But let’s be real—enrollment rates aren’t going to increase on their own. It’s going to take some elbow grease to develop a top-notch strategy to get butts into seats.
So instead of lamenting the things that have gone wrong, in this blog post we’re going to focus on three strategies that can help you and your institution work toward increasing student enrollment in 2023 and beyond.
1. Expand Your Target Student Market
A one-size-fits-all approach to your target student demographic isn’t going to cut it.
While undergraduate students might continue to be your bread and butter, they should be prepared to share the spotlight with their nontraditional counterparts.
“We have more nontraditional students in this country than we have traditional-age students,” said Cavanagh, and the expectations of these students and high school-aged students can be vastly different.
“What are the students hiring the university to do for them? In some cases, it’s ‘I want a coming-of-age experience. I want to be on campus after I graduate high school and join a fraternity or sorority, maybe meet a spouse.’
“Other people … more nontraditional learners who’ve been out of high school for a few years and maybe have a few credits, maybe don’t, are looking to improve their circumstances. They’re not looking for the coming-of-age experience at an institution,” said Cavanagh.
“They have a much more transactional relationship, where it’s like ‘I need to get a promotion, or I need to be able to do this new career I’m interested in; therefore, I need this credential that you can provide me and I’m going to pay for that,’” he explained. “That’s a very different relationship. And I think both can live side by side. The university or the college, depending on your mission, should be able to provide both to a student.”
When considering new strategies to boost your student enrollment, dig into the research on the student demographics in your area. If needed, expand your target market to appeal to a wider audience to help boost your enrollment.
Cavanagh also highlighted the importance of expanding offered modalities to help meet the needs of nontraditional students.
“We have more people who are adult learners and need to access education than we have 18-year-olds, and they need the flexibility of online learning,” said Cavanagh. “If we’re going to meet our country’s educational objectives and goals, then we’re going to have to have a variety of different modalities.”
Cavanagh referenced his mom as an example of a nontraditional student.
“My mom is a nurse and worked the graveyard shift in the intensive care unit. If she had wanted to go back to school and get a master’s degree, there’s no way she’s going to make a class Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 10 o’clock in the morning, right?,” he explained. “So a lot of the nurses we support through our programs … are fully online. And that’s because of the kinds of schedules they work.”
By expanding your target market and modality offerings, you open the door to a more diverse range of students, which can mean higher enrollment rates.
2. Consider Freezing or Resetting Tuition
College is expensive in North America. Even with loans, grants and scholarships, a lot of students—traditional or not—can’t afford it.
Freezing tuition means avoiding increases and keeping costs on par with the previous year. Resetting tuition is a fancy way of saying that tuition fees have been reduced.
Being able to say tuition fees are lower or at least haven’t increased can be music to the ears of students (and likely their parents). It shows that your institution is mindful of the financial burden students often face and that it is willing to help make it easier.
While this enrollment tactic may work for some applicants, the cost of a college education will still be unattainable for others.
Many students (especially the ones on the younger side) may need help guiding them in the right direction when it comes to information available on financial aid. Openly and loudly sharing this information through social media or targeted emails can help get their attention and attract applicants.
3. Rethink the Definition of Growth and Revenue Streams
While a growth-at-all-costs strategy can work for some institutions, a more methodical plan when it comes to student enrollment can yield positive results.
Cavanagh is seeing a shift in terms of the growth strategy being used at UCF.
“In the past, we have been very much a pro-growth university and trying to meet the educational demand in our area and the state of Florida as best we can. And that’s what grew us to 70,000-plus students. However, we haven’t always historically been funded to support that level of student body. It’s been a challenge for our faculty and our university as a whole to make sure that we can provide the high-quality experience for every single one of those 70,000 students,” he explained.
“So we’re having some conversations now under our new president about ‘Well, what makes sense for us?’ And I’m not sure we’re going to see the same kind of unfettered growth that we have always seen going forward as we try to align our mission with our student body.”
Instead, UCF will be looking for more intentional strategic growth in specific areas, like high-value graduate programs. Cavanagh also sees value in UCF growing its online capacity to help increase revenue.
“I’ve personally been making the argument to my bosses that some online growth could potentially help, and it could potentially even be part of helping financially with the university. So if we go after, for example, out-of-state graduate students, they have the lowest impact on the campus infrastructure but they pay sort of the highest tuition because they’re out of state.”
Cavanagh said that these out-of-state students who opt to learn online could help make up for programs that go down in headcount. Despite no plan being set in stone quite yet, he does expect his institution to have an enrollment strategy that differs from what it’s had historically.
Another realm in the higher education landscape that can be more pointedly considered to bring in revenue is continuing education.
“Too often historically those continuing education professional education units have been thought of as an extension afterthought, not resourced or put on the front page of the university’s or college’s offerings. In many cases, they could be a front door to the university and for academic programs,” said Cavanagh. “We work with some of our faculty to do programs—custom programs that could introduce students to potential degree programs. So it could be an entryway in many ways.”
Thinking Outside the Box for Future Enrollment
It’s time to stop fixating on dropping enrollment rates and instead take action to pick them back up.