The Big get Bigger…because they can: What can you do to compete?

Aug 17, 2022

There was a recent article in Bridge Michigan titled U-M, MSU thrive while Michigan regional universities scramble for students.The article highlighted the fact that, in the face of a declining population of high school graduates in Michigan which has resulted in an enrollment decline of 46,000 collectively at 12 of the 15 Michigan public institutions, enrollment at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and Michigan State University has increased.

It reminded me of the numerous articles and press releases I read in the weeks and months after the fall 2021 enrollment census, which were trumpeting the record enrollments at many large public and private institutions. Most of these institutions are national institutions, in other words, whether through academics, athletics, research, or several of those factors, the institution has a national reputation, that can be leveraged to recruit students from across the country.

I scoured various sources to try to find articles about regional public and private institutions, wondering whether they were experiencing the same results. Although there were some exceptions—especially in states where the number of high school graduates is increasing at this time—most of the articles or press releases were putting lipstick on a pig, touting that enrollment was greater than 2020, but not referring to how the enrollments compared to 2019 or the prior five, ten, or 20 years, when those institutions may have had record enrollments.

I am confident the trend for the big to get bigger will continue, while regional public and private institutions fight for what is left of a declining population of high school graduates – commonly referred to as the demographic cliff.[1] Institutions in many states, Michigan for example, and regions, like the industrial Midwest and Northeast, are already over the cliff, and institutions in the rest of the nation will tumble off the cliff from 2025 to the end of this decade and beyond.

The large national universities are not concerned about the demographic cliff. They know, given their market positions and diversified and strong revenue streams, they can commit significant resources to any challenges and opportunities they confront. Smaller, more regional, institutions do not have that capability. They will then face more consecutive years of declining enrollments, which will mean even less revenue, and will put enrollment managers under even more pressure to achieve their goals.   

So, how can you compete in this environment?

Bottom line: the old ways, the “that’s the way we have always done it,” isn’t working and it isn’t going to work. The time is now for enrollment managers to jump into the 21st Century and use advanced analytics, machine learning powered by artificial intelligence, to achieve their goals, while optimizing their resources.

  1. To know where you are and whether you are on track to achieve your enrollment goals, you must stop using a fraction of your data and descriptive and diagnostic analysis to look backward and leverage all your data and use predictive analytics to look forward. (See Gartner’s Analytics Maturity Model[2]).
  2. You must stop simply throwing resources at tactics that used to work and start committing those scare resources surgically. Other than the well-resourced institutions, no one can continue the strategy of “just do more”: buy more names, send more publications, emails, and text messages, get more applications, put more on the web, give students more financial aid. It is an unsustainable model, especially at institutions where enrollments, and therefore revenues, are declining.
  3. Use prescriptive analytics, and visibility all the way down to an individual student’s likelihood to enroll, to apply your marketing, recruiting and financial aid resources strategically. Know exactly which tactic or tactics to apply at what points along the enrollment funnel, to increase the probability a student will enroll. In other words, at every point in the process—from first contact to enrolled student—know precisely what you and your team need to do to get the biggest bang for the buck.

The time to act is now

We are almost 25 years into this century, and higher education is not leveraging advanced analytics—the technology that has been influencing every aspect of our lives since the late 1990s. We keep trudging through one crisis after another, averse to risk and change. We continue to depend upon a strategy based on doing the same things we have always done and wonder why the outcomes are not different.

However, you can change the outcomes at your institution! Applying advanced analytics, predictive and prescriptive analytics, from first contact to initial enrollment, and even through graduation, will increase the likelihood that your institution achieves its enrollment, retention, and graduation goals while optimizing resources.

Would you like to learn how advanced analytics can support your institution in achieving its enrollment goals? Click here to schedule a demo or for more information.

[1] Higher Ed Pulse Report: Futureproofing Institutions Against the Demographic Cliff (

[2] gartner’s analytics maturity model – Bing images

About the Author

Chris Lucier shares his more than 20 years of experience in admissions and strategic enrollment management to help colleges and universities adopt data-driven decision-making in addressing enrollment and student success challenges. After a 21-year career as a U.S. Army Officer, Lucier launched his career in higher education in 2001, serving in top enrollment posts at the University of Delaware, University of Vermont, and University of Michigan. He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona and a Master of Public Administration from Western Kentucky University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.


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Over the last three decades, Liaison has helped over 40,000 programs on more than 1,200 campuses more effectively manage admissions through its Centralized Application Service (CAS™) technology and complementary application processing and support services. The higher education technology leader supports its partner institutions’ total enrollment goals by pairing CAS with its Enrollment Marketing (EM) platform as well as the recently acquired TargetX (CRM) and advanced analytics software Othot.