by Shelley Seale

Colleges and universities may never look the same again.

Over the last decade or so, student demographics at institutions of higher education have been changing rapidly. Far from the “typical” post-high-school college student who attends full-time and obtains her degree in four years, today’s students are just as likely to be older when they enter university, a first-generation student, working while enrolled, a parent — or more than one of these.

Nearly half of people entering college today are more than 25 years old, and nearly half also work at least 30 hours a week. When it comes to graduate students, a whopping 76 percent do so. Nearly one-third of entering students are the first in their families to attend college, and more than four million undergraduate students in the U.S. are also parents. Roughly half of those are single parents, and also roughly half also work full-time.

In addition, there will be a significant decline in new college students beginning after 2025. Triggered by the “birth dearth” of the 2008 economic recession, fewer students will graduate from high school through at least 2032, draining college enrollments and revenue.

These changing demographics have wreaked havoc on college enrollment, admissions, and retention and have changed the entire landscape of higher education. Roughly 25 percent of public universities will face steep enrollment declines of nine percent or more after 2025, and 75 percent of institutions will see negative growth in 2020-28 according to Othot, provider of the nation’s most advanced analytics platform for colleges and universities.

In Othot’s latest Higher Ed Pulse Report released this month, Futureproofing Institutions Against the Demographic Cliff, the organization analyzed enrollment trends and institution-level data from more than 450 four-year colleges and universities. One of the most significant findings was that there are deep differences in how schools are positioned to address that forthcoming demographic cliff and enrollment plummet.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges even more with the shift to online learning, again with some institutions far more prepared than others to successfully navigate the world of virtual education.

Small liberal arts colleges are among those hardest hit, with some even closing their doors. MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, closed in May 2020 after 174 years — one in a growing list of small, private liberal arts colleges in danger of folding as the coronavirus pandemic brings long-term economic trends into stark relief.

“Small colleges across the nation were facing very difficult times even before the virus,” Beverly Rodgers, president of MacMurray, told WBUR News. “Higher education is not nimble. We are steeped in tradition, and we are not always able to move as quickly as we need to. There needs to be a remake of higher education as a business model, in my opinion.”

David Jesse of Detroit Free Press wrote about the fight for survival at Michigan’s small liberal arts colleges. Focusing on Albion College, Jesse explained that their response to declining enrollment was to offer hefty tuition discounts and ramp up recruitment in heavily minority areas. While these efforts diversified the campus and gave more students access to a college education, it didn’t solve Albion’s financial woes.

Because of the steep tuition breaks, even though enrollment increased, revenue actually went down. The pandemic brought a one-two punch — with many students not returning to campus and electing instead to attend online, the $16.3 million income that Albion pulled in from residential halls took a massive hit as well.

Andy Hannah, chief partnership officer and one of the co-founders of Othot, is also an adjunct professor of analytics at the University of Pittsburgh. Hannah explained how his team uses sophisticated algorithms to predict the likelihood of student enrollment, and how that data could help colleges and universities in their recruitment efforts by providing a way to better understand a potential student.

“If we predict somebody is 30 percent likely to enroll through those algorithms, our next step is how do we maximize it? That’s a student we really want to come to our university,” Hannah said. “How do we maximize a probability to get them to enroll? That’s called using prescriptions. And those prescriptions could be financial aid, it could be a marketing program, it could be a visit to the campus, it could be a call to them at their home.”

Hannah added that when it comes to thinking about the demographic cliff coming up in 2025 when the number of college-age freshmen will begin to drop dramatically, the pandemic provided a sort of trailer to that movie.

“It gave us a preview to what’s coming. And there’s no doubt we have this supply and demand issue that’s rising. I think COVID has also introduced a whole different distance learning concept that we haven’t quite figured out yet, but we will. That’s going to open up our universities and colleges to a group of students that aren’t necessarily in our backyard.”

Higher education institutions must figure out how those students will fit with their programs and the outcomes they are generating — and then thinking about how they can reach out to those individuals.

“The headline here is that the winter of enrollment is coming,” said Patricia Beeson, Provost Emerita, University of Pittsburgh and Director of Research at Othot. “And to be ready, to prepare, you need to know how those conditions will impact your recruitment market directly and what the opportunities and challenges are. You’ve got to get that information and see it clearly, and then act quickly. Otherwise, demographics will become destiny and for many schools, that future is not pretty.”

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