Reversing Negative Enrollment Trends at Small, Private colleges and universities

Share this article

John W. Dysart
The Dysart Group


As we approach the end of another recruitment cycle, most small, private colleges and universities are continuing to struggle with enrollments.

  • The demographic cliff is real and a reduction in the size of the customer base is having serious implications for higher education.
  • On top of demographic challenges, more high school students are electing not to pursue college degrees. In particular, the number of minority students and males opting out of the college selection process is alarming.
  • Inflation and economic downturns make access to college a real problem for middle class families and for students with high financial need.
  • More colleges are closing. More institutions are discussing mergers and acquisitions although successful couplings are rare and extremely difficult to accomplish.

None of this is new and none of this is surprising. What is surprising is the number of institutions unwilling to make the appropriate changes to their admission and financial aid operations to address the new market.

Believing that utilization of the same old strategies and tactics is somehow going to work after years and sometimes decades of enrollment decline is delusional.

Update your search plan.

Recent changes with testing agency policies and fewer students taking the standardized tests as more schools implement test optional requirements means that fewer names are going to be available for colleges and universities to search.

These changes will require identifying new sources for prospective student names and likely mean adjustments to search mechanisms and messages.

Update your communication plan.

Student interests and priorities are evolving. Make sure that you take a hard look at your current communication plan to alter messaging. You also a need a robust plan for communication across all formats including social media, text messages, email messages, telephone outreach and direct mail.

Review your website.

Updates and enhancements to your website are critical and must occur systematically. Ensure that you include storytelling for success using text and video messages from students, parents, faculty and employers.

Include a detailed focus on outcomes.

Little is more important to students and families than career outcomes. Make sure that your website and communication package emphasizes career outcomes and includes specific examples of success.

Schedule an external audit.

Now is a great time to engage outside professionals to review your current strategies and tactics. Take advantage of an experienced consulting firm to provide state-of-the-art analysis. This can be a beneficial step and can allow for data-driven recommendations when you may not have the time to conduct the review on your own.

If you want improved outcomes, you must make changes to your approach.

Share this article