30% to 40% of small colleges missed enrollment goals this year

Setting goals can be tricky—achieving them is even harder

According to a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education in combination with the Council of Independent Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, small and mid-sized schools are increasingly falling short of their enrollment and tuition-revenue goals.

The survey's 447 respondents included 315 private campuses and 132 public campuses, all of which were small to medium in size.

Around two-thirds of small and mid-sized private institutions and more than half of public ones reported having missed either their enrollment or tuition-revenue goals. And 40% of small and mid-sized private institutions and 30% of public ones missed both.

Furthermore, more small and mid-sized institutions missed their goals this year than in the past. Of the private colleges surveyed, the number of schools who report having achieved goals was at the lowest it's been in four years.

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Hoover and Sara Lipka argue that setting goals can be tricky. A number of factors—some of which are outside of a school's control—shape enrollment and tuition revenue goals, including:

  • Population trends;
  • State workforce needs; and
  • Specific institutional aspirations.

Robert J. Massa, the senior vice president for enrollment at Drew University, describes his process for setting the institution's enrollment and revenue goals.

To pinpoint Drew's goals, Massa looks back on three to five years of enrollment data, as well as the school's current pool of prospects. He then comes up with projections, which he plugs into Drew's annual budgeting process to come up with two targets: one based on the budget and one based on aspirations.

Of course, Hoover and Lipka acknowledge each school has a unique process for determining goals.

Why are schools struggling to reach their goals?

Hoover and Lipka point out that colleges are spending more and more on enrollment incentives like discount rates and financial aid.

Related: How to strengthen your prospective student pipeline

The survey shows 40% of small to medium-sized schools—slightly more private than public ones—spent more money on financial aid this year than they did the previous year. And nearly half of private colleges and one-fifth of public institutions likewise reported offering a higher discount rate, which Hoover and Lipka describe as the average share of tuition covered by institutional aid.

Another phenomenon affecting schools' goal attainment has to do with long-term ambitions.

In the case where schools have longer-term goals, like becoming more selective or enrolling a different pool of students, steps toward these ambitions can be detrimental to short-term success. 

The Chronicle also asked survey respondents who missed their goals how they intend to improve their numbers. Respondents say they plan to:

  • Improve enrollment-management operations;
  • Eliminate low-enrollment academic programs;
  • Start new programs to attract students; and
  • Invest in marketing.

Writing for Education Dive, Jarrett Carter recommends several additional strategies schools might use to reach their goals, including:

  • Offering new degree programs or facilities;
  • Maintaining consistent pipelines for specific student types;
  • Creating pipelines for local companies and businesses to credential working professionals; and
  • Offering non-financial aid enrollment incentives like stackable credentials earned over time.

(Carter, Education Dive, 12/12; Hoover/Lipka, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/11).

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