Higher education institutions are all too familiar with the volatile slew of causes that perpetuate the constant fluctuation of enrollment rates. An analysis report published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center details enrollment changes submitted by various institutional sectors; the 2019 enrollment report shows a constant lessening of admissions numbers over the past five years. Diminution of student enrollment at colleges, universities, and other educational institutions across the nation suggests the need state of potential postsecondary students had altered from the need state of those students pursuing a degree when enrollment rates were net positive.
However, the objective decrease of total enrollment numbers demands an examination of the changes taking place on a micro-level. Enrollment of the total population juxtaposed by the admission of nontraditional learners highlights a significant insight into the latter group’s growth in the higher education sector. The nontraditional learner proves to be on track for a degree at a higher rate than historically seen. Where the reality of enrollment fluctuations is predictable, those at the core of the shift are an ever-evolving group, meaning that the hopeful retention of high enrollment is dependent mainly on pinpointing what it takes to know about and appeal to those students.
Regardless of age, race, gender, or economic background, learning is a lifelong pursuit. The education system is in place to facilitate the proper techniques for learning and gaining accreditation for one or multiple skillsets. Decreasing enrollment at postsecondary educations suggests that, as a society, people are discovering new ways to learn and prove their credentials beyond the merit of an institution. Lower enrollment spells trouble for those institutions that can’t afford the hit of low enrollment over an extended period. Recognizing that the makeup of the prospective student body is different today than in the past indicates that marketing the benefits of the institution requires a more tailored approach targeted at the life of the individuals rather than a catch-all assumption of a large group.
The Path of Education Is Changing
Historically, exclusivity has defined the makeup of higher education enrollment. Colleges and universities were for those people who came from money and had family connections to educators or institutions, leaving anyone not defined by such privilege to set forth on another pursuit. Possession of a degree established the division between those working white-collar jobs and those performing blue-collar work. As postsecondary education became more attainable, opportunities came to students who didn’t fit the bill years earlier; the expectation began to be that anyone capable of receiving a degree need do so.
Today, the value of a degree is yet again undergoing intense scrutiny - this time in disagreement of its importance. A consensus of prospective students no longer think college is the immediate next step following high school or even a necessary aspect of career development. Many high school graduates are skipping higher education to head straight into the workforce, using the skills they developed at a young age to carve out a place for themselves in positions typically filled by people with years of higher education.
As young people are taking a different approach to life after secondary education, nontraditional students are becoming a more significant portion of the student body. The reasons for returning to school vary, but a few examples are:
- Possession of a certain kind of degree is a requirement for changing or advancing in their career
- The opportunity to attend school presented itself to someone who did not complete higher education after high school, although they may have wanted to
- The gap year(s) taken after high school is over and school was the intended next step
- The financial state makes school seem like a viable option with a likely return on investment
Another change in the education sector is the shift away from traditional degree-seeking institutions fostered by a growing preference towards a trade or vocational certification. The benefits of pursuing a skilled trade are multifold. Firstly, an associate degree takes an average of two years to complete compared to the typical four years required to attain a bachelor’s degree. Less time to completion means tuition costs are close to half of what they’d be at a four-year institution, and the graduate gets into the workforce, makes an income, and begins paying off any loans quicker than their collegiate peers. Also, a growing need to fill jobs in STEM (science, engineering, technology, and math) aligns well with the kinds of certifications most vocational institutions provide. High school students who aren’t sure about what to pursue after graduation or have decided against attending a university are at a perfect place to pursue trade school.
People Are Financially Conscious, for Their Own Reasons
Even though current enrollment numbers show a dwindling concern towards postsecondary education, there are still those who very much want to attain a degree. A substantial barrier to this pursuit is the monetary cost associated with higher education. Business Insider writes about how college is more expensive today than it ever has been and that no price break will happen anytime soon. The outright cost of a degree is continuously at odds with the anticipated income of that degree in practice. If the job opportunities available following the attaining of a degree don’t make the return on investment needed to outweigh the gross cost, many people are likely to skip higher education and work their way through the job market to avoid dipping into debt.
An interesting thing to note regarding people’s money consciousness and how it affects their willingness to attend school is the health of the economy. According to a Stanford Economics professor, an impending recession may increase interest in going to college. When unemployment rises, and well-paying jobs are harder to come by, the investment in school doesn’t seem like as stark of an opportunity cost compared to when the job market is booming.
Postsecondary Education Is a Tremendous Time Investment
In addition to the financial burden of higher education is the time investment required to succeed as a student. Attaining a degree is no easy task, and for those who already have the responsibilities of a family or a full-time job, tacking on the responsibilities of academia to the laundry list of life’s duties can seem like more work than it’s worth.
The opportunity cost of time is different for a single, childless adult than it is for a parent, but each party faces certain caveats to the state of their situation. An independent adult typically has fewer home responsibilities and only need to support themselves financially through school, especially if they’re not able to work full-time while pursuing a degree. An individual who is a parent or spouse has familial responsibilities to manage, along with the pursuit of a degree. Still, a dual household helps relieve some of the tension as their partner can take on a larger caretaker or breadwinner role to lessen the stress for the partner who needs to focus on school.
A report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the workforce found that over 70% of students worked while enrolled in school. Although making an income helps offset the costs accrued while pursuing a degree, the findings also point out that students are struggling to balance work, school, and other life priorities. When the juggle becomes too much, one of those three things gets tossed out. Given declining enrollment statistics, it’s safe to say that school has become the thing people tend to deprioritize.
“Side Hustles” Are Becoming a Viable Career
Hobbies are different today than in the past. They’re being used to make money along with a full-time job. Where some people may have thought higher education was an excellent opportunity to move up or out of their current position, their side hustle may be the answer to that. If they’re focused on taking their side gig full-time, they’re no longer thinking about school, they’re thinking about what steps it’ll take to make their hobby something bigger. Where they may not need school to learn a new skill or become proficient in something, the work done in school can help develop a more professional type of portfolio. There’s also the prospect of meeting people and expanding a personal network in the industry of the hobby by meeting fellow peers who have the same interests (this Forbes article dives deeper into the relationship between school and the gig economy).
With the fluctuations of enrollment comes the need for an audit of marketing tactics used to combat the changes. Students today must consider a variety of factors when deciding to pursue or pass postsecondary education. They’re not only thinking about how a degree can help them get a higher paying job, but they’re also thinking about their other priorities and how they can fit those with their plan to go to school. Most career paths used to demand postsecondary education directly following high school. Now that people don’t see it that way, they have different motivations for going. To persuade them that school is the right choice, higher education institutions need to display their benefits in a way that speaks directly to the life stages of these students. Factors like age, experience, personal interests, and finances detail the wide variety of life stages these students could be experiencing. Therefore, a more individualized, tailored approach is necessary to make these students feel like the acquisition of a degree or certification is what will ultimately benefit them in their future.
Higher Education Marketing Strategy
LaneTerralever is an independent agency that specializes in developing higher education marketing strategies for clients, including Universal Technical Institute, Northcentral University, Rio Salado College, and Touro University Worldwide. To identify and understand the life stages of our clients’ target market, we take research into our own hands. In our latest white paper, we aimed to gain a better understanding of the motivations and barriers facing nontraditional students as they consider a return to school. Download the white paper here.