers, including the state of Maryland and Delta Airlines, have dropped degree requirements for some jobs in the last year. Other companies, rather than waiting to offer jobs to college graduates, have flipped the traditional script, and in a war for talent, they’re providing education benefits as part of the job. In other words, work first, then get the degree.
Finally, fresh off the online and hybrid-learning experience of the pandemic, students want flexibility in how they access college. “There are students who believe very strongly that … ‘I should be able to look through the course catalog and decide which ones I take remotely and which ones I take in person,’” Gene Block, chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles, told me last spring. Indeed, one telling number in the clearinghouse data released last week was that undergraduate enrollment among 18- to 20-year-olds at online colleges — which typically enroll working adults — was up 3.2 percent from the previous year.
My research over the last two years has found that without rethinking what is seen right now as an outdated student experience — such day-to-day interactions as classroom learning and navigating campus services — the enrollment losses from the pandemic will become endemic as students feel disconnected and check out. For a sense of what could happen, look to New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the author and journalist Anya Kamenetz reported in her recent book, The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now, that “the collective trauma of the ‘storm kids’ lingered into the next generation.” Even 17 years later, enrollment in the city’s public and community colleges has never recovered to its pre-storm levels.
To ensure that attrition doesn’t happen nationwide, colleges need not only to re-recruit and re-enroll students lost to the pandemic, but also to re-engage students in college now and those in the pipeline to higher education. There is no one single approach to improving the student experience and reversing higher education’s enrollment decline, but here are three strategies for colleges to expand the market for students:
Develop flexible academic programs and offer new credentials. The traditional residential college experience that results in a bachelor’s degree is not going away, but even before the pandemic it wasn’t a market that was growing significantly. Adding new majors or a few online programs are simply tweaks around the edges. Instead, colleges need to create new products that are more flexible in terms of length and place, and appeal to learners whose motivations aren’t driven by that traditional experience. Take, as an example, the University of Minnesota at Rochester’s year-round, two-and-half-year bachelor’s degree in health sciences. Every student in the program is assigned a coach as well as mentor from the Mayo Clinic, and they are offered research experiences, a paid internship at Mayo, and a digital portfolio to track their learning, among other things.
While that program leads to a bachelor’s degree, students also want college-certified credentials that can help them in case they don’t finish the degree or can make the degree itself more valuable immediately. Colleges should offer industry-recognized certificates alongside every bachelor’s degree that certify students have specific, in-demand skills — such as data visualization for history majors or project management for psychology majors. Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute, told me that a certificate in SQL, for instance, can increase the average salary for a marketing manager by $24,000. Paul Quinn College now offers students at each level of their undergraduate career a chance to earn different certificates, such as in Microsoft or in fields like data science. One goal of the program is to give students opportunities in the job market even if they drop out.
Clarify the mission of community colleges and ease the pathway to four-year colleges. Community colleges suffered some of the worst enrollment losses of any sector during the pandemic. While the latest clearinghouse data shows enrollments at two-year colleges have started to rebound, a third of the increase this fall is attributed to 18- to 20-year-olds — some of whom might have started at a four-year college or might want to transfer to one.
The dual purpose of two-year institutions — to provide both technical training and serve as a transfer station — remains a source of tension at many community colleges. The push to increase overall completion rates in higher education has partly undermined the mission of two-year institutions because it has put pressure on the colleges to award students an associate degree without considering whether they were just there to quickly learn a specific skill in a single class, for instance. Meanwhile, when it comes to moving on to a four-year institution, only 31 percent of community-college students ever do, and only about half of those end up with bachelor’s degrees.
More colleges need to do what they have talked about for years: improve credit transfer from community colleges and make the process almost seamless. George Mason University offers automatic admission to qualified students who start at nearby Northern Virginia Community College and gives them a sense of belonging to Mason while they are at the community college by providing access to the university’s classes, athletic events, and computer labs. The university has also aligned the curriculum in dozens of majors to ensure all credits transfer. This fall, enrollment is up slightly at George Mason, and some 66 percent of those new students are transfers.
Stop ignoring K-12. The clearinghouse report found that community-college enrollment also benefited from an 11.5 percent surge through the dual-enrollment of high-school students. Colleges are in K-12 schools whether they want to be or not. And given the severity of learning loss during the pandemic, higher education could improve college readiness and the top of the recruitment funnel by going deeper into middle and high schools with courses that prepare students for college and offer them credits or certificates that can be accepted at that institution years later. Or colleges can establish their own schools, like Arizona State University has done with ASU Digital Prep, a K-12 online school, which can appeal to parents who started home-schooling their children during the pandemic.
Even as colleges try to push their attendance numbers up to pre-pandemic levels, another enrollment challenge looms large on the horizon: the demographic cliff, resulting from an expected peak in high-school graduates in about 2025 or 2026. In the past, higher education has weathered such demographic storms with increased immigration and higher-than-expected high-school graduation rates. They can’t depend on either happening this time around. But colleges can control their own destiny by looking beyond their current model to appeal to different pockets of prospective students right now.