The Challenge of a Changing Higher Education Market

Career Outcomes: The Key to Effective Enrollment Marketing is a six-part blog series that explores how postsecondary institutions can combat declining enrollments by appealing to untapped market segments.

Although statistics show a worrying trend of declining postsecondary enrollment, there are far more prospective students out there than many institutions realize – but they won’t land in your enrollment funnel unless you know exactly how to appeal to them.

How can you find and activate this untapped market?

It starts with understanding the causes behind today’s enrollment trends. This post is the first in a new six-part series about practical strategies for increasing interest and applications for your institution. This first post examines how the higher education market has changed and why postsecondary recruitment strategies need to change as well.

Dramatic Changes in Postsecondary Enrollment

Enrollment in postsecondary institutions peaked in 2010; it’s been falling every year since. Projections of future growth don’t show enrollment recovering within the next decade, and recent estimates indicate even those conservative predictions may be overly optimistic. Looking at the country’s population pyramid, the long-term prospects aren’t much better as smaller cohorts mean there will be fewer and fewer “college-aged” learners in future years. In fact, there are now fewer students in high school than in degree-granting postsecondary institutions.

Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

This declining enrollment is taking its toll on institutions, with 66% of admissions directors admitting their institution had not met its 2017 enrollment goal by May 1 of that year, the traditional end of the admissions period. This number is up from 63% the year prior and 58% two years earlier.

Higher Education’s Perceived Value Problem

Why is enrollment declining? Beyond changing demographics, there are also changing opinions about the value and role of higher education in today’s society, especially when it comes to employment.

Although unemployment is low for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 34% of them are underemployed, working jobs that do not require college degrees. The data is even worse for recent graduates: New research from Strada Education Network and Burning Glass Technologies found that 43% of graduates were underemployed in their first job after college. Worse still, graduates who started out underemployed were likely to stay underemployed in the long run.

Combine those numbers with the weight of student debt – now over $1.5 trillion dollars – and many are asking if higher education is a good value for the price. In a recent survey, 42% of Americans said that most high schoolers (i.e., traditional students) should not pursue a college degree “because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good paying job.”

In other words, for a significant number of people, postsecondary education is no longer viewed as a guarantee of a “good job” for traditional students – and that makes it harder to convince potential learners to enroll.

Career Outcomes Show the Path to Success

With declining enrollment, rising skepticism, and a tuned-out audience, things may seem dire for higher education.

Yet opportunities abound, even in these challenging times. They just don’t look like the traditional student. Working learners, or those “learning while earning,” have been called “the new normal” in higher education. These non-traditional students–30% of whom are over age 30–are the next growth opportunity for higher education. A recent report by EAB broke down several categories of these potential students:

  • Skeptical enrollees, who are willing to pursue continuing education if it relates to their job (36% of adults have taken work-related classes or training in the last 12 months)
  • Aspiring career changers, which includes the nearly 80% of workers in their 20s, 64% in their 30s, and 54% in their 40s who’d like to change jobs
  • Directionless drifters, who aren’t sure what job they want and thus don’t know what education programs to enroll in (33% of professionals looking for a new job are simply looking for a new challenge)

The EAB study also warned that traditional marketing techniques, on their own, may not reach these potential students because of the growing risk of information overload.

There is now more media to consume than attention spans to consume it. While the internet, mobile access, and social media have made it easier to broadcast a marketing message to a wide audience, wandering attention spans, the increased number of distractions, and the rise of ad-blockers mean it’s much harder to catch the eye of a potential student.

How can postsecondary institutions appeal to these untapped markets? The key is career outcomes.

When higher education is clearly connected to learners’ career goals, trends reverse. Consider coding bootcamps, which often target nontraditional students and put career outcomes at the center of their marketing: They’ve seen an 950% increase in enrollment between 2013 and 2017, a period during which postsecondary enrollment declined 5%.

The approach doesn’t just work for bootcamps. As an example, EAB cited one multi-campus institution that saw a 4% increase in overall enrollment after implementing a career-focused marketing campaign – at a time when the industry was seeing double-digit decreases in enrollment.

Even better, when higher education is connected to career outcomes, institutions can better attract traditional learners, as well as working learners. In fact, first-time students say their #1 reason for pursuing postsecondary education is “to improve my employment opportunities,” followed closely by “to make more money” and “to get a good job.” In addition, a 2018 survey of admitted students found “career outcomes / job opportunities for graduates” was a key factor when it came to choosing which institution to enroll in.

Inject Career Outcomes in Your Institution’s Marketing

How can you inject career outcomes into your institution’s program marketing?

While it may seem daunting, it can be done by any institution with a little effort – and some expert advice to light the way. In this blog series, we’ll share:

  • Step-by-step guidance for creating program-to-career and career-to-program alignments
  • How-to instructions for creating career discovery tools that promote your institution’s programs
  • Helpful checklists and other resources for guiding the implementation of career-focused marketing initiatives

Get a sneak peek into the upcoming blog posts in this series >>

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