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New Year, New Opportunities: Innovative Strategies for Universities to Boost Enrollment by ReEngaging Stop-Out Students

by Dr. Don Hossler

A Concerning Decline: Current Enrollment Trends

For most colleges and universities around the country, the census for the fall and spring enrollments are always critical times to increase university enrollment. A census tells you how many students are enrolled, which in turn determines the financial condition of the institution. Right now, at too many schools, the news is not good. While elite private universities as well as most public flagships continue to see high enrollments, regional public and private four-year colleges, as well as many community colleges, continue to see low enrollments.

Enrollments are down not because of demographic trends, but because fewer students are going to college. In the fall of 2023, first-year students fell by 3.6%. Three years after the Covid-19 pandemic, Doug Shapiro, the Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, has noted that there are more than 1 million fewer students enrolled in post-secondary education. The major cause of this decline is that fewer students are going on to college, instead they are seeking a “more direct link to the workforce,” such as career training and post-college employment.

Although overall enrollment at community colleges has increased, it still lags behind pre-pandemic levels. Retention improved at both two- and four-year non-profit public and private institutions, but not enough to enable them to reach pre-Covid enrollment levels.

The Importance of Retention and ReEngaging Stop-Out Students

As a result of these trends, colleges and universities must work harder not only to enroll new students, but also to retain currently enrolled students and reenroll both undergraduate and graduate students who have stopped out. In addition, they need to focus on students who applied and were admitted, but never enrolled anywhere. The objective is not to attract students with no prior connection to the university. Instead, the focus is on reengaging individuals who have previously shown interest in the institution, specifically those who either interrupted their studies there or who applied, were accepted, but did not initially enroll.

Creating efforts to reenroll or reach students who did not matriculate anywhere, is no small task. These are populations of students to which  traditionally two- and four-year colleges have not paid a great deal of attention. Many of these stop-out students are older students who were enrolled in on-line programs and admissions offices have not yet developed strategies to focus on these students. There is less research, and fewer lessons learned from experience to guide admissions offices. On top of that, for many admissions offices it was a bad time to take on new tasks because many offices were short-staffed as the result of burnout and resignations post-Covid.

For too many colleges and universities, undergraduate enrollment management units often do not meet regularly with the units that manage online education. Cohesion between these two teams is crucial for finding effective and collaborative strategies. Many universities and colleges are beginning to consider the types of data necessary for effectively targeting ‘stop outs’ and ‘never-enrolled’ students in relation to the academic programs offered by the school. This includes evaluating how these programs are structured to better suit the needs of these specific student groups, resulting in a greater likelihood of them remaining enrolled.

Key Strategies for ReEngagement

The strategies needed to reach these students are incremental and built upon one another. As universities and colleges, you need a thorough self-assessment of what you know about these students. If you lack the necessary data, you need to determine how you will collect it and from where you will obtain the information. Do you have staff in place with experience working with these kinds of students that can help develop effective recruitment strategies? Has there been adequate planning and a commitment of resources put in place to undertake these efforts?

Another crucial element for successfully reenrolling students and attracting those who never enrolled is the support of senior campus administrators, with Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) playing a particularly important role. In periods of tight budgets, CFOs are tasked with cautious fiscal management, often leading to a careful evaluation before approving new expenditures. Given the historically limited focus on these student groups, additional resources are necessary to achieve the desired enrollment outcomes, necessitating strategic financial planning and support. The collaboration between enrollment managers, administrators overseeing online programs, and the CFO is often pivotal. It’s essential for CFOs to have trust in and confidence in the expertise of these enrollment professionals.

Case Studies of Successful University Enrollment and ReEngagement Campaigns

The national average of reenrollment rates is 2.1% but there is already evidence that enrollment strategies focused on reengaging stop-out students can be successful and go beyond the average. Working with Inside Track (a consulting organization), a program to reenroll adults who haven’t completed college degrees at Cal State University schools, has boosted reenrollment rates by 8.4%. Similarly, Northern Arizona University has collaborated with myFootpath in the Operation ReEngage program, achieving remarkable outcomes. To date, the initiative has seen over 2,544 students reenroll, with a significant 63% yield rate and a 75% retention rate semester-to-semester. Just alone from the Spring 2023 semester to Fall 2023 semester they saw roughly a 13% increase in enrollments. Impressively, the program’s success has not only supported students’ educational goals but is also projected to generate over $21.3 million in revenue for the institution, based on NAU’s historical retention and graduation rates. Click here to read more about NAU enrollment case study.

Final Takeaways

In the late 1970s and 1980s college enrollments were predicted to decline dramatically due to declining numbers of high school graduates, however enrolments went up due to colleges and universities effectively reaching out to adult students. In addition to the current decline in enrollment rates of students, we are only two years away from the demographic cliff, where the number of high school graduates will begin to decline precipitously. It is possible that shifting focus to reenrolling ‘stop outs’ and those who never enrolled could help maintain the requisite number of students with post-secondary education, essential for keeping our economy on stable footing, and simultaneously contribute to the financial stability of colleges and universities.

Ready to transform your institution’s enrollment strategy? Contact us today for a personalized consultation on reengaging stop-out students and enhancing your enrollment numbers.