Enrollment in a US college has decreased by 3 million students over the last decade. While the decline has been concentrated in public colleges, it will soon come to many four-year institutions.
Demographers predict that in 2025 the “break for enrollment” will begin, when in the foreseeable future the population of traditional student age will begin to decline.
If they don’t bring in more students, colleges will struggle with financial problems, and some may close their doors. Some are already doing it. The result: fewer Americans will have the skills needed to strengthen our democracy, develop our knowledge-based economy, and address today’s challenges, from climate change to life-threatening diseases to racial inequality.
To reverse the admission trend, colleges need to do more than compete with fewer high school graduates. They need new strategies to engage a population they have long underestimated and not served: high school students, college transfers, and working adults.
Here’s how colleges can develop the talents of these three groups.
High school students: The number of high school students taking advanced training courses has increased, an increase of 57 percent over the past decade, with an even faster increase in the number of high school students enrolled in colleges, mostly in public colleges. But too few of these double-enrollment courses are enrolled in a college diploma; it is a lost opportunity to make college more accessible to students and working class families.
Colleges can reinforce enrollment by better serving these dual-learning students. A great example: Alamo College District, a system of 90,000 students in San Antonio, Texas, works with K-12 partners to advise thousands of different high school students to enroll not only in any college courses but also in those with valuable credentials.
Alamo has developed precise sequences of courses that counselors use to guide high school students to link pathways to a degree that lead directly to a good job or a smooth transition to a bachelor’s program at one of the seven nearby universities. In this way, Alamo translates the growing interest in working at the college level into what families care about most – setting students on the path to a bright future that comes with a high quality degree.
Transfers to a public college: The vast majority of public college students want to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about one in six achieves this goal within six years of enrolling in a public college. Black and Spanish-speaking students, as well as students from low-income neighborhoods who are more likely than others to pursue higher education in a public college, are the most likely to fall off the rails.
To increase the number of students, universities and public colleges must stop competing with each other for students and compete together to significantly increase the likelihood of students receiving a bachelor’s degree. One great example: a partnership between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University. Enrolling new students in both institutions simultaneously, this large community college and leading research university report that each year they help 3,000 students get on the path to an inexpensive and quality bachelor’s degree – the surest path to a well-paid job in northern Virginia.
Unlike most public college students, those enrolled in this program do not need to apply twice or wonder whether the credits will transfer or sort out conflicting information from the two financial aid offices.
Adults need quality short-term training: Higher education can help millions of adults quit jobs that do not pay the wages that provide for a family. But they need a salary increase much faster than the two years required to earn a junior specialist degree, let alone the four years required to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Unfortunately studies show that many short-term powers do not significantly increase wages and do not lead to exit from low-paid work.
Colleges across the country can sustainably attract more students, ensuring that their short-term certificates actually lead to higher-paying jobs with benefits. They can learn in College of Valencia in Orlando, Florida, whose president reports that each year they provide accelerated skills training for nearly 1,000 adults in construction, advanced manufacturing, information technology and other fields. In programs that last four to 22 weeks, students gain industry-recognized credentials that lead to significantly higher salaries as well as access to additional training to improve job prospects.
What lessons can educators learn from these examples? From 2010 to 2019, the number of entrants decreased by 25 percent in public colleges across the country, but remained stable at NOVA and grew by 15 percent in Valencia and 20 percent in the Alamo College District.
And while the number of entrants to four-year public colleges has increased by just 20 percent over the past decade, George Mason’s has increased by nearly 50 percent.
If they don’t bring in more students, colleges will struggle with financial problems, and some may close their doors.
These stories demonstrate that new students will emerge when they see that campuses are committed to delivering what they want and need. Enrollment will steadily increase as college leaders develop new models that provide value to the non-traditional population.
By following these examples, other colleges and universities can revitalize themselves, creating opportunities for future generations to strengthen the country’s economy, democracy, and ability to solve pressing problems.
Joshua Weiner, Founder and CEO of the Aspen Institute College’s Professional Development Program, is the author of “What excellent public colleges do.”
This piece is about admission to college was made Hechinger’s report, a non-profit independent information organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to Hechinger Bulletin.