Big Ideas Higher Education

Five Steps To Hedge for the Looming Enrollment Cliff

Graduation Cap

By Sean Sutherland \ August 31, 2023

This blog post stemmed from a viewing of Dr. Carrie Phillips’ presentation ‘The Cliff is Coming: Strategies to Prepare’ at the eduWeb 2023 Conference. It has been published with the blessing of Dr. Phillips.

Whenever someone says “luck favors the prepared,” it often places emphasis on luck—when in reality, it is really the prepared who can seize the opportunity when the right wave comes along. 

It’s no secret that colleges and universities across the U.S. are facing significant financial deficits and declining enrollments. The 2020 Western Institute Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) 10th edition study initiated in 2016 documents the projected decline of high school graduates—340K to 400K per year beginning in 2025.

Enrollment numbers also took a serious hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, and while there are signs of recovery, according to a study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), there hasn’t been quite the reversal of fates necessary to balance the books. To truly understand the declines, we need to step back even further in time, before COVID, cryptocurrencies, and the iPhone 6, to 2008… 

Close your eyes. Imagine this:

It’s 2008. You’ve survived Y2K hysteria. You’re listening to the latest hits on your iPod Nano, taking pics on your Casio, Canon, or Nikon digital camera, and texting from your Sidekick—life’s pretty good. Then, bam! The Subprime Mortgage Crisis caused the economy to contract, leading to the 2008–2009 Recession. 

While that might have happened 15 years ago, many millennials are still struggling to recover. Saddled with debt and stagnating wages, it’s no surprise that millennials are putting off things like getting married, buying homes, and having children. Since 2007, birth rates have decreased by about 13%. This lower birth rate hen is now coming home to roost. Hence, “the cliff”—fewer prospective high school students and greater competition for institutions to secure traditional first-year enrollments.

Now that we see the cliff clearly, what’s the plan?

  1. Start today—keep your institutions up-to-date and student-focused. Most institutions are student-focused but can often come with bureaucratic silos that make changes difficult to navigate and new or updated programming even more difficult to implement. Don’t be afraid to spearhead changes and take a leadership role! Staying competitive means executing profound changes that take time to build, so start them today.
  2. Invest in strengthening your brand. It can feel almost insulting to take ideas from retail and consumer brands, but when we’re talking about fewer students, you want people to choose you. Prestige is no longer the go-to, so make sure you create branding that is memorable, cohesive, and exemplifies the things that set you apart. Lean into your MOST VALUABLE asset—the students, faculty, and staff that power your institution. They will tell your story in a way that resonates more than a super slick marketing campaign.
  3. Create strong partnerships within your institution. Along the lines of breaking silos, ensuring that your marketing campaigns consider all divisions and units will showcase your intuition in a real and humanistic way—show their faces, use their names, and get specific. When you create that collaborative environment, it enables better communication and cohesion. Tying into the advice above, provide templates for each department that work for their needs while still fitting the overall brand promise and identity.

GenZ wants to see the ROI.

If millennials have to contend with the social iniquity and economic instability that they’ve inherited, then as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” said, GenZ “was born in it, molded by it.” They have the same passion most young adults do and so much more information and ways to channel their thoughts—and they’re questioning everything, including the value of a college education. 

It’s not hard to see why. 

They’ve seen the economic and social upheaval that millennials are living with and don’t want to go down the same path. While higher education institutions aren’t the reason why millennials are struggling, the rising costs and wage stagnation can make it seem like a college degree is simply not worth it. 

If we are to showcase the value of a college education to a group of skeptics burned by the system, then it’s time to cut through the marketing speak and get real personal.

  1. Take a closer look at growing demographics and nontraditional learning populations. In order to mitigate what the WICHE report labels the “birth dearth” between 2025 and 2037, colleges and universities can work to engage nontraditional and second-career student populations, as well as the growing demographics in the Latine and Asian communities that, according to Axios reporting, have increased 80% and 104%. There are opportunities to reach nontraditional students where they are and find ways to meet their needs.
  2. Personalize everything and anything. Ad blindness is real—and cutting through the noise is every marketer’s goal. Give all of your prospective students the curated experiences they want by ensuring that your CMS and other marketing initiatives offer customization.

The Long Game

While the fall in high school graduation rates constitutes one iteration of an enrollment cliff, by foregoing luck and preparing yourself and your institution with a proactive and meaningful strategy, you will be able to mitigate the drop. And if projections remain on target for a rise in 2037, you’ll be able to ride that wave and come out on top.

Reach out to idfive to start a conversation about creating effective enrollment marketing strategies.

Sean Sutherland
Director of Marketing
Sean Sutherland
Director of Marketing

Sean is an avid connector, writer, and marketer. He builds and maintains relationships between idfive, clients, and the local Baltimore community. Originally from Detroit, Sean has called Baltimore home for more than a decade—championing people, organizations, and visions that invest in Baltimore’s bright future. A master of process and progress, he engages with a wide variety of stakeholders to further our shared mission. Sean is also a gigantic nerd—just ask him about his favorite comic books and video games. He’s the proud father to the world’s most perfect cat and her dopey canine sidekick.