The future of our global society relies upon a well-educated citizenry. While American higher education has been a role model for centuries to develop and inspire leaders and citizens around the world, current enrollment trends are not favorable to broadly support the status quo. Consider these two statistics:
- Spring 2022 enrollment across higher education in the United States dropped 4.1 percent (or 685,000) compared to spring 2021 and dropped 7.4 percent (or 1,269,000) compared to spring 2020.
- The average full-time college student does not enroll in enough credits to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years.
Therefore, as you prepare for your fall board meeting, I urge you to strategically prepare to address the implications of these data, especially how these enrollment trends will affect your foundation’s priorities. These enrollment declines come on the heels of spending considerable resources to recruit, enroll, retain, and graduate more students. While these investments over the past few years were intended to generate more tuition revenue to prepare and equip more students to participate in global economies and societies, this approach may not be sustainable in the coming years.
The pandemic accelerated the widely reported “demographic cliff,” signaling shrinking incoming classes. Further, perceptions regarding the value proposition of postsecondary education continue to sour. Unfortunately, many students who manage to enroll, invest their time, and take on debt, still fail too often—and end up economically or even psychologically worse off than when they started.
Thankfully, boards and senior leaders can collaboratively chart a brighter path forward.
While foundation boards do not oversee enrollment at their institutions, they have a critical responsibility for helping provide financial aid, student support services, and opportunities to strengthen both enrollment and retention efforts. I encourage you to consider what types, scope, and scale of financial aid and student support strategies your institution’s chief executive and team intend to offer your students.
While your institution controls and directs financial aid offered to your students, foundation boards are in a strong position to highlight the impact that merit- and need-based financial assistance and student support services have on donors. Further, foundation boards, chief executives, and teams can determine if donor engagement strategy shifts are required to align institution and foundation goals.
For your reference, as enrollment is declining for many institutions, I am suggesting to institution boards that they consider opportunities to expand their prospective student populations and adjust their enrollment and student services strategies to support underserved student populations. Foundations can be a critical part of those types of efforts, and these topics will be discussed during AGB’s Foundation Leadership Forum in San Antonio, Texas, January 29–31, 2023.
Expanding the types of students that your institution serves will likely make strengthening the value of higher education for all students more resource-intensive, but ultimately it will be the right decision. Frankly, most institutions need stronger retention and graduation rates that correlate with student success. Traditional models must give way to more responsible and flexible strategies across campus. Additional course flexibility, internships and work-study programs, mentorships and advising, guided pathways, and financial assistance will be key to ensuring that more students who enroll will complete their education and realize success. Foundations can be critical partners in supporting these new approaches. For more examples of ways to enhance student success, review my communication on using holistic data to inform student success.
Questions for Board and Committee Chairs
- How does the changing market for higher education affect your conversations about supporting enrollment and student success strategies and priorities?
- Should enrollment and student success be useful topics of discussion in a joint meeting of the institution and foundation boards?
Questions for Board Members
- What kind of dashboard metrics would you like to see to understand your institution’s enrollment and student success, including in disaggregated terms among different student populations?
- How can your board focus on both enrollment and student success?
Questions for Chief Executives and Leadership Team Members
- Which leadership team experts and campus leaders can contribute to your board’s conversations about enrollment and student success?
- What issues regarding support for student success can be handled operationally, and what needs strategic input from the board?
Remembering Susan Whealler Johnston
Last month, you may have seen the sad news about the passing of AGB’s former executive vice president and chief operating officer, Susan Whealler Johnston. Susan went on to become president of NACUBO, where she made an abiding impact supporting college and university business officers. She left a transformational legacy at AGB as well. Through her leadership, AGB showed governing boards that institutional finances, academic quality, and board responsibilities were all deeply interwoven. Her perspectives on a host of higher education issues still echo in AGB’s work today. Read more about Susan’s impact on AGB and higher education here.
Thank you for the deep commitment, passion, and energy you have for your foundation, students, and higher education broadly. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with questions, suggestions, and concerns.