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Applications Are Up!

But what does that really mean for college enrollments?

The number of students that have applied to colleges nationally is up for the 2023-2024 school year. For many schools that have experienced a downward trend leading into the pandemic and since the pandemic, this is an encouraging sign. But as leaders in higher education know, more applications and even more acceptances may not result in more deposits.

For years schools could safely predict “yields’ based on historic trends. It was all about getting students to apply. But an increasing number of applications at a time when the population of students is declining (enrollment cliff), inflation is significantly higher than historic norms as are interest rates, and the federal government is more focused than ever on ensuring that the cost of a degree bears some, even remote, connection to the financial benefit of obtaining that degree, may have changed that paradigm.

Closures resulting from the status quo

Over the last several years some colleges faced the enrollment cliff and the disconnect between degree programs and jobs and assumed that staying the course was the best path forward. Cazenovia College, Marymount California University, Quest College, and Holy Names University are a small sample of the growing graveyard of colleges. In some cases, these schools had been around for more than 100 years. As I mentioned in a previous blog, pandemic funding kept some colleges afloat longer than they otherwise would have, and as a result, more foreclosures are in our future.

For the top schools (ex. Harvard, Duke, Dartmouth, etc) there were a record number of early action applications and the result was a record low acceptance rate at some of those schools. This will result in those that didn’t get accepted at the elite schools focusing on the second choice and so forth down the line. But for those colleges that are excellent schools but are not elite, what happens at Yale or Notre Dame, does not impact their enrollment results and the mistake is to assume that the early higher application data is in and of itself a positive sign.

Some smaller schools are retooling for the future

There are some smaller independent colleges that have recognized that the status quo is a recipe for failure and have started to take significant steps to address the challenges they face.

Here are some examples of what is taking place nationally:

· Tuition and fee transparency through lowering tuition or tuition resetting

· Reducing or altering degree and program offerings based on enrollment trends

· Adding micro-credentialing and certificate programs

· Considering the sale of properties that were acquired when enrollments were robust

· Implementing incentive-based budget modeling based on credit hour production

· Privatizing campus health and other services

· Rightsizing staff

· Delaying filling vacancies to create “turnover savings”

· Partnering or merging with other colleges

· Partnering with 2-year schools as part of a dual enrollment strategy

· Implementing energy efficiency measures

Survive and thrive

The budget challenges facing higher education are not new as this article from 2020 shows and even large public schools have started to pivot to the changing face of higher education. That said, smaller schools have always operated closer to the margins, and those that are purpose-driven and committed to retooling have a real opportunity to compete for students and thrive even if the increase in applications does not correlate to historic yields.

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