According to the National Student Clearinghouse, from spring 2020 to spring 2022 enrollment at public two-year universities fell from just under 5 million to 4.17 million, a 16.6% decline in two years. Undoubtedly, a strong job market is likely the biggest factor behind the decline, but a growing sentiment questioning the value of a college degree, tied with affordability concerns, are contributing to the decline.
Decline in enrollment at two-year institutions during periods of strong economic growth and low unemployment is common. Conventional wisdom among two-year institutions is to simply wait until economic growth slows, unemployment increases, and enrollment rebounds. This is what I refer to as the “don’t worry, be happy” strategy. Do nothing now, because it is likely unemployment will be higher in 12, 18, or 24 months and enrollment will increase.
But times have changed!
Relying on this strategy fails to acknowledge the realities of the current and future enrollment market. The current enrollment market is the most dynamic and volatile it has ever been, and the bad news is that it is going to become even more volatile. The “don’t worry be happy” strategy will not be enough to regain enrollments—much less grow enrollment—if that is your institutional goal. The decline in the number of high school graduates that has already negatively impacted many states and regions, and will affect just about every state and region from 2025 to the end of this decade, and likely through the 2030s. Public sentiment questioning the value of a college degree and concerns over the costs of higher education have been increasing for five years or more, and will likely persist until higher ed can change the value narrative and bring down costs.
Although two-year institutions are in a better position to make a case on value, proving to be more cost-effective than four-year institutions and more adept at offering degrees and certificates that are in the highest demand in local and regional labor markets, two-year colleges cannot afford to sit back and wait. Small and medium-sized public and private institutions will become more competitive for students who, previously, have chosen two-year schools. Covid has forced these four-year public and privates to become more flexible in their academic offerings and they will be better positioned to compete with two-year institutions on the cost of attendance by either cutting sticker prices or offering and promoting steep tuition discounts.
So, if you’re an enrollment professional at a two-year institution, what should you do?
Build and/or reinforce your market NOW.
- Develop a database of prospective students who have the highest propensity to enroll
- Utilize high-impact, omni-channel marketing to build relationships with the prospective students
Develop the prospective student database
Unlike almost every four-year institution, few community colleges have strategies to identify and market to prospective students. Most have relied on billboards, media, and online advertising, and the students have come. One could argue if those strategies have ever been that effective, but their effectiveness has certainly declined due to the proliferation of targeted marketing in all sectors, including enrollment marketing.
Liaison’s Intelligent Names is a one-of-a-kind means to create a prospective student database of adult learners that have the highest propensity to enroll at your institution and who fit your specific institutional goals. Money spent will be to find the right students and you’ll receive the information you need to target students with the most impactful messaging. Intelligent Names will help to optimize your recruitment and marketing resources. Think about it: is it better to market generally to 50,000-100,000 students who don’t have any interest in enrolling, or target the 10,000-20,000 students most likely to enroll in college in the next few years?
Create, manage, and analyze high-impact marketing communications
Once you have identified the students with the highest propensity to enroll, and you have the specific information you need to target them, the next step is to start an effective marketing strategy. The key is to build a relationship so that when the student is ready, e.g. the economy turns and they want to obtain new skills or improve existing skills, your institution will be top of mind.
Liaison’s Enrollment Marketing allows you to create, manage, and analyze omnichannel marketing campaigns that are immediate, relevant, automated, and trackable. You can promote the right programs to students who have the greatest interest in enrolling. You can lead them through the funnel by creating awareness and interest, promoting on-campus programs, guiding them through the application process and financial aid, and providing critical information about student and academic support, such as parking, daycare, campus safety, online tutoring, and career services. The key is to create interest now and be quick to respond to any concerns, objections, and challenges! Don’t wait till the economy turns – proactively grab your market share.
My Liaison colleagues and I are ready to hear about your challenges and opportunities, talk about how Intelligent Names, Enrollment Marketing, and our other world-class higher-education solutions can help you achieve your near and long-term enrollment goals, while optimizing your limited resources. Contact me today: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.