These days, students have a plethora of options besides getting a degree. To stay ahead of the competition, private colleges must find ways to keep enrollment up, drop-out rates down, and donors in.
It’s a scary, but true, statement: there’s a crisis in higher education and not all small, private colleges will survive. Between a decline in college-age students, an increase in tuition costs and the struggle to get student loans, many high school graduates are opting to go straight into the workforce and skip college altogether.
Cheaper online education and military recruitment only intensify the competition. Students have more choices than ever before – and unfortunately that increases the likelihood that they won’t choose you.
Top Challenges For Private Colleges
When we talk to leaders at small, private colleges across the country, we hear four common concerns that keep them up at night. Do these sound familiar?
- Declining enrollment. Many schools tell us that while they used to increase enrollment year-over-year, for the last 5-8 years, it’s been on a steady decline. The data tells us that this is in part due to demographic changes. Between now and 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau projects the population of 18-year-olds to decline by around 200,000 and not recover to current levels until 2025.
- Rising drop-out rates. When we talk to college administrators – even ones who claim to have high admission standards – we’re seeing more and more small schools forced to be less selective. When the pressure is on to achieve enrollment goals, they’re admitting students who can’t cut it academically or can’t afford it financially – both leading to increased drop-outs. Sometimes, we see colleges discount tuition to the point where they’re educating students at a net loss – obviously not a sustainable solution.
- Stagnant endowments. Smaller, private colleges often have very modest endowments compared to elite schools with deeper pockets. Fewer students equal fewer alumni, which often equals fewer donors – specifically fewer “big fish” to buoy smaller donations. Without a healthy endowment to draw from, funding operating expenses and investments in school growth can be challenging or impossible.
- Increased competition. Gone are the days when high school graduates either went to a four-year university or community college. With more colleges than ever before, including small, specialty colleges, and the influx of online education and training options – the higher education competition is fierce. And with the current job market, colleges are now competing with people skipping college (and student loan debt) altogether!
How Private Colleges Can Address These Challenges
So, what can private colleges do to tackle these challenges and turn things around?
Reversing Declining Enrollment
The key to reversing declining enrollment is two-fold. First, reassess your program offerings: Do your programs meet the market demands? Are there jobs available in these areas? And do these jobs appeal to your prospective students?
Your programs and offerings need to be RELEVANT. An audit will uncover which programs do well, which are struggling and what new offerings may be needed to address growing trends in the workforce. You may learn that you need to retire some programs and make room for new ones!
The other side of the enrollment puzzle is recruitment. You may need to expand beyond your “typical student” to grow your prospect pool. This might mean people in older or younger age segments, in new geographies or in different life stages.
You should also take a fresh look at your marketing and advertising. Is your messaging stale? Is your website old? Are you generating leads through the digital channels where today’s prospects spend their time? Are you leveraging your alumni base for word-of-mouth marketing? I’d be willing to bet you’re not firing on all cylinders, and there’s more work to be done here.
Lowering Drop-Out Rates
We see a growing disconnect between the functions who handle prospective students and current students. In a time when consumer expectations are high, students expect the same easy experience from their college as from Amazon Prime.
A messy hand-off between what a student is “sold” by the Admissions and Marketing departments, and what a student “experiences” with Student Success, Residential Life and Career Services departments, etc. can cause extreme frustration. With students less likely to feel like your college is their only option, they bail.
If you notice your drop-out rates increasing, trace those students back to the beginning of their customer journey. Where did that lead initially come from? Who was the admissions rep they coordinated with? Were there any red flags with financial aid or the business office? What was their transition from Admissions to Student Success like? Something went wrong with this student at some point in the process, and it’s up to you to figure out where.
It’s important to conduct impartial exit interviews and/or surveys to understand why students are leaving. By identifying common pain points or issues, you can build an action plan to avoid similar situations in the future.
Exciting Donors to Draw Their Support
When I think about the times I’ve donated money or time to a good cause, my action was usually spurred by someone making the ask. It’s not that I don’t want to help or offer support, but sometimes it’s not on my radar. Alumni and donors can be the same way.
If they’re not donating, have you even made the ask? And if you have made the ask, did it come out of nowhere, or had you tried to build and nurture a relationship with that person before you needed something from them first? Donor cultivation starts on graduation day. By keeping new alumni engaged, you are building a base of future donors.
It also helps if you can make the case for why they should donate. Highlighting the impact of donations can help make the case for future campaigns.
Getting (and Staying) Ahead of the Higher Education Competition
When prospective students and parents are researching their college options, it’s important to consider these elements:
- Share a clear value proposition. What’s in it for them? How will they benefit from attending your school? Don’t speak in your language, speak in theirs. Show you understand their needs and challenges. Make your college relevant.
- Directly pit your school against others. Don’t tiptoe around why you’re better than the competition, put it out there publicly and make the case. Help them understand what they should consider in a college, and then prove why you’re the best choice.
- Make it easy on them. Audit the steps someone must go through to find information about your college, get in touch with someone, schedule a tour, fill out an application, etc. Are you making the process easy, or are you putting up unnecessary hurdles? If the latter, then people will naturally go down an easier path (toward a competitor).
While some of these challenges may be outside of your control, there are proactive steps you can take. By working together, Enrollment, Marketing Communications and Advancement can identify gaps and turn things around through innovative thinking and proactive planning.