Will the Higher Ed Enrollment Decline Get Worse? Students Say Yes.

Students are reporting less willingness and fewer opportunities to get a college degree. How can institutions respond to the higher ed enrollment decline? We outline two key strategies.

Recent higher ed enrollment trends paint a grim picture: Following steep declines between 2019 and 2021, enrollment across all undergraduate educational sectors continued to plummet in the spring of 2022.  

Predicting exactly what’s ahead for higher ed enrollment is tricky. On the one hand, a recent Winston poll found that public opinion of higher education has improved (somewhat) after taking a nose dive in the latter part of the past decade. A Lumina-Gallup Student Study also states that enrollment intentions “are extremely high for those who report they have stopped out during the pandemic.”

On the other hand, only 45% of high school students think higher education is necessary. Before the pandemic, 60% of high school students felt that way.

A 2022 report by the Strada Education Network presents further evidence of a sustained downward trend. According to their data, confidence among past, present, and prospective students in the value of education has been declining. The report states, “perceptions of education’s value are just as important for predicting enrollment behavior as respondents’ self-reported likelihood to enroll.” 

The writing’s on the wall: Among many Americans, higher ed has lost its luster — they no longer feel that college is worthwhile. Higher learning leaders will be grappling with enrollment woes for the foreseeable future.

What It Will Take to Reverse Enrollment Trends In Higher Education

Enhancing student employability is one way to tackle the issue. Internships, career advising, and mentorships are all critical ways to boost confidence in the ROI of higher education. 

However, institutions will only get so far if they don't address the top barrier to college education: cost. Chris Geary, a senior policy analyst at New America’s Center on Education & Labor, said in this Inside Higher Ed interview that the “skyrocketing cost of college is one of the most significant barriers to college access and completion.”

The Gallup-Lumina report echoes this perspective, stating that at least “half of all unenrolled adults report the cost of a college degree is a very important reason they have not continued their education.” Indeed, the average cost of higher education has more than doubled in the 21st century.

Two Key Ways Higher Learning Leaders Can Respond to Enrollment Trends

With Biden’s student loan cancellation plan coming into effect, relief for the high cost of college is in sight. But even if the program does get rolled out as planned, it won’t immediately help prospective students.

There are also perception issues to consider, which may determine whether students decide that an investment in college is too high. Many high school students who likely qualified for state financial aid in Tennessee, for example, didn’t think they were eligible. 

An appropriate response at the institutional level, then, covers two things from a cost perspective: affordability and communication. Here’s what that looks like in practice.

1. Affordability: Cut Down on Textbook Costs

Tuition is just one of many significant expenses current and prospective students have to consider: The average price of traditional textbooks, for example, is between $80 and $150, with some hard copy books costing as much as $400, according to an Education Data Initiative report. When students have to pay for yet another thing, it contributes to the feeling that college isn’t worth the cost. 

It’s not surprising, then, that many students skip buying textbooks altogether, negatively impacting grades. Some students have to wait for their financial aid to kick in before purchasing a textbook, which can also worsen learning outcomes and contribute to a negative college experience. 

But the situation is improving with more higher learning institutions providing digital options. 

“The average cost of college books and supplies declined in the 2020-2021 academic year, partly due to an increased rate of textbook rentals and use of digital course materials,” states the Education Data Initiative report. Digital textbooks are typically 31.9% less expensive than their paper counterparts.

The benefits are even more significant when digital textbooks are delivered within a content provisioning model called Universal Learning — where content is packaged with enrollment in a class. Higher learning institutions can level the playing field and provide all students with day one access to content, helping everyone get the best possible chance of succeeding.

2. Communication: Build a Better Financial Aid Experience

Navigating the bureaucracy of student financial aid programs can be overwhelming. Many students end up taking on more student debt than required — or they simply forgo college due to perceived financial risks. 

That’s why Ivy Tech Community College Sellesberg is focused on educating students about how to fund their education through grants and student loan counseling. The goal is to lower levels of student borrowing and student debt. 

Training financial aid staff to provide better customer service and setting goals around student satisfaction are two other key ways to address the issue. According to a survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Support, students are most likely to call out the financial aid office (along with the registrar) for providing lousy customer service. 

Technology can also help: According to one academic study, text-based nudges are “a readily scalable strategy for improving student completion of important college-going milestones, such as timely [Federal Student Aid] filing.” 

Anything colleges can do to make the administrative side of financial aid more manageable for students will be a benefit. After all, learning can be a rewarding challenge — but the same can’t be said for filling out financial aid forms. 

Making College an Affordable Investment in the Future

People with a college education have a better shot at earning a livable wage and weathering economic storms. With the right tools and approaches, higher learning leaders can address the skepticism about the value of higher learning and give more people the opportunity to succeed in higher education and in their careers. 

Enrollment trends in higher education have turned for the worse, but they can be addressed.

BibliU can help make college more affordable for students.

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