The Enrollment Crisis is issue #3 in the 2024 EDUCAUSE Top 10.
"We've adopted a range of technologies to help advance our professionalism in enrollment management. When we realized we needed to get better, fast, and didn't have a deep experienced bench, we engaged a private firm to jumpstart our general capacity. We now have an AI-empowered chatbot that helps us communicate with our prospects. We're deploying an admissions application that is system-wide for all ten campuses to make it easier for students to apply to multiple campuses at once, and we're working now to integrate that with Hawai'i's statewide K-12 student information system to make it easier for any of our local public high school students to apply to any of our public colleges and universities in the state. And we're refining our use of metrics to understand our challenges and opportunities. So we now have an array of technology tools and an understanding of the data we should be tracking that we didn't have before."
—David Lassner, President, University of Hawai'i System
The enrollment business isn't what it used to be. The markets served are changing, and customer behaviors and needs are changing. In 2025, the long-looming demographic crisis will hit institutions that serve so-called traditional students aged 18-25 (which is most colleges and universities).
But the enrollment crisis is about more than shifting demographics. Attitudes toward higher education continue to worsen.Footnote1 The educational experiences of many students during the COVID-19 pandemic are influencing their interest in and expectations of higher education. Students are more informed consumers, asking ROI-related questions such as "What will this degree from this institution do for me?" and "What if I start here but I don't complete here? What value will these credits have?" Students and their families are asking questions about the financial commitment they're being asked to make.
Many enrollment strategies are shifting to encompass a more diverse student body, especially in terms of age, full- or part-time status, nationality, and programmatic and credential offerings. But such diversity demands comparably diverse support services and learning modalities whose costs may become apparent only after matriculation, when students' needs are better understood.
Since institutions are operating with many legacy data siloes, there is no lack of companies selling the next widget that might provide enrollment support. To be strategic, institutional leaders must view their data and tools in a holistic manner, validate datasets, and look for causal relationships. Leveraging such information, leaders can help students determine the value of an institution, a degree program, or a credential. Students can better understand how to interweave the higher education experience they hope to have with their daily lives, which have become increasingly complex in the post-pandemic world.
The enrollment and financial crises threaten the fiscal health and strategic identity of many colleges and universities today. These crises can force a healthy reexamination and motivate fundamental shifts (e.g., offering different types of degrees with different price points) that could help increase institutional relevance, access, and affordability at a time when all three may be eroding. Leaders and professionals throughout higher education are rethinking the concepts of a student and of a student's journey. Traditional models may be less widely appealing, but that needn't doom higher education.
It will take data, as well as market research, to help design and assess different offerings and the future business model of the institution. Data is now more abundant and varied thanks to the many applications that institutions deployed to adapt to the pandemic. Much of this data extends beyond students' academic experience. Such data also provides an opportunity to better understand prospective and current students' needs and, accordingly, to adjust academic programs, support services (from housing and food insecurities to mental health needs), and enrollment process touchpoints.
Lead with your value proposition. Target and pinpoint offerings to those whom the institution can best serve, instead of a "grow at all costs" ethos. Models like competency-based education and digital credentials can help reach new markets and change the perception of the value of higher education, but ideally, such innovations will be derived from the existing strengths of the institution.
Don't get complacent. The world is changing rapidly, and today's success may be tomorrow's stagnation. Leaders need to use data and foresight techniques as signals of change to anticipate emerging needs and recalibrate offerings accordingly.
Garbage in, garbage out. The abundance of data sources requires ongoing reconciliation, validation, and remediation before the sources are integrated into institutional data repositories and reporting tools to ensure trustworthy dashboards and analytics.
Democratize data. Enrollment models require a single, shared version of trusted data that draws from numerous data sources. Move data and notions of data ownership out of institutional silos and shadow systems and into an institutional data ecosystem.
Cultivate external partnerships. Many individual institutions are vulnerable, but partnerships between, for example, a group of two- and four-year institutions and local communities or employers can help leaders simplify transitions across institutions and optimize offerings to markets.
The Key to Progress
Harnessing data to address the enrollment crisis is part of a larger institutional transformation. This transformation is iterative and ongoing, and so stakeholders' use of data must be similarly dynamic.
From Strategy to Practice
What You're Saying
"The data analytics discussion right now is most focused on the enrollment crisis and student success. We are building models to determine how to change our institution."
"Enrollment is at the forefront of the college mission, as we have seen too many other schools of our size end up merging or going under completely."
"Like everybody else, we are trying a lot. We are actively trying to recruit a Vice President of Enrollment Management to get us on the right track. I believe so much could be solved by understanding the data, our business processes, and the barriers within those processes."
"The Learning Network of MN is supporting the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities in looking beyond enrollment of traditional college students. This includes seeking partnerships with K-12 institutions for both faculty development and dual enrollment, as well as with statewide workforce development organizations and industries that may enroll employees for upskilling and/or reskilling. We are also looking to reach adults with no degree but some credit."
"California State University has launched a CSU-wide task force for addressing enrollment, along with a cross-functional subgroup that will explore how to better use data across the system to promote recruitment and retention. The fact that so many stakeholders are interested in partnering to tackle this topic demonstrates both the importance we are placing on this issue as well as our desire to work together to develop innovative solutions."
What You're Working On
Comments provided by Top 10 survey respondents who rated this issue as important
- Leveraging data to identify new revenue streams through workforce programs and corporate partnerships.
- We have engaged in an exercise to review programs for which student enrollment is very low, the outputs of which will guide campus spending.
Consultants and services
- Purchasing analytic services from vendors.
- We use a third-party consultant to help us analyze data of each incoming class. It helps with better predictability for forecasting.
- Working with third-party advisors to analyze data and look for trends and helpful information.
- Continuing to build out our Salesforce recruitment funnel to include consolidated/integrated communication with students and smoother transitions for first-time students through matriculation and first year.
- Added full-time staff positions and made substantial investments in software solutions to enhance enrollment by leveraging analytics. This data-driven approach enables the university to identify trends, optimize recruitment strategies, and make informed decisions that attract prospective students, ultimately leading to increased enrollment and student success.
- New systems to improve communication (CRM) and understanding of prospective students. Redesigned website with improved use of analytics to provide meaningful data regarding student behavior.
Dashboards and reporting
- Creating dashboards to assist with identifying course-level costs/profits to help determine whether to run or add a section.
- Using ZogoTech to harness data to inform the president and provost.
- Utilizing Tableau for reporting and dashboards on enrollment management.
- We are developing a dashboard that allows us to look at each academic program from an ROI perspective. We are working on the operationalization of how we use this to track trends and annually inform our decisions.
- We are implementing a data warehouse with a Microsoft Power BI front end and educating all users on how to utilize and modify dashboards. The main focus of this effort is currently enrollment/admissions and student success.
- We're adding new fields to our data to help identify trends that may be impacting our enrollment and retention numbers.
- Working on a data lake to provide enhanced reporting to enable predictive analytics for student success.
- Changing approach to recruitment based on data.
- Using admission trends data from across the country to identify new countries and sources for international students to make up for the drop in domestic applicants.
- Using data to determine which prospective students are more likely to attend to concentrate recruitment efforts.
- We have a pilot project using an AWS data lake to analyze responses to graduate marketing campaigns.
- We have a strong accelerated enrollment program with area high schools, where students may take college classes while still in high school, with incentives to attend our college after they graduate high school. Many classrooms are equipped with videoconferencing hardware to facilitate HyFlex, hybrid, and similar learning modes.
- Campaign to increase enrollment and retention through a comprehensive data-collection tool.
- Looking at ways to leverage OCR to get data into systems faster for enrollment and other decisions.
- We have a new vice president for enrollment management, who brings with him a lot of tools to get the right data to increase our enrollment in this challenging time.
- We have added significant resources by deploying additional academic advisorsto increase retention, persistence, and success (graduation), giving them access to data in the SIS and elsewhere.
- Megan Brenan, "Americans' Confidence in Higher Education Down Sharply," Gallup (website), July 11, 2023. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
Tracey Birdwell is Program Director, Mosaic Initiative, Indiana University Bloomington.
George Claffey is Vice President and CIO, Central Connecticut State University.
Sarah Cockrill is Director of Digital Strategy and Information Technology, Canterbury Christ Church University, United Kingdom.
Dale Pike is Executive Director and Associate Vice Provost for Technology-Enhanced Learning, Virginia Tech.
© 2023 Susan Grajek and the 2023–2024 EDUCAUSE Top 10 Panel. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.