Do You Want the Good Enrollment News or the Bad Enrollment News First?

Posted: December 14, 2022

Joy George Proofreader

The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) recently released their year-over-year enrollment data for Fall 2022. According to the Fall 2022 report, “U.S. colleges and universities saw a drop of just 1.1% of undergraduate students between the fall of 2021 and 2022. This follows a historic decline that began in the fall of 2020; over two years, more than 1 million fewer students enrolled in college.” And while there are some people celebrating the drop of just 1.1% in undergraduate student enrollments between the fall of 2021 and 2022 … is this really good news?

According to NPR, Doug Shapiro, the leader of the research center at NSC, doesn’t think so. “I certainly wouldn’t call this a recovery … We’re seeing smaller declines. But when you’re in a deep hole, the fact that you’re only digging a tiny bit further is not really good news.”

Elissa Nadworny of NPR states, “Enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has been trending downward since around 2012, falling by at least 1% a year. The pandemic turbocharged the declines at the undergrad level. Now, the decline has resumed at a steadier pace.”

But remember that the 1.1% average is just that – an average. Some higher ed institutions are feeling the impact more. NPR’s Nadworny gives examples such as “the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a regional four-year public college, enrollment is down 3%. About 45 miles south, another branch of the university that is also a historically Black school, in Pine Bluff, saw enrollment go down by 7% compared to last fall.”

The Covid-19 pandemic helped higher ed institutions lose more than a million potential applicants in just two years. And during those two years, the marketing needs of higher ed have shifted dramatically.

The Consolidation Conundrum

Dana Cruikshank, VisionPoint’s Vice President of Market Strategy, notes that after Covid-19 enrollment declines, “the consolidation trend is in full swing. We are seeing institutions with strong national brands, such as UMASS Amherst, as well as solid regional brands, doing just fine, with many seeing record- or near-record enrollments. Unfortunately, this growth is coming at the expense of smaller institutions and others who don’t have the same brand cache. So the strong are grabbing a larger share of a shrinking market.”

Lack of enrollment means a lack of funding, which in turn is causing smaller institutions to need a better, more personalized marketing strategy that can help fill their specific needs. Unfortunately, the need for consistent revenue streams at a time when the college landscape is changing is leading to this shift. Between 2016 and 2018, around 60 institutions merged and more than 700 were at risk of needing to consolidate. And that was before the pandemic.

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Where Are the Transfer Students?

And then there’s the issue of the missing transfer students. Community colleges were dealt a huge blow during the pandemic. According to NPR’s reporting, their enrollment drops were in the double digits. But the research by NSC shows “only a 0.4% enrollment loss compared to fall 2021 – thanks in part to increased enrollment among high school students who were dual-enrolled and freshmen.”

Katy Campbell, VisionPoint’s Vice President of Client Services notes that because “community colleges were hit so hard in 2020 and 2021, four-year institutions are now feeling the lack of transfer students in 2022 and needing to find more revenue pipelines to make up that difference.”

While there are different reasons for the missing transfer students, the problem remains: What are institutions to do about the enrollment decline plaguing the country?

A New Take on a Growing Problem

With the consolidation problem and the lack of transfer students and the addition of the looming demographic cliff, higher ed institutions – technical schools, two-year colleges, community colleges, and traditional four-year colleges – are going to have to adjust their thinking in response to the changing landscape of enrollment nurturing.

Take our client partner, the University of Missouri – Kansas City, for example.

On the surface, UMKC had everything going for it. Strong programs, strong name. Flexible classroom environment. More than 125 program offerings. A public research facility with tuition discounts. Unfortunately, regional schools like the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas overshadowed UMKC. Solving UMKC’s enrollment issues took looking at the problem in a different way.

The basic top-of-funnel solutions weren’t going to cut it. After developing a breakthrough idea – a must to stand out and find right-fit students in this market climate – we were able to drive over 13 million impressions and 6,125 conversions within 13 weeks in-market. Our efforts led to 181 applications, 133 admitted students, and 99 newly enrolled students directly attributable to the campaigns.

VisionPoint maps out the entire journey of a prospective student.

Here’s where our new take on the enrollment marketing problem is different than other marketing agencies. We don’t look at the student journey as ending once the RFI is submitted. With fewer students applying to more schools, we’re helping clients look past the initial RFI and nurturing students through graduation. We’re looking past the initial conversion and figuring out what it takes to build affinity. Because record applications on their own don’t mean anything if the students don’t end up coming to your campus. It’s our work creating breakthrough creative and our active approach to digital strategies that allow us to achieve the returns we get. We optimize our media campaigns and consult with our clients weekly to adjust and improve our client partners’ ROIs. And, we do this with each of our clients. We don’t create one program and apply it to all higher education institutions. We research, analyze, and plan for each individual client partner.

And, do you know what we’ve found? It’s working. “We had several clients run dual enrollment campaigns and saw single-digit increases which is great momentum compared to pandemic trends,” Katy Campbell says. “Interestingly, we’re seeing men return more than women at some community colleges – where women were dropping out faster and in greater quantities during COVID.”

Without communicating with our clients frequently and adjusting campaigns as we see the need, these successes wouldn’t be possible. And, this is what gives us hope for the future of higher ed marketing. We at VisionPoint know what needs to be done for our client partners to be successful at yielding classes, and we are in the trenches with them every step of the way ensuring their success.

Work With Us

Even though the news seems bad, or at least not great, there are strategies your institution can employ that can improve the situation among different enrollment marketing goals you have, and we’d love to help you succeed in yielding your next class. Look at what we’ve helped other higher ed institutions accomplish over the last 21 years in higher education marketing – where we spend 100% of our focus – and reach out to our Vice President Dana Cruikshank for a free consultation call.

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