How Should Colleges Respond to Declining Student Populations?

A daunting trend has beleaguered the health of higher ed institutions in the Midwest and Northeast–declining numbers of high-school graduates. According to a recent Inside Higher Ed report, declining student populations in the Midwest and Northeast present a challenge for colleges who primarily recruit students in those markets.

Since I consult primarily with institutions in the Midwest, I repeatedly hear that the shrinking regional population has had the single-most negative impact on this year’s freshman enrollment numbers.The numbers reflect a sobering challenge:

  • In the Midwest, HS graduates declined by 5%
  • In the Northeast, HS graduates declined by 9.5%

 Combined, these two regions constitute half of all 4-year colleges in the US.

For admissions departments, maintaining–let alone increasing–your enrollment goal calls for new strategies. In fact, inaction is much more costly, as many universities with decreasing freshmen class sizes have realized.

Expand your footprint in new markets

Expanding your recruiting efforts in new geographies is the most logical first step–if you can’t get enough HS students here, look elsewhere. And if you can, look internationally. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially for colleges with a regional but not national or international brand. To highlight a few notable strategies that universities I’ve spoken with have implemented:

Out-of-state: Hire regional recruiters who will actually live or spend most of their time in your target market. These folks are on the front lines, going to HS college fairs and building trust with parents and prospective students.

International: Budget for international recruitment and travel. International students not only help to subsidize in-state student tuition, but also elevate the reputation of the school. Even small, regionally-known colleges can increase their international student recruitment–in fact, my alma mater, Knox College, is a 1,400-student school that recruited me from Singapore.

Beef up your transfer student recruitment

Looking beyond traditional students can dramatically increase your prospective student pool. While colleges typically focus on first-time full-time freshmen, investing time and energy in attracting community college transfer students can help you reach your enrollment goals.

For this to be successful, however, it’s important to provide adequate support for transfer students before, during and after they enroll to your college. Studies show that transfer students typically have difficulty integrating academically and socially. “By the time students reach their third or fourth year in school, the more secluded their group of friends becomes, and the more newcomers fall into the ‘out-group,” said Steven Wilson, a transfer student at University of California Santa Barbara. “It seems like the only people who need new friends are transfer students.”

UCSB aims to enroll 1,650 transfer students this year. To help with social and academic integration, the school provides resources such as virtual transfer appointments with an admissions counselor, a UCSBTrasfers wiki, as well a “Transfer Students” community within their Schools App on Facebook.

Caption: Transfer students use Schools App to connect with each other.

Use predictive modeling to boost yield within your current funnel

Without a doubt, an admissions departments’ most valuable assets are its admitted students. If you could increase your yield rate, you wouldn’t even have to worry about recruiting in new markets! But moving the needle on yield is no small feat. Last year, the average yield rate was 36 percent, down from 43 percent in 2006. In my opinion, tackling this trend requires new technologies.

This is where predictive modeling can make a huge impact. For example, say you could predict the yield likelihood for each of your admitted students from the Chicago area. By focusing your marketing and admissions energies (e.g. calls, personalized emails, travel) on the students most likely to enroll, you can essentially widen the bottom of your funnel.

Problems With Current Predictive Analytics

However, one of my conversations made me think twice about the usefulness of predictive analytics in venturing into new markets. “One of the limitations to using historical enrollment data to predict for future students is you’re going to get more of the same,” said Mark Clynes, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at McKendree University “If your school is primarily white and you want more diversity, our data is not as helpful because it predicts what is already enrolled.”

My last post about predictive modeling outlined the difference between geodemographic data and behavioral data. Traditionally, predictive modeling for higher ed involves assumptions about the demographics of your historical enrollment data. A huge benefit to behavioral data, which Schools App uses, is the ability to predict enrollment for students from new geographies or backgrounds.

Are you tackling declining student populations in your region? How is your institution engaging new student populations to diversify your incoming class? Share with us your challenges or successes below!