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The Impact of Declining Enrollment

Higher education student enrollments have been declining steadily in recent years. While the reasons behind the trend are varied, the impact on institutions could be fatal. Operating under lean budgets, universities are rethinking how and who they recruit, as well as what to do with the assets they have. See how academic prioritization and a new look at students are impacting the struggling sector of higher ed.


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “While total undergraduate enrollment increased by 37 percent between 2000 and 2010 (from 13.2 million to 18.1 million students), enrollment decreased by 7 percent between 2010 and 2016 (from 18.1 million to 16.9 million students).” Despite a predicted increase in undergraduate enrollment of 3 percent between 2016 and 2027, it’s no longer breaking news that higher education is in the midst of a downward spiral.

The contributing factors include just about everything: skyrocketing tuition rates, declining college-aged population and a declining population altogether, lack of access, for-profit college closures, debatable return on investment (ROI), demand for tradespeople and the fear of debt. Separate from the question of why students aren’t enrolling as they used to is, what are colleges and universities doing about it.

Unfortunately, many, specifically regional comprehensive universities and other smaller institutions, have already been forced to close their doors. For those still open, but struggling, the impact of lower enrollment, less tuition, and lean budgets requires a new way of thinking and fast. Enrollment at 4-year institutions is projected to be 2 percent lower in 2027 than in 2016, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. This shift in the educational paradigm could be here to stay and for the first time in decades, colleges are rethinking their approach to the business of education.


Most colleges, with the exception of elite private colleges, depending on tuition. Public colleges utilize both tuition and state funds, but those are typically disbursed based on enrollment. With fewer tuition dollars coming in, some universities have gotten especially creative in filling the gaps.

Strategies you’d expect, like lowering tuition, reducing staff and faculty, cutting unpopular programs and maximizing financial aid offerings are being seen across the country. A 2018 National Public Radio (NPR) feature highlighted some surprising money-making initiatives to help cover the average 49 percent of revenue now going towards financial aid. The rising cost of higher education has forced institutions to compete to provide the most relief possible through financial assistance. Life-long debt is a big detractor for potential students, so it’s important for universities to provide as much aid as they can to attract tuition dollars.

While these efforts to support a reduced budget, they can only go so far before working against the university’s ability to provide quality education. A less traditional revenue stream is coming from those universities with established brand loyalty. A number of universities have licensed their logos for use on merchandise, while colleges like Niagara University are utilizing their assets.

Capitalizing on summer tourism in the area, Niagara University opened it’s dorms to guests of Airbnb for $129 a night. Hospitality students run the unconventional “hotel” providing both education for students and resources for the university. Mergers between small colleges and universities, like Wheelock College and Boston University, and land sales, also keep the doors open using whatever is available.


Long-term strategies for riding the wave of declining enrollments have also been adopted by a growing number of universities. As prospective students contemplate the true value of a traditional degree, institutions are widening program offerings with career-focused degrees and stackable credentials. Rather than spending two to four years earning a traditional degree, students can now earn a certificate of proficiency in a specific subject with just a couple of courses.

According to NPR, “from 2012 until now [December 2018], colleges and universities collectively have added – and this is an extraordinary number – 41,446 new degree or certificate programs.” Modern learners focus on the future and that means achieving long-term career success. Professionally-driven programs like law enforcement, information technology, and cybersecurity, healthcare, project management, and human resources put students on a clear and direct career path.

Of course, to accommodate these new demands, institutions must reevaluate the efficiency of keeping less popular programs. Unfortunately, liberal arts colleges and degree programs are often the first to go. In a 2017 Survey by Inside Higher Ed, only 8 percent of prospective students agree that they understand the value of a liberal arts education. Language programs, math and physics, sociology, geography, and other programs less predictive of a specific professional role in the workplace are being pulled from a number of campuses.

The decision to reprioritize academic programs isn’t an easy one, but the process can refocus vital funds toward student success. It can also provide new opportunities for faculty and recruitment to reach a new or different type of student.


As shifts in program offerings open new doors for colleges, so does responding to the modern learner. No longer are university programs just for 18 to 24 year old, just-out-of-high-school-students. Today’s student is typically in their mid-30’s, works a full-time job in addition to earning an education, and has family responsibilities. They want a chance at the education necessary to elevate their career, but they also struggle to balance the demands of their existing responsibilities.

As colleges are forced to let go of physical assets like land and reduce program offerings, there is also opportunity in providing online eLearning courses to meet the needs of the modern learner. Online courses give students the chance to complete their education without the time and location requirements that can make traditional education impossible. Attending part-time is another growing trend, projected to increase by 5 percent over the next 10 years, that institutions can take advantage of with eLearning.

Institutions enjoy the financial benefits of no overhead costs, part-time faculty members, digitalized curriculum and affordable courses to offer students. Additionally, they can reach more students without the physical requirements of being in the classroom. Online education also opens a new revenue stream to attract those missing tuition dollars while providing high-quality education.


Thinking outside the box and looking at education from a business expansion perspective is new for many institutions. Tight resources and timelines mean that the steps taken toward growth need to be deliberate, strategic and ensure fast and lucrative ROI. It’s best to partner with experts in the field who have the experience necessary to make every change count toward the success of the institution.

Beyond Campus Innovations (BCI) partners with institutions to provide cost-effective, custom online eLearning solutions, educational services, and infrastructure to support long-term gains in education. Armed with practical and innovative solutions, BCI gives institutions the tools they need to increase enrollment and retention, develop and implement eLearning technology, curriculum creation or a turnkey full-outsourced solution. Contact BCI for expert consultation to determine the next best steps toward expansion.

Published 7/3/2019

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