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A Second “Enrollment Cliff”?

In a May 10, 2022, blog posting, we wrote about the much-discussed “enrollment cliff” projected for US higher education in 2025. Based on our review of data available from the National Center for Educational Statistics, we concluded that there was no cliff nationally for 2025. We did note, however, that there was a short-term demographic challenge that had not received sufficient attention. This was the significant change in the racial and ethnic composition of the high school graduate population expected during the period. The white population, the largest segment served, was projected to decline by 15 percent, while the Hispanic segment was projected to grow by 49 percent. This change, we suggested, would require colleges and universities to be more proactive in offering support services tailored to the specific academic and personal support requirements of the Hispanic segment.

In the same blog, we identified what we believe to be a more serious challenge—and opportunity—for higher education between now and 2030: to become a serious player in the emerging Knowledge, Work, and Learning Ecosystem, shown in the figure below. In this depiction, learners are at the center, connected to three sets of value providers. 

Higher education institutions will be but one part of this larger ecosystem. The scope and size of their role will depend on how much they can transform to adapt to these rapidly changing conditions and become engaged, innovative learning enterprises with the following characteristics:

  • Engaged, innovative, nimble, and affordable.

  • Provider and certifier, curator, and concierge.

  • Gateway rather than gatekeeper.

To function in this way, colleges and universities will have to:

  • Transform their education processes.

  • Offer new, open curricula, providing more affordable options and choices.

  • Leverage many channels of engagement.

  • Deploy multiple modes of learning.

  • Collaborate with a broad range of partners.

  • Broadly engage their communities in using new technologies and tools.

  • Commit to preparing their learners, faculty, and staff for success in this emerging Knowledge, Work, and Learning Ecosystem—starting now.

Institutions that can successfully transform in this way will see their enrollments increase as they expand and transform to serve learners throughout their lifetimes, offering what is called the 60-year curriculum. As a bonus, many of the steps they take to serve this new market will help them address the racial/ethnic challenges we mentioned earlier.

And What About This New Enrollment Cliff?

In a recent article in the February 7, 2024, Chronicle of Higher Education, Dan Bauman describes a projected second “enrollment cliff,” driven by lower, post-Covid fertility rates projected in a new Census forecast. The impact of these fertility rates is likely to be substantial. In these new projections, the number of 18-year-olds will crest at 4.2 million in 2033 and then decline to 3.8 million in 2039 and remain at that level for the remainder of this century. These numbers suggest that traditional higher education enrollments will decline by ten percent rather than leveling off at about 4.2 million, as was earlier projected. The expert opinion is that this decline will have the greatest impact on low enrollment and financially weak institutions.

With this additional data on the second enrollment cliff, what adjustments would we make to our earlier conclusions? Our revised set of conclusions is listed below.

  • We hold to our assessment that a nationwide high school graduate demographic cliff projected for 2025 was overstated and only affects institutions in the ten states centered in the Northeast and the Midwest.

  • The projected significant change in the racial/ethnic composition of the high school graduate market that we highlighted is correct. Our assessment that this change will require colleges and universities to offer academic and support programs that better ensure the success of these new populations was also correct.

  • We continue to maintain that institutions can thrive in the years ahead by transforming to serve the 2030 Knowledge, Work, and Learning Ecosystem by becoming engaged, innovative learning enterprises. Their enrollments will increase as they expand and transform to serve learners throughout their lifetimes. As a bonus, many of the steps they take to serve these new markets will help them address the racial/ethnic challenges before them.  

  • We also continue to believe that many college and university leaders will be well advised to take these trends into account and begin now to transform their institutions to address these challenges. They can take on these challenges now and, as enrollments grow in new markets, gradually reduce their traditional academic program capacity. Our book, Transforming for Turbulent Timesprovides an approach for successful institutional transformations of the type we talk about here. It can be ordered on our website.

  • A new, far-reaching conclusion we offer is that higher education has assumed an overly defensive posture, with the aim of protecting its traditional position in the Knowledge, Work, and Learning Ecosystem. We do not believe that this approach will serve well in the years ahead. Traditional markets are shrinking, public satisfaction with the return on investment in higher education has declined, the cost of college degrees has skyrocketed, and many traditional learners are choosing vocational training programs more frequently. To be sure, there are excellent examples of institutions that have transformed in the face of these challenges. However, the vast majority have remained on the defensive. Concurrent with these market losses, higher education’s capacity to lead in American society has declined in part because of its defensive, unresponsive, and inward-facing posture.

We would argue that higher education needs a radical change in mindset. It must move aggressively to transform its instructional, research, and public service programs into offerings and products that are driven directly by the needs of those it serves. Indeed, as higher education leaders consider how their institutions will relate to the traditional high school graduate population, we believe that they must reckon with the fact many of the students they have admitted in recent years have not been college material and should have been counseled to seek their learning from vocational and education providers that are better matched to their capabilities.  

Finally, higher education leaders and the institutions they lead must engage in helping society address the disruptive threats that are looming over it. Our view is that higher education has a unique combination of knowledge and expertise that it must quickly move to deploy strategically and proactively to help all levels of society and government. To do this successfully, it must realign its mindsets, vision, and offerings to match the requirements of the emerging world of 2030. This transformational change will be essential to its success and can ultimately enable higher education to reclaim its rightful position in society. 


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