Evolving College Recruiting in the Health Professions: Lessons from Dental Programs

RJ Nichol
May 2, 2018

Many colleges and universities are struggling to attract and retain students — especially in the health professions, which typically require ongoing education and advanced degrees. In addition to challenges such as declining birth rates and an improving economy reducing the impetus for older students to return to school, higher education institutions must address concerns about student debt and the ability to find employment post-graduation. In this complex and competitive landscape, health professions programs must rethink their approach to recruiting and retaining students.

Trends of the overall college applicant pool

After years of growth, many schools are seeing declines in enrollment. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, enrollment in colleges and universities has dropped for five straight years — higher education enrollment in the spring 2017 semester was just over 18 million students nationally, 2.4 million fewer than there were during the most recent peak in the fall of 2011. 6 A dip in the birth rate, combined with fewer non-traditional students entering college due to increased job opportunities, has left many colleges struggling to adjust.

Applicant pools are shrinking

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about one-third of states throughout the country are expected to have at least 5% fewer high school graduates in the 2022-23 school year.4 While the high school dropout rate (the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential) has declined, racial disparities persist: In each year from 2000 to 2015, the status dropout rate was lower for white youth than for African American youth, and the rates for both groups were lower than the rate for Hispanic youth.9

This decrease is coinciding with an even more precipitous decline in the number of students older than 24 who have been drawn back into the workforce as the economy improves.

Not only are schools dealing with a decrease in high school graduates and a declining birthrate, but they’re also facing slowing enrollment in undergraduate degree programs.11 While total undergraduate enrollment increased by 37% between 2000 and 2010, enrollment decreased by 6% between 2010 and 2015.7

The path to an undergraduate degree is changing

In undergraduate programs, “non-traditional” students have become the new majority. 74% of 2011-12 undergraduates had at least one “nontraditional” characteristic.7  Community colleges are also capturing a larger share of enrollment than in previous years: In fall 2014, 42% of all and 25% of full-time undergraduate students were enrolled in community colleges. Nearly half (46%) of all students who completed a degree at a four-year institution in 2013-14 had enrolled at a two-year institution at some point in the previous 10 years. 5

Graduate and professional school enrollments are slowing

Enrollment in graduate schools is still increasing, but at a slower pace than in previous years. Researchers point to a market correction and declining growth in international students. 12 Between the Fall 2015 and Fall 2016 admission cycles, the application counts from prospective international graduate students to U.S. institutions grew by 1%, a slower rate as compared to the last reporting cycle.

Whites (58.8%) and Asians (19.8%) continue to represent the largest proportion of medical school graduates, with these two groups composing more than three-quarters of medical students graduating in 2015. 3

The path forward: Learning from dental education

For colleges and universities to maintain — or grow — enrollments and increase diversity, the same old approaches won’t work. Even with affirmative action, African Americans and Hispanics are more underrepresented at top colleges than they were 35 years ago. 2 Dental schools are taking a different approach to ensure stable enrollments and improve diversity. Here are some examples of programs in place:


Financial incentives can play an important part in attracting and retaining students. The American Dental Association (ADA) Predoctoral Dental Student Scholarship Program and the Underrepresented Minority Dental Student Scholarship Program provide scholarships valued at $20,000 to second-year dental students across the U.S. These awards support students at a variety of different ADA member schools.

Pipeline programs

Pipeline programs work to address some of the educational, social and economic barriers that can discourage students from pursuing careers in the health professions. One such program, the Summer Health Professions Education Program offers summer enrichment at 13 universities across the nation, including Columbia University, Howard University, Rutgers, the University of Florida and the University of California – Los Angeles. Each institution provides academic programming in the basic sciences and math, clinical experiences, career development activities, learning and study skills seminars and a financial planning workshop. 13

Interprofessional collaboration

Dentistry is embracing Interprofessional Education (IPE) at schools like NYU, bringing together students preparing for different health professions to improve collaboration to optimize patient care. NYU’s program includes students from 11 different health profession programs. 10 Some programs begin targeting children as early as elementary school: The ADA offers age-appropriate resources, including a Career Day worksheet to help introduce elementary-aged children to dentistry and guiding high school students through how to prepare for a career in dentistry. 1


To thrive in the current environment, colleges and universities must evolve and adapt their recruiting practices for the health professions. With focused admissions outreach and a well-planned strategy to recruit students from diverse backgrounds, success is possible.


1 American Dental Association
Careers in Dentistry: Be A Dentist: High School Students

2 Ashkenas, J., Park, H. and Pearce, A.
Even with Affirmative Action, Blacks and Hispanics Are More Underrepresented at Top Colleges Than 35 Years Ago
The New York Times
August 2017

3 Association of American Medical Colleges
Diversity in Medical Education: Facts & Figures 2016

4 Bidwell, A.
1/3 of States Will Have Fewer High School Graduates by 2022
U.S. News & World Report
February 2014

5 Ma, J. and Baum, S.
Trends in Community Colleges: Enrollment, Prices, Student Debt, and Completion
The College Board
April 2016

6 Marcus, J.
Many small colleges face big enrollment drops. Here’s one survival strategy in Ohio.
The Washington Post
June 2017.

7 National Center for Educational Statistics
College Enrollment Rates

8 National Center for Education Statistics
Demographic and Enrollment Characteristics of Nontraditional Undergraduates: 2011-2012
September 2015

9 National Center for Education Statistics
Status Dropout Rates

10 NYU
NYU Interprofessional Education Group

11 Population Research Institute
U.S. Fertility Rate Hits New Record Low
October 2017

12 Roll, N.
Enrollment and Market Forces
Inside Higher Ed
September 2017

13 Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP)
Summer Health Professions Education Program

RJ Nichol

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