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4 Themes Emerge as Institutions Weather Enrollment Declines

by NSC Blog | Mar 11, 2022 | Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Research Reports, Research Services, StudentTracker

Freshman Enrollment Drops 9.2% Compared to Fall 2019

Throughout the global pandemic, student enrollment has been declining at colleges across the country. Even though the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently reported enrollment is up about 0.4% or 8,100 students from 2020, however, there are 9.2% less or 213,400 fewer freshman students compared to pre-pandemic levels in fall 2019.

To assess how this drop impacts student demographics, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently held a webinar, “The Demographic Cliff: Surviving Enrollment Challenges.” During the webinar, a panel of academic experts discussed strategies to help colleges weather the changes ahead and stressed the need to use data to navigate this changing landscape in higher education.

New Challenges for Student Enrollment

Stefanie D. Niles, Vice President for Enrollment and Communications at Ohio Wesleyan University, expressed that it’s been increasingly difficult to predict trends in student enrollment. The traditional trajectory for learners has been disrupted, and institutions are trying to adapt as a result. Because of this uncertainty, institutions are rethinking how they engage students and select students in the admissions process.

Further, with students facing unique challenges due to the pandemic, it is difficult to predict how they will take on the rigors of a college-level curriculum. Niles explained, “I just came out of a committee review meeting, where a student eloquently talked about having to watch her two small stepsisters during the workday while she was trying to study online. As a result, she got COVID, as did the rest of her family.”

Finding New Students

The decline in enrollment has forced institutions to expand their student enrollment target area. For example, DJ Menifee, Vice President for Enrollment at Susquehanna University, shared that while his university had once seen enrollment come from within 150 miles, it’s now taking steps to expand that to 200 miles and over time will push it to a 300-mile range.

Mark Steinlage, Director of Admissions at Saint Louis University, said that his university is looking beyond its immediate backyard of Missouri and Illinois to bolster enrollment throughout the Midwest.

Supporting Current Students

Panelists said that institutions are redoubling efforts to support students already on campus. Menifee noted that, “It’s not simply what we bring in, it’s also our ability to support students, to help cultivate and prepare them for the world, and increase our retention and our persistence rates.”

Niles said that the pandemic allowed institutions to evaluate how it supports students, especially those from different backgrounds. “If we are used to attracting a certain subset of students through the programmatic offerings that we have, can we diversify those offerings to attract different students who have a wide variety of backgrounds? We can’t expect to teach students in the same ways and have them excel if they don’t have that same background and support prior to coming to the institution.”

Dr. Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), added that campuses need to understand better how they are serving a diverse group of learners. Institutions need to engage learners, whether it’s international students, adults, or those from low-income communities.

Data is Essential

As institutions look to combat these enrollment trends, data is essential to understanding how to find learners in new markets and better serve students already enrolled. The Research Center’s data helps institutions persevere and emerge from the pandemic.

To learn more, watch the full webinar.

> Estimated National Enrollment by Institutional Sector: 2019 to 2021

As institutions look to combat these enrollment trends, data is essential to understanding how to find learners in new markets and better serve students already enrolled.


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