How Enrollment Trends Are Affecting Private Nonprofits — and Tips for Increasing Student Engagement

As of January 2022, more than 1 million fewer undergraduate students were enrolled in U.S. colleges than in fall 2019. New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows a dramatic total two-year decline during the COVID-19 pandemic of 6.6%, or 1,025,600 missing enrollees.

The pain is widespread, with undergraduate enrollment down at every type of institution. Even an encouraging modest historical uptick in student enrollment at four-year private nonprofit colleges proves illusory when the three dominant private nonprofit schools — Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Liberty University — are removed from the dataset. A recent analysis by higher-ed technology consultant Phil Hill that excluded the big three shows that rather than total sector enrollment increasing by 5.1% between fall 2012 and 2020, it decreased by 1.1%.

We can’t just blame the pandemic: Enrollment in the majority of private nonprofit institutions has been trending downward since a peak in 2015. While COVID-19-related health concerns and economic pressure have exacerbated the phenomenon of disappearing students, other factors — including demographics, rising tuition costs, and innovation in postsecondary education — also are at fault.

Why Higher-Ed Institutions Are Struggling

Private nonprofits are struggling to attract students for highly nuanced reasons, with many contributing factors — some within an institution’s control and others not. Here are a few of the reasons behind declining enrollment trends in higher education that we at Archer have witnessed firsthand.

1. Growth in Alternative Education

Students have more options than ever to upskill or gain the skills they need to land quality employment. Alternative adult education programs such as bootcamps are siphoning off students from traditional institutions because they allow students to learn relatively quickly, often at a lower cost. According to Technavio, the global coding bootcamp market grew by nearly 14% in 2021, with 41% of the projected growth between 2021 and 2025 coming from North America. 

The reasons prospective college students and career changers are turning to bootcamps and other alternative education programs, as opposed to pursuing a traditional degree, include:

  • Alternative payment structures such as income share agreements (ISAs), wherein students receive funding for their education in exchange for a share of their future salary
  • Less debt
  • Shorter programs focused on job-ready skills
  • Direct job placement opportunities
  • A more transactional experience preferred by today’s younger demographic

However, while growth of the bootcamp market is projected to accelerate, increasing year-over-year enrollment gains by alternative adult education programs still account for only a small portion of enrollment losses by traditional higher ed.

2. Failure to Communicate Value Proposition

Students today are savvy consumers. Many say they can’t afford — or choose not to pay — the cost of a traditional degree. With triple-digit percentage increases in tuition and fees at U.S. private and public universities over the past 20 years, who can blame them?

While attending a traditional college or university can be expensive, the return on investment of a college degree is well established: A bachelor’s degree holder earns a median of $2.8 million in their lifetime, or 75% more than if they had only a high school diploma, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. 

But many students — especially those focused on the short term — aren’t getting the message. According to Jennifer Carolan, general partner and co-founder of education investment firm Reach Capital, “For a huge segment of teens who have now spent most of their high school years in pandemic — and got deeply into crypto, Web3, coding, gaming, etc. — to them, the school/college value prop is weaker than ever.”

Moreover, many higher-ed institutions fail to understand and/or communicate their unique value propositions — the features and attributes that make their schools different and worth the investment of time and money. If an institution doesn’t know its own value proposition, why would a student?

3. Inability to Keep Up With Market Trends and Changing Student Preferences

The pandemic was the shock to the higher education market that some would argue it badly needed. 

The March 2020 emergency shift to remote learning forced many schools to use technology to scale and improve student experiences, resulting in increased mainstream adoption of many education technology (edtech) tools such as videoconferencing and e-proctoring, as well as increased online access to academic support and other services.

This prompted institutions that had been slow to adapt to the changing postsecondary education market and evolving student preferences and expectations to pivot to online learning and introduce new, more flexible alternative education options such as bootcamps, stackable courses, and certificates. However, many institutions are still catching up to market trends.

4. Failure to Personalize the Student Enrollment Journey

Speed to engagement is critical for today’s prospective students — digital natives accustomed to personalized experiences. They expect answers to their questions 24/7 via a seamless digital experience.

If prospects are no longer answering their phones, why are many schools still calling? Students want to choose how they engage with an institution, whether by text, email, or other digital communication platforms. Moreover, students expect to receive personalized, dynamic communications based on their specific actions. Successful institutions engage quickly via a digital format and then nurture one-on-one relationships between enrollment coaches and serious candidates. Institutions that miss the narrow window of opportunity to capture and convert a qualified lead don’t often get a second chance. 

With higher education enrollment trending downward, private nonprofit colleges can’t afford to make the aforementioned mistakes. Sadly, many still are. The unfortunate reality is there will be consolidation in the private nonprofit space, and some institutions will close. The sector’s mission — positioning students for success and helping communities thrive — is undoubtedly important to individuals and society. So, what can be done to reverse the trend?

What Higher Ed Can Do to Attract Students

Despite declining enrollments for the sector as a whole, many private nonprofits are growing and building a recruitment pipeline for the future. Here’s what successful schools are doing differently:

  • Understanding and communicating their institutions’ unique value propositions — what truly makes them stand out in the market
  • Developing in-depth profiles of their target audiences and understanding where they fit in each prospective student’s personal journey
  • Delivering a personalized experience that helps students understand the value of a degree in accomplishing their career goals
  • Creating tech-forward, mission- and story-driven experiences from initial engagement to graduation to personalize the student journey
  • Establishing cultures of innovation and experimentation — including exploring new ideas and introducing new learning modalities  — to keep pace with the changing needs of students and the job market

Boosting Higher Education Enrollment

While the new enrollment data is concerning for private nonprofit colleges and universities, we at Archer Education are bullish on the future of higher ed. Every day, we see the great work being done on campuses across the country to combat the challenges the sector is collectively facing. While internal and external forces will continue to put pressure on private nonprofit institutions, schools willing to evolve and adapt their approaches to student recruitment will position themselves for success now and in the future.  

Turn Disruption Into Opportunity

Archer Education partners with a variety of institutions to help overcome enrollment challenges and guide them through the current evolution of higher education enrollment using tech-enabled, personalized enrollment marketing and management solutions. Click here to request more information about Archer’s full-funnel engagement strategies and digital student experience technology.