Facing flattening enrollments? Alternative student pathways might help.

Demographic projections suggest that the number of high school graduates will fall over the coming decade. Reasonable improvements in college access should keep higher education enrollment growing—but just barely.

Enrollment growth averaged almost 3% annually over the past 15 years but will slow dramatically, with a projected growth rate of just over 1% from 2011 to 2021. It will become impossible for all institutions to meet their growth targets, and many will struggle even to maintain flat enrollment. Already, over a fifth of institutions reported enrollment shortfalls of 10% or more in 2012.

Opportunities for sustainable growth

While traditional, residential undergraduates will still make up the majority of students at most institutions, they alone won't be enough to drive the revenue growth that supported institutional missions over the past 15 years.

Diversifying the student body and expanding access have always been mission imperatives for higher education. Over the next decade they will become financial imperatives as well.

In particular, four student segments have the potential to support sustainable enrollment growth:

  • International undergraduates
  • Community college transfers
  • Adult-degree completers
  • Professional Master's

Most institutions already serve some or all of these groups to a certain degree, but they will need to significantly enhance their ability to recruit and graduate one or more of these populations.

Pathways to success

These underserved populations are not new, but they've remained marginalized at many institutions because they're considered less prepared and less likely to succeed. This has made it difficult for some institutions to diversify the types of students they serve.

Successful institutions have found that the different needs of these populations can often be met through "pathways" offering an alternative route to a degree. Pathways acknowledge that these students start from a different point and need a unique set of services and pedagogical approaches to be successful.

Rather than redesign the university from scratch, most institutions have added specialized programs to prepare these students for the traditional curriculum.

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