Higher Ed Strategy Blog

4 ways to prepare for a shrinking enrollment pipeline

by Sally Amoruso

A version of this article originally appeared in the EAB Daily Briefing authored by Kathleen Escarcha.

In the four years between 2025 and 2029, the college-age population in the United States is expected to see a 15% decline. This, according to Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, traces back to a decline in fertility rates following the 2008 financial crisis.

"Students are going to be a hot commodity, a scarce resource," said Grawe. He predicts that regional four-year institutions, as well as those located in the Northeast, will feel the greatest impact, while elite institutions may instead experience a 14% growth in demand.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nathan Grawe at EAB headquarters in DC. He shared four ways that colleges and universities can work to secure their enrollment pipeline in the coming years.

1. Diversify your playbook

Many campus leaders, according to Grawe, believe that developing a better student recruiting and marketing strategy will be enough to avoid an enrollment cliff. If every college or university follows this pattern, however, they will just be competing more intensely for the same students.

"Recognize that everyone is thinking like you and that this strategy can't work for everyone," said Grawe. "If you approach the demographic changes with the idea that only your institution will break the odds, you make it harder for everyone, on average."

2. Open doors for traditionally underserved students

Improving access to education is critical. According to Grawe, bringing new students to campus who may not have previously considered college as an option prevents schools from competing for the same, shrinking pool of students.

If colleges and universities fail to reach students from traditionally underserved populations, he warns, they will back themselves into a corner and create a larger enrollment problem.

3. Empower faculty to help with student retention efforts

If the first two strategies have worked to bring new students to campus, the next step is keeping them there. Colleges and universities that focus on retention and student success improve their revenue and better serve their mission.

Faculty play a key role in whether students stay, graduate, or re-enroll at an institution. Grawe recommends finding ways to meaningfully engage faculty in student success initiatives.

3 strategies to engage faculty in your student success initiatives

4. Increase transparency around outcomes

When it comes to recruiting prospective students and families, colleges and universities should be emphasizing the value of attending college and graduating on time. Being upfront about graduation rates and career outcomes can help families make decisions that are better-informed.

Highlight student outcomes in cost conversation with parents

"When institutions bury their results on their website or in complex reports, they do a disservice to themselves and potential applicants," said Grawe. "We’re not making it easy for families to make informed decisions. And we're not telling our story effectively."

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