To successfully enroll and keep students, colleges and universities will need to look at a variety of factors as they move into the future. We at the Change Leader believe these factors include the changing demographics on campus, students’ prospects for future earnings, the possibility of dropping out and campus safety, all of which are addressed here.

Changing Face of Student Enrollments

The Gates Foundation has a fascinating graphic that depicts America’s post-secondary population. The graphic includes gender, age, type of school, race, financial aid, housing, dependents, learning environment, employment and enrollment. “There’s no one-size-fits-all path to (or through) college – and we need to plan our education policies accordingly,” the foundation states.  

Looking even further provides more daunting challenges. In his research, Carleton College economics professor Nathan Grawe argues that the financial crisis of 2008 will lead to a major tsunami for higher education in 2026. He points to a “birth dearth” which coincided with the economic meltdown which will result in a 15-percent decrease in traditional college-age students in 2026. “When the economy tanked in 2008, predictably, young people decided it wasn’t the best time to have kids,” he told EdSurge. “A little less predictably, when the economy recovered, we didn’t see a recovery in the total fertility rate. So, between 2008 and 2010, the total fertility rate fell by about ten percent, and then since then it’s drifted down even further.”

Show Me the (Future Money)

Not surprisingly, students (and their parents) increasingly are concerned about their financial outlook. As we’ve noted multiple times, many of today’s students are taking on high levels of debt to finance an education. MarketWatch recently reported that outstanding debt reached $1.5 trillion in the first quarter of 2018 (as a comparison, 10 years ago, this number was $600 billion), and researchers from the Brookings Institute believe that many students will be financially crippled by these loans and/or won’t be able to repay them.

However, Grawe foresees a major shift coming. He suggests that while select institutions may see demand go up, other institutions will have to fiercely compete for students, leading to completely different issues with financial aid and program offerings. He said, “…we’re going to have fewer resources, and teaching students whose families can bring very little to the table is just an expensive proposition. All sorts of institutions that are striving to serve a more diverse student body face trade-offs of—do we take this lower socio-economic student, knowing that it might mean that we have to give up on these two middle income students in order to make the books balance?”

In the wake of this seismic change, higher education institutions will no longer be able to just tout the earning power of getting any higher education degree in an effort to recruit students. What leaders are finding is that prospective students (who are becoming increasingly savvy on financial matters) as well as their parents and policymakers want true data as to whether a particular degree really will provide a good return on investment.  (The question is though, will this really matter going forward? We think yes for some — and perhaps even a majority — but there will always be a portion of students who will want to take what they want to take.)

There is a ground-breaking new tool created by the University of Texas System and the U.S. Census Bureau that provides data that helps Texas higher education students i compare the earning power over time based on their majors. This tool is revolutionary because the federal government has banned collecting and reporting student-level information because of privacy concerns since 2008. However, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that by partnering with the Census Bureau, the UT System was able to use the bureau’s secure system which stripped identifying information and stored data that has been anonymized.

These types of tools will reinforce that higher education institutions need to be mindful of industry needs and standards in their curricular and programmatic decisions. Without a close affiliation with professions and an understanding of where an industry is currently at and where it’s going, colleges and universities will find themselves struggling to meet their enrollment goals.

Additionally, new and unexpected sources of financial support may come on line. For instance, the Trump Administration is providing a new $5 million pilot program that will support the creation or improved use of open textbooks in higher education. These texts are made freely available online by authors and can be changed and combined by class instructors.

The Talent Supply Chain

In another change that we see, institutions must start positioning themselves better.  This starts by their understanding who is their “customer.”

Up to now, institutions’ customers have been the student and parent, but more and more people are “complaining” that students are not well prepared to embark on a career after graduation, nor do they have the skills necessary to be successful.

Enter corporate America. Up until now, faculty have for the most part been in charge of curriculum, but we are starting to see corporate America giving more inputs to colleges and universities in the areas surrounding curriculum development.  This is probably a good thing, as most faculty (other than adjunct faculty) do not have “real world experience” – most of their experience comes from research which may or may not (probably not) relate to what businesses and organizations need to be successful in the 21st century.  

Part of this change comes as a result of a change of thinking.  If one thinks about an institution of higher learning as a “manufacturing plant for young minds,” the raw materials coming in the door are your incoming classes. The manufacturing plants that shapes these minds are your classrooms. Your customers that buy this talent are businesses and other organizations.  So, given this model, why should businesses not have an input into curriculum?

Many institutions are moving in this direction through use of Deans’ advisory boards, but more needs to be done to ensure that curriculum meets the needs of 21st century businesses and organizations (and students).

Creating Safety Nets for Dropouts

Maintaining a steady enrollment has become less assured. A New York Times column points out that graduation rates for poor students is abysmal, even though many of these students are talented and capable of reaching graduation.

Therefore, it becomes more important than ever for higher education leaders to look for ways to identify potential dropouts early in their enrollment. With this knowledge, leaders can begin to find ways to reach out to these students and develop effective interventions to keep them in school.

One example of a cutting-edge identification program is emerging at the University of Arizona. Gizmodo reports that the university is tracking the swipes of freshmen ID cards as a way to determine if these students are at risk of dropping out. Researchers collected data from the student’s CatCard IDs, which can be used at numerous campus locations, including residence halls, labs and the Student Union Memorial Center.  The card provides a timestamp and location information based on the card’s sensor. In a separate effort, the university’s researchers collected data over a three-year period that includes 800 data points, such as academic performance, financial aid and participation in the university’s course management system. The University of Arizona plans to use these analytics to create highly accurate indicators of which students are at risk to drop out and then find ways to support students in the university’s programs and practice. Thus far, the university has found that their predictions of drop-outs are accurate 73 percent of the time starting from the first day of classes.

A Sense of Safety

Another issue that relates to student enrollment – and whether they will remain on campus — is their perception about campus safety. Therefore, higher ed leaders need to continue to think creatively about three hot-button issues – sexual violence, free speech and gun violence.

Sexual violence against students continues to be in the news as the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has stopped providing details on sexual violence investigations. This reverses a four-year procedure in which the department began publicity identifying colleges under investigation. The department also previously updated its list of investigations weekly and provided the list to the news media on request. At this time, more than 300 cases nationally were actively investigated and used by the Chronicle of Higher Education for its Title IX tracker.  Under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s leadership, the department has scaled back the scope of these investigations and is resolving them more quickly.

With that said, we can anticipate that the MeToo movement will continue to roil the U.S. culture, including campuses. Leaders need to be prepared with sound policies, fair procedures to determine what happened in these cases, as well as transparency to ensure that the process works as it should.

Another polarizing and unsettling issue that has arisen in the past few years is the question about free speech. This area will continue to be a hot-button issue. For example, the University of Michigan is being sued by the D.C.-based nonprofit Speech First. Michigan Live reports that the nonprofit alleges that the university’s rules that are meant to prohibit harassment and bullying infringe on free speech. The plaintiffs point to 150 reports of alleged “expressions of bias” that include posters, fliers, social media, whiteboards, verbal comments and classroom behaviors.

With that said, there is some differing views coming from the nation’s highest office. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that President Trump actually feels that the “vast majority” of people on campus want free speech and the free speech crisis is overblown. His comments go against statements from Justice Department officials who suggested that colleges ought to take more steps to deal with those who shut down campus events or heckle speakers. In fact, Gallup reports that 56 percent of college students believe that protection of free speech is extremely important to society; however, 73 percent said they support campus policies that restrict hate speech.

Finally, gun violence will continue to be an issue on campuses as students feel shell-shocked by what continues to happen in communities and schools across the nation. A recent Inside Higher Ed story reports that high school students who are now selecting institutions of higher education have come of age in a time of major shootings; they were born the year after Columbine and witnessed media coverage about Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook at young ages. Columnist Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College, suggests that higher education can support these students through the following:

  • Realize that many of these students do not see the classroom as a place of safety.
  • Provide faculty with support so they can make time to acknowledge incidents of violence in their classrooms.
  • Encourage higher education leaders and campus communities to use their voices to oppose school violence.