From Pathify Magazine

Every day brings another news story or opinion piece about higher education approaching the proverbial demographic or enrollment cliff — or when the supply of prospective college-aged individuals between ages 18 and 22 reduces as the result of lower birth rates. Yet, while admissions and enrollment officers saw this trend gaining momentum over the past decade, many institutions, both public and private, still struggle to reconfigure strategies and maintain enrollments, let alone prepare for a future with fewer prospects and applicants.

With federal data showing a decrease in college enrollment by about 15% in the past decade, the enrollment cliff arrived early due to the high cost of education, uneven returns from getting a degree and an appealing job market. “Why do I need to spend time and money to get a piece of paper when promising jobs with great raises are available?” is an oft-asked question in many households and communities, especially when education costs rise faster than most commodities and services. 

Despite their best efforts to maximize recruiting across numerous populations, colleges and universities often find themselves fishing among the same pools of candidates to build out each year’s freshman class. This presents a set of critical decisions, especially for tuition-dependent private colleges to meet the enrollment targets needed to earn sufficient revenues to remain solvent without excessive discounting or dipping into reserves to balance budgets.

With many more institutions either closing or considering mergers and acquisitions to stay alive, the higher education community faces new pressures — locating new or under-tapped sources of students and providing a quality education. Higher education institutions must also offer a positive student experience, potentially raising institutional recognition, triggering a new flow of applicants and additional financial support from alumni.

In the post-pandemic world of higher education, colleges and universities must again reinvent themselves and their enrollment strategies to identify under-represented market segments and build pathways for non-traditional applicants to seek out degrees, certificates or other credentials for career development. It is not enough to only identify these new candidate pools. Higher ed institutions must find more creative and state-of-the-art methods to engage and enroll non-traditional applicants while also overcoming the public perception higher education no longer offers opportunities for its graduates.

Who Are the Non-Traditional Applicants for Future Years?

As institutions move beyond the realm of the traditional 18-to-22-year-olds , many admissions and enrollment management staff find themselves scrambling to get senior leadership’s buy-in on their proposed recruitment strategies for newer and less-tapped constituencies.  With competition growing among peer institutions, finding the right niche could revolve around types of potential students and/or academic programs. In addition, crafting strategies geared towards eventual student success involves multiple solutions, including a stronger online presence, shorter terms for coursework and programs leading to certificates and/or eventual degrees.

Creating other new or diverse partnerships to funnel transfer students into a career path or training program, including partnering with private sector businesses, allows institutions to compete with traditional models.

Studies show as many as 40 million Americans attended college and successfully completed some coursework without earning a degree. Though many of the aforementioned categories of prospective re-admits include people who started but never got to the finish line, even more potential candidates would consider returning to earn their degrees if circumstances warranted and enabled them to re-enter and matriculate.

Promoting Re-Engagement

Too often, institutions create numerous barriers and obstacles to re-engage former students who dropped out. Though financial reasons often are cited for stopping progress, many academic and administrative policies, procedures or requirements may hold back non-traditional prospects from re-applying for admission or even taking a class to regain comfort and confidence in their own abilities to succeed.

Colleges and universities may not provide the necessary services or resources available to these individuals who struggled in their previous matriculation attempts or did not receive direction to identify the right counseling leading to earlier successes. As the concepts of enrollment management and student success emerge into institutions’ cultures, they realize intensive and focused assistance for prospective and enrolled students leads to positive outcomes and a roadmap to recruit new prospects while retaining a larger percentage of enrolled individuals.

Reviewing, simplifying or enhancing certain tasks and/or services provide more attractive entryways for non-traditional prospects and leads to increasing re-enrollments and greater student retention. In many cases, adults and other non-traditional learners withdrew from achieving their educational goals because of mental health-related concerns. Having easily accessible and confidential resources for students to share their concerns and address issues makes the ultimate difference in whether the student stays in school while changing their life for the better. 

  • Ease of application. In a world where we seek immediate feedback and gratification, having an application process that is simple, focused and not overwhelming will help attract non-traditional applicants who will invest short bursts of time and energy when they see how their efforts could pay off.

Higher education institutions must find more creative and state-of-the-art methods and solutions to engage and enroll non-traditional applicants while also overcoming the public perception that higher education no longer offers opportunities for its graduates.”

David R. Glezerman
  • Minimize or eliminate the need for standardized or placement testing. Requiring SAT or ACT testing for non-traditional populations, many who previously took courses or have proven work experience, create sufficient stress and fear to stop a potential applicant from moving forward. Using some combination of life experience and placement testing to determine where/how to re-start one’s academic career or acquired knowledge better suits adult learners and other related populations.
  • Timely admissions decisions and review of previously earned credits. Again, today’s fast-paced society demands “immediate” action and feedback. Setting expectations about when an admissions decision is forthcoming will mitigate some of the impatience and service-delivery issues coming with no knowledge or due date. There also should be a timely review and decision made by the school so new admits know their academic status (i.e., number of credits needed to earn a degree) and what previous course work is acceptable or needs to be retaken. Today’s applicants want to know where they stand and specifically what else they need to achieve their goals and eventual success. Some examples include:

    • Having online options available for coursework to meet work and life schedules. Today’s non-traditional applicants want to know how much flexibility is available to start and complete their coursework while determining whether it must be done in-person or through online offerings. 
    • Talking about financing one’s education as part of your marketing campaigns. Promoting financial aid and other financing options, such as short-term payment plans, must be part of the conversation since it helps students overcome their fears over the cost of their education as well as provide demonstrated solutions. Fears of the financial unknowns often create the highest obstacles to returning prospects. Thus, having access to financial literacy information not only will reduce personal stress levels, but also offer necessary knowledge and training for managing their post-academic lives.
    • Offering sufficient academic advising and career counseling services. Asking prospects to know and understand academic requirements for a degree and placing them onto the best career path should not be a given. Tying the academic program and degree to a desired career with likely paths also provide the best solutions and guidance enabling the successful student to live with their desired lifestyle.
    • Overcoming technological literacy issues. Higher education technology tools typically aren’t part of the non-traditional prospect’s knowledge base. Having real-time tech support available, not just a web-based guide or tutorial, assures the institution understands and meets the varied learning needs and models for the non-traditional population it is seeking to re-engage.
    • Creating a mental health safety net. No age group is fully immune from the daily pressures of life, work, family and even what academia may bring to the mix. A recent study by Gallup and the Lumina Foundations identified that almost two-thirds of individuals who never enrolled for higher education cited emotional stress as a key deterrent. 

In many cases, adults and other non-traditional learners have been forced to withdraw from achieving their educational goals because of mental health-related issues and concerns. Having easily accessible and confidential resources for these students to share their concerns and help address issues could make the ultimate difference not just in whether the student stays in school — it could be life-altering for the individual.

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