Why Affordability and Accessibility Are the Cornerstones of a Proactive Enrollment Strategy

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Dr. Marylouise Fennell

Dr. Scott D. Miller
Virginia Wesleyan University

With national college enrollment rates falling for five semesters in a row, two common terms heard in enrollment strategy discussions are affordability and accessibility. But for the learners we serve, these terms are much more than just buzzwords.  They represent the difference between dreaming of a college degree and the reality of earning one.

Like many services, the cost of attending college in the U.S. has skyrocketed over the past 20 years.  In 2003, the average in-state tuition was $4,202, but today that number is nearly three times higher, at an average of $11,541.  The price of out-of-state and private college tuition has also more than doubled within that same 20-year timeframe.

Meanwhile, college graduates’ earnings have not quite followed this same trajectory. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, in 2003 the national average starting salary for graduates with a bachelor’s degree was $39,296, and it was $55,260 by 2020.  While that number has obviously improved over the past two decades, it also indicates that the price of the average college tuition is drastically outpacing the starting salaries that the average college education makes possible.

Making tuition more affordable is crucial for ensuring that potential students will see their education as a worthwhile investment.  To achieve this, educational institutions must find ways to offset the rising costs of providing an education by finding new sources of funding that can reduce their reliance on tuition revenue.  They must also strive to limit unnecessary expenses while still investing in the needed technological, environmental, and personnel improvements that will continue to enable the delivery of a first-class education.

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways for creative and resourceful institutions to meet these needs.  This can include increasing the amount of revenue raised from donors and alumni, pursuing federal appropriations and grants, offering student work programs as a form of financial aid, expanding nontraditional programs to provide alternative educational options, and forging new partnerships with regional, national, or even international education partners to offer programs for learners from other schools or in other geographic areas.

Publicly communicating the institution’s commitment to affordability is also crucial.  One unmistakable way to do this is to freeze tuition costs for a specified amount of time.  This makes it clear to students, staff, and the regional community that the institution is taking its own financial responsibility very seriously.

While streamlining costs and increasing revenues will help keep college tuition affordable for more learners, even the most reasonably priced education can’t help students if it isn’t also accessible.  To increase access, educational institutions must ask themselves critical questions about who needs to learn, where these learners are located, and how they can more easily access learning materials when they need them.

Often, this strategy requires thinking far outside the traditional enrollment box.  For example, schools can partner with employers, nonprofits, governmental agencies, small business associations, and other community groups to develop and offer customized programming that meets the nontraditional learning needs of their members.  Partnerships can also be forged with educational institutions in local or distant geographic areas whose offerings are complementary, such as trade schools, community colleges, ESL centers, MBA programs, and more.

Digital solutions will continue to be a key component of higher education going forward, long after the COVID–19 pandemic has ended.  Although many institutions scrambled to adapt their traditional classes to online versions out of sheer necessity during the pandemic, the lessons learned from this unplanned detour into digital teaching will help educators create even better and more intentional online and blended offerings in the future. This is incredibly important for serving the needs of non-traditional learners whose careers, mobility, health, or childcare challenges make it impossible to attend in-person classes on a consistent schedule.

Accessibility also means having access to crucial support, especially when it comes to students’ mental and emotional health.  A recent Boston University study of 350,000 students at more than 300 campuses finds that the mental health of college students across the U.S. has consistently gotten worse over the past decade, with students reporting a 110 percent increase in anxiety and a 135 percent increase in depression between 2013 to 2021.  Because of this, learning institutions must prioritize expanding their mental and emotional support services to better serve the health needs of their students. This will help reduce attrition and ensure that more students are able to finish their studies and complete their degrees.

By dedicating themselves to making education more affordable and accessible, colleges and universities will do more than just create new solutions to stop the current enrollment crisis.  They will also create new opportunities for students to obtain an education that could change their lives — an education they might not otherwise be able to afford, access or achieve.


Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan University, Virginia Beach, VA.  Previously, he was President of Bethany College, Wesley College, and Lincoln Memorial University.  He is Chair of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Hyatt Fennell, a higher education search firm.

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