Admissions has changed. Will colleges change too?

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

Scott Jaschik recently interpreted the findings from the 2017 Survey of Admission Directors, sponsored by Inside Higher Education and Gallup and drawn from a sample of 453 admission directors. While the full discussion of these findings is too complex for this space, the general conclusions, especially those specific to enrollment patterns, are telling.

Nearly two-thirds of colleges missed enrollment targets

The most startling finding is that “only 34 percent of colleges met new student enrollment targets this year by May 1, the traditional date by which most institutions hope to have a class set.” This number is down from 37 percent a year ago and 42 percent two years ago.

At the public doctoral institutions, the story was a bit more rosy, but even there only 59 percent of the institutions met their May 1 enrollment target. Only 22 percent of public/bachelor’s/master’s institutions, 27 percent of community colleges, and 36 percent of private colleges and universities met their May enrollment targets.

This is a growing issue since most colleges and universities are heavily dependent on tuition revenue; hence, the size of the incoming and returning classes directly impacts their financial bottom line.

Admissions leaders see fundamental shift in enrollment trends

The reaction of admissions leaders is especially interesting. For this year, 55 percent said that they were very concerned while 30 percent said they were somewhat concerned. This number increased slightly from the 54 percent who were very concerned a year ago and more dramatically from the 31 percent who expressed deep concern two years ago.

There sees to be a growing recognition that the numbers will not support older, more favorable patterns of enrollment. In short, admission officers understand that something fundamental has changed.

That’s a good beginning for those worried about how demographics, consumer whim, political expediency, sticker price, tuition discounting, and retention and graduation rates intersect to produce this softness in the market.

The IHE/Gallup Survey also looked at how colleges and universities are reacting to this softness, asking about the tools that admissions officials will use to strengthen their market share. Among the key findings:

  • Many colleges, especially private institutions, appear to be focusing recruiting strategies on students with the capacity to pay full tuition and fees.
  • In the realm of international student recruiting, many say that American higher education has become too dependent on students from a few countries, but most admissions directors don’t think that’s true of their institutions.
  • While most colleges don’t check applicants’ social media, some do — and some applicants are being rejected or having acceptances revoked because of their posts.
  • Officials at many colleges, more public than private, say they are stepping up recruitment of rural and low-income white students in the wake of the election, and a small minority of colleges is stepping up recruitment of conservative students.
  • Admissions directors strongly believe that higher education has an image problem with ramifications for enrollment patterns — and that image problem may be the worst for liberal arts colleges.
  • Admissions directors — from both public and private institutions — believe they are losing potential applicants because of concerns about debt. But private and public college admissions leaders differ on how much debt is reasonable.
  • The idea of free tuition in public higher education is seen by most private college admissions directors as a threat to their institutions. While admissions directors in public higher education are more open to the idea, they have areas of skepticism as well.

Enrollment solutions being considered are incremental, not systemic

What’s striking about the tools employed by the admissions officials is that they are tactical and incremental. Those surveyed do not appreciate that the solution must be more comprehensive and linked to a broader view of how higher education must adapt to the complex intersection of the changes that are buffeting it.

Their solutions are scattershot and more like a band-aid applied to surface wounds, with no apparent connection among the challenges and opportunities that American higher education faces.

The problem is simple to diagnose. America’s colleges and universities utilize operating and financial models developed in the 1960s and 1970s that no longer work for them.

It was possible to disguise the growing crisis now affecting higher education when improving demographics, state and federal government policy, and a simple “revenue must meet expense” financial accounting successfully disguised what was coming. The assumption was that rising family incomes would overcome recessions and any attempt to cap revenue built into older tuition models. But the global economy has changed and the path ahead is far less certain.

That’s not to say that the sky is falling on America’s colleges and universities.

Each institution must find its own unique solution because their historic circumstances, market positions, and financial resources differ.

It is a call for action. The trustees, administrators and faculty must have the stamina to lead through creative solutions and at a faster pace than the incremental changes suggested by the IHE survey.

This article first appeared on the blog of the Edvance Foundation.

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