Preparing for the Great Enrollment Crash

Colleges need to get ready, write Robert Massa, Don Hossler and Jerome Lucido.

November 18, 2019
 
Istockphoto.com/Debbie H. Perkins Photography
College of Charleston

American colleges and universities have weathered severe storms throughout their history. Wartime pressure, civil unrest, demographic shifts and economic downturns have resulted in everything from a suspension of activities to temporary and sometime permanent college closings. With major demographic shifts already upon us and more to come, colleagues have recently written in this and other higher education publications about the challenges faced by many colleges to enroll new students. They predict, as we do, even tougher times ahead. For those of us who have been responsible for enrollment and net revenue, it is natural to think about what our institutions must do to survive and thrive.

At conference workshops and in op-ed pieces, our colleagues have done a good job of offering suggestions that address current challenges such as expanding the definition of “student” to include older individuals who have some college but who want/need to finish the degree and developing partnerships with businesses to meet their training needs. But institutionally focused responses, while necessary, are no longer sufficient given what we are facing: declining public trust, rising prices, declining numbers of high school graduates combined with an increase in the numbers of students of color, an admissions process that is not understood and assumed unfair, and now -- with the elimination of several code of ethics principles as a result of the Department of Justice investigation on “restraint of trade” -- the emergence of a virtual free-for-all in student recruitment where colleges can continue to recruit students heavily even after they have committed to another institution. To serve all potential students and to bolster our institutions and their ability to deliver, we need to act systemically.

We believe that we are at a critical juncture in the evolving history of American higher education. To this end, the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California will host a conference in Los Angeles from Jan. 26-28 on “Restoring Public Trust in Admissions and Higher Education.” This forum will bring together college presidents, enrollment deans and higher education association leaders from across the country to discuss the complex issues surrounding the need for systemic change and other timely and important issues in the wake of Varsity Blues and the move by the National Association for College Admission Counseling to expunge several key ethical principles from its code after the DOJ made its position clear. More information on the CERPP conference can be found here. After the conference, we expect that a major national conversation will be launched to effect significant change in college admissions.

The time is now to organize this national conversation with leaders representing the public and private nonprofit higher education sectors. The goal would be to research and critique our current funding, discounting and financial aid models in addition to the various methods by which students gain admission to a particular institution. In the context of the demographic projections showing a decreased number of high school graduates in the Northeast and Midwest, as well as an increase in the number of low-income students graduating from high schools, the leaders might suggest options for systemwide changes in the ways in which students are funded from institutional and from federal/state resources. They might also suggest adjustments to current admissions practices that may not be entirely open and friendly to underrepresented and lower-income students.

Because the stakes are so high, a systemic approach to addressing significant demographic and economic realities is the only way to achieve results that can be replicated nationwide. For example, a major challenge will be a larger percentage of prospective college students coming from low-income backgrounds where English may not have been the language spoken at home. These young people have been left behind in many cases. While 78 percent of students from the top income quartile were enrolled in college in 2016, only 28 percent of those from the bottom quartile were enrolled. As their numbers increase, and as the number of students with an ability to pay the full price of education decreases, the diverse system of higher education in this country must adapt. Demographers and labor market experts agree that we need to increase the number of American citizens who have advanced education to run tomorrow’s economy. We can only do this if colleges and universities have the resources and are empowered to recruit, enroll and graduate a larger percentage of low- and moderate-income students then we have in the past.

This work might take several years to complete. It does seem a bit ironic to us that we are suggesting this in the wake of the Department of Justice’s restraint of trade investigation into NACAC’s Code of Ethics, not to mention the 1990s antitrust investigation that ended the practice of sharing financial aid information among overlap schools to assure that no one institution had need-based financial information on a student that another school did not have.

But the stakes are so high for students and for institutions -- and for our nation -- that we believe a systemic approach needs to take shape, emanating from research and discussion among higher education professionals who care about our future.

Our call for a national conversation will need support from the major higher education associations as well as from colleges and universities across the country. Those engaged should be representative of the diversity among nonprofit institutions. We envision an outcome that would chart a new master plan for higher education that could include a series of mission-directed institutional steps alongside new proposals that Congress and the states could debate and enact that would lead to healthier institutions and a sea change in access and affordability. The future of our youth, our society and our economy depends on it.

Bio

Robert J. Massa is vice president emeritus for enrollment at Dickinson College. He also served as chief enrollment officer at Johns Hopkins University and Drew University and is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Don Hossler is a senior scholar at the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California. Jerome A. Lucido is professor of the practice and executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the USC Rossier School of Education. Previously, he served as the chief enrollment officer at the University of Southern California, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Arizona.

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