ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Perpetuating the Enrollment Crisis

October 28, 2014 by Alex McHugh

Earlier this month, the Chronicle of Higher Education released a survey of some 368 small private colleges showing that many were struggling to meet their enrollment targets. The decrease was expected, but has become a focal point for worried administrators. Or, as Paul D. Lack, vice president for academic affairs at Stevenson University, put it: "[y]ou can get addicted to growth."

You can also get addicted to the chase for prestige. And this is often the driving force behind the push to enroll ever more students, to be housed in ever more buildings, with ever more programs to choose from. This approach hinges on the belief that you can only attract more students by climbing in the rankings and offering whatever amenities students demand.

If that sounds like a delusional business model, that’s because it is. It developed during the decades of expansion that resulted from increased federal spending on education paired with a cultural shift towards viewing a college education as a necessity for success. Now, the enrollment gains from increased access have largely been absorbed and fewer students are enrolling. Colleges have been slow to catch on, but if these trends continue, those who fail to catch up now will never get the chance.

Those who want to live to teach another day would be wise to consider the advice offered in Governance for a New Era. The first section of the report focuses on the need for universities to refocus themselves on their educational mission. The authors argue that sitting around and waiting for federal and state funding to come back is simply avoiding the problem—governments are struggling with budgets and are unlikely to increase funding soon. Nor is it a good idea to pursue the bargain basement model and just cut back on everything (although this is how 7% of schools said they plan to respond the situation).

Rather, the tightening of the education market gives schools an opportunity to think through what their real purpose is—to redefine their mission from meaningless platitude into a concise description of how students will benefit. If they can focus on their strengths and work to cut costs for students, they might be surprised to find how many students show up for welcome week next year.

Recruitment and admissions experts asked to comment on the survey agree. Here’s David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling:

Institutions that thrive know whom they serve; offer attractive, relevant niche programs; and market themselves well. The survey’s list of colleges that had hit or exceeded their targets included many that are relatively obscure, but have some combination of those qualities.

Unfortunately it looks like many are moving in the wrong direction, with 59% adding new programs that are popular now rather than eliminating those with low enrollment (18% said they’d do that), and 73% saying they’ll put more money into marketing. Both approaches further entrench the prestige model and put the institution even further out of touch with the realities of today’s higher education market. 

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