Many colleges and universities are experiencing a decline in enrollment. Often, we look to external causes, shrug, and make spending cuts to compensate for the lost revenue without taking the time to analyze the problem with the specific intention of identifying any internal causes for attrition.
Here are a some questions to encourage critical thinking that might lead to some solutions or at the very least will let you know what is behind drops in your student population.
First, what else do you notice that has changed about your student population? Are they older, younger, coming from different zip codes or ethnic or socio-economic backgrounds? Are you seeing fewer students in your day or evening (or weekend) courses? Is your FTE down because you have fewer full-time attendees? Look closely at the students who dropped out. Did you have a higher than usual attrition rate (and if so, why do you think that is and can you pinpoint where/when you lost them (perhaps in what course or in a specific cohort)? Are there any commonalities among students who chose not to return, and if so, how could those things be impacting their consumer buying decision (see the article on consumer behavior and student departure at http://bit.ly/1brczvN).
Next, determine if the drop in enrollment can be attributed to attrition or recruitment? Did you recruit at least enough students to replace your graduates/completers? If 150 students completed their programs at the end of one term and you did not recruit at least 150 new students, your recruiting practices need to be tweaked to include goals for both replacement and growth. The demographic (and psychographic) information you gathered to answer the first question will be useful in retooling your marketing strategy, advertising campaigns, and recruitment practices.
You’re probably seeing fewer Baby Boomers in your student population now that they are all over 50. GenX (now ages 31-49) is your new older non-traditional student and the psychographics of GenX students and their younger counterparts (GenY) is significantly different from the Boomers’. The student population you are most likely recruiting in the greatest numbers are Generation Y. Currently (in 2014) ages 12 to 30, this population will be the mainstay of your traditional and non-traditional student population until the next shift in 2021 when you will start seeing the Digital Generation as your primary traditional-aged students (18-24). Have your recruiting practices changed to reach Generation Y? Has your faculty kept up with changing pedagogy? If not, you may be losing them simply because of outdated classroom practices or administrative practices that don’t meet their expectations or their needs.
Lastly, take a good look at what has changed at the institution over the past term/semester that might have had an impact on your enrollment. Have you made changes in personnel, policy, practices, or promotion (marketing/advertising) and can you connect any of those to the decline? Like any generation before them, today’s students are resistant to change and will balk if they feel the rules have changed. Are there any favorite faculty or administrators that have left? Changes in policy that impact students financially or academically may be the culprits causing students to become disenchanted and drop out. Even the seemingly simplest practices that you think are improvements over previous ways-of-doing can cause upset for students–for example, converting more services to online access such as registration, add/drop, etc., or introducing hybrid or fully online courses into a program can jar a student’s sense of knowing how to navigate the college experience. If you made any of these or similar changes to practices, think about whether you introduced them to the student population effectively or if you just assumed that your students were technologically savvy and would embrace the change without any transitional upset.
Taking time to focus some energy on identifying where the problem really is and whether there was anything you might have done that had the unintended consequence of attrition should provide you with solid data about where and why your enrollment is dropping. Then, of course, you can take action to lessen the impact of any of the institutional contributors.
Hope the thinking helps. If you have any questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org