Give it the Old College Try: Another View of the College Enrollment Conundrum


There are a plethora of news stories and reports about declining enrollment at colleges and universities. Of course, not every college and university has enrollment challenges — in fact, some are doing well. Binghamton University — a research juggernaut in New York State’s Southern Tier — recently announced a record number of applicants this year. Other colleges are also seeing enrollment growth, but enrollment is down for the sector as a whole.

One recent piece in the avalanche of analysis stuck out. In a provocative piece in Forbes, Derek Newton argues that it’s not an enrollment problem; it’s a retention crisis — the proverbial case of buyer’s remorse. In other words, students are enrolling in college, they’re just not staying. In particular, Newton takes issue with how many are framing problems, specifically the argument that there is a national shift in the perceived value proposition of a college degree. Heck, I’ve written about that too and it made me question my research as well. That’s what a good piece does.

Newton’s subtext is COVID is the main culprit. He notes that new student enrollment is up this year. As Newton states,

“More accurately then, if new student enrollment is up, what colleges have is not an enrollment crisis. What colleges have is a retention crisis. The drop in attendance, in other words, is being driven entirely by those in college not staying in college. Nuance, but an important distinction…What’s changed since 2020 is the college experience. Students who signed up for and took out loans to experience the college experience found themselves on soulless zoom calls. They’ve been pushed off campus and yanked back again. Classes are suddenly “hybrid” or worse.”

In fact, a recent National Center for Education Statistics projects an 8% increase in enrollment in colleges and universities from 2020–2030. Maybe Newton is onto something.

Or perhaps both things are true.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis of workforce and college enrollment of recent high school graduates found that during the height of COVID fewer recent high school grads enrolled in college. In 2019, 66.2% of high school graduates enrolled in college versus 62.7% in 2020 and 61.8% in 2021. The last time the percentage of recent high school grads enrolling in college was that low was in 1994 and 1995. In other words, during the most intense period of COVID, new enrollment was down more than 4 points.

(A note for my email readers. This piece includes more interactive charts that don’t appear in the email so please check out the piece on my site.)

At the same time, more than a quarter of incoming college students didn’t return when COVID crashed down on us. As many reports have articulated, the COVID college experience was disruptive with restrictions, hybrid schedules, asynchronous learning, and more. Students survived. It wasn’t fun.

But higher education enrollment challenges are not just because of COVID. COVID may be a convenient excuse, but it’s not the full story. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrates, fewer high school graduates were enrolling in college overall before COVID. For example, in 2009 70.1% of recent high school graduates enrolled in college versus 66.2% in 2019. During the same timeframe, the number of college students likewise declined by 5%.

In other words, students weren’t enrolling or staying — a double whammy.

Is a post-secondary education worth it? Most certainly. A recent report by the Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce illustrates that a person has considerably more earning potential if they earn a college degree. (1)

Of course, there are multiple pathways to success and a bachelor’s or other advanced degree isn’t always required. As the legendary Sly and the Family Stone sang, “different strokes for different folks.” People aren’t widgets — we must build individualized educational pathways that help every individual succeed.

But it’s incumbent upon us to figure out how to demonstrate a post-secondary education and provide the support to make students successful. I’ve discussed this in previous pieces, such as “Back to School: College’s Hottest Commodity — The Adult Learner”. Others have sounded the alarm, such as the Hechinger Report.

The Convenient COVID Culprit

COVID may have exacerbated the decline in enrollment, but it didn’t start it. Take, for instance, a post-2016 election poll by NBC where nearly 50% of the nation said the college is no longer worth it. Mind you, those who responded that college isn’t worth it could benefit from a credential or a degree.

The poll found:

-60% of the respondents categorized as “poor/working class” said college wasn’t worth the cost, while only 35% said it was worth the cost.

-55% of those with a high school diploma or less thought college was worth the cost, but only 43% said it was worth the cost.

As Captain (the prison warden) in one of the greatest films ever made, Cool Hand Luke said, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” If higher education is to turn the enrollment ship around, it is essential that higher education’s value proposition be communicated in a way that connects with those who need it.

But it’s not just a communication exercise. It is critical to transforming the system to meet the needs of the modern student.

There are institutions that are transforming the landscape, like the competency-based model offered by Western Governors University (they charge a flat fee where the focus is learning the objective/skill as opposed to how much time a student spends in the classroom). Love ’em or hate ’em WGU is meeting market demand and they are growing. According to National Center for Education Statistics data Western Governors University enrolled 22,497 students in the Fall of 2010 growing to 136,139 students in the Fall of 2019.

Some sectors, like nursing, are following suit and are implementing competency-based programs. As American Association of Colleges of Nursing Chair Dr. Susan Bakewell-Sachs said in announcing the change in 2021,

“Academic nursing is taking this great step forward to champion competency-based education…We believe this approach to nursing education will strengthen our professional identity and set the standard for graduates of baccalaureate, master’s, and Doctor of Nursing Practice programs to demonstrate their ability to lead change and achieve optimal outcomes across the continuum of health care.”

Innovations, such as these, are important steps to solve the college enrollment, retention, and persistence conundrum and meet the growing workforce demand. Let’s give it the old college try.


(1) The Center on Education and the Workforce does, however, say that’s not always the case.

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