The future of our global society relies upon a well-educated citizenry. For centuries, American higher education has been a role model for developing and inspiring leaders and citizens around the world, but 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 system and the business model that undergirds your institutions. 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.
Board members, serving as strategic thought partners with their chief executives and leadership teams, should seek to understand enrollment as a component of the system enterprise. Consider national enrollment trends as part of that understanding (more information can be found in AGB books, webinars on demand, blogs, and other resources). If your leadership team projects enrollment growth, consequential boards will discuss proposed strategies and priorities that can support intended outcomes including, for example, opportunities for merger or affiliation to strengthen programs and services.
If enrollments are declining, boards and senior leaders have some tough decisions to make. One approach I strongly recommend for all boards is to consider serving prospective students who do not fit the “traditional student” model. Identifying and catering to underserved populations is an opportunity to differentiate your institutions inside and outside the system, strengthen the whole system’s impact, and provide more students with a valuable education.
Regardless of your desired direction, AGB is here to support you, your board, and your leadership team to expand or right-size enrollment while optimizing strategies and resources to support your goals. These topics will be discussed during AGB’s National Conference on Trusteeship in San Diego, California, April 2–4, 2023.
Expanding the types of students that your system 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, we 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. 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 overseeing enrollment and student success strategies and priorities?
- What financial, enrollment, and other triggers will prompt you to discuss the value of a potential merger or affiliation, including consolidating campuses or adding more locations?
Questions for Board Members
- What kind of dashboard metrics would you like to see to understand your system’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 related to enrollment and 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 system, students, and higher education broadly. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with questions, suggestions, and concerns.