Coronavirus Adds Extra Dilemma to College Enrollment’s Demographic Cliff

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Even before the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated issues  related to enrollment, colleges and universities had their work cut out for them with recruitment and retention.

Simply put, the pool of potential college applicants is, and has been, shrinking. Regional university campuses have seen the effect on their enrollment numbers.

After five to six years of steady growth at Kent State University, “We’re now in a period of three to four years of gradual decline,” says the university’s associate vice president of enrollment management, admissions, Sean Broghammer.

“COVID has exacerbated that this year,” he notes.

The decline can be attributed to the so-called demographic cliff – a steep decline in potential first-time, full-time freshmen projected to arrive in 2025-2026, according to EAB, a Washington D.C.-based education services and research firm. A key driver of that demographic cliff is a drop in the national birth rate since the Great Recession in 2008.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States registered nearly 3.8 million births in 2018, down 2% from the prior year. It was the fourth consecutive year of decline following an uptick in 2014. Before that, births fell steadily from 2007.

“That will put a pretty significant pressure on anyone who really needs to serve people who are 18 years old after 2025,” says Brian Schueler, senior analyst at EAB. 

From 2007 to 2013, increasing enrollment in higher education was normal, with about a 1.6% increase each year, Schueler says. 

The recession created an enrollment surge as people enrolled in community colleges to retrain after a lost job. No thought was given to what institutions would do if the population shrank, he says. 

Before the pandemic, projections for 2025 through 2029 foresaw a population decline of about 14%, which is “a big difference for higher education,” he says.

“Now the market is a much tougher place to live for a university or college.” 

With fewer children born, universities could see reductions in the future recruitment pool by as much as 5% to 7%. 

“In some areas, even more than that all over the country,” says Eddie Howard, vice president for student affairs at Youngstown State University.

Unlike Ivy League schools that can dip into a list of prospective students to make up for any enrollment shortfalls, universities like YSU will need to be more agile in their recruitment, Howard says. 

“We don’t turn a ton of students away,” Howard says. “As a result, we have to make sure we have the right programs in place and have to increase our recruiting.”

YSU typically pulls from the five-county region with most of its students living within 100 miles of the campus, he says. To widen its pool of prospects, the university has shifted its efforts to other parts of Ohio and out of state, as well as targeting transfer students.

With the fall semester underway, YSU is projecting less of a hit to its enrollment than the double-digit decrease it expected up until just before the semester began.

“We were really thinking our enrollment decline for this fall would be somewhere in the 12% range,” Howard says. “But it seems like the dust has settled at 3% to 4%, which is better than I thought we would be.”

The demographic change is also driven by who is going to college. As more first-generation students and people of color enter post-secondary education, colleges and universities are finding ways to help individuals who have less financial preparedness to pay for increased tuition.

This year, Kent State University committed an additional $2 million into financial aid, not counting what it received in Cares Act funding, says Kent’s Broghammer. 

“We’re really trying to maintain that accessibility,” Broghammer says. “We’re recognizing the pressure being put on families, even before COVID.”

At YSU, more than 70% of students are considered eligible for federal Pell grants and receive some form of federal assistance, Howard notes. “A lot of those students that are Pell-eligible are more likely to be first-generation students.”

Further complicating the matter is the financial assistance application process and how overwhelming and invasive it is, he says. Some individuals aren’t comfortable sharing that much information; so they won’t complete the application.

In July, EAB reported a 138% increase in Black students and a 129% increase in Hispanic students who submitted a deposit to a college or university, but hadn’t yet filed for federal financial aid.

“What we are seeing in deposits and FAFSA filing activity among students from historically underrepresented minority households points to worsening education equity gaps this fall,” reports EAB Senior Director Molly O’Connor. “These are students who were planning to start school in August but who now may be at risk of forfeiting their deposits and missing out on college completely.”

Overall, FAFSA first-time filings are down 4% since mid-March, EAB reports.

Some students just don’t have the financial guidance at home because their parents believe they’re old enough to make their own financial decisions, Howard notes.

“Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of people, it’s sad to say, that when their kids turn 18, they walk away from their kids’ finances,” he says. “Those are the kind of students that we try to help and work with as much as we can.”

And the cost of college isn’t lost on students. 

In March, The Business Journal reported as part of its Brain Gain coverage that college-bound high school students seemed resigned to the fact they’ll need to accrue thousands in debt to attend college. For some, cost is a factor when they select their majors, careers and where they attend.

Others are questioning whether college is even worth the expense, Howard says. 

While some degrees translate into a job, the purpose of attending a university was traditionally more about giving students a strong liberal arts foundation, not necessarily segueing into a job, he says.

“College has never been about getting a job. We give you the skills you need where you can have any job you want,” he says.

That’s forced YSU to adjust its focus and take a page out of the community college playbook to ensure students can connect with employment after graduation, he says.

“We need to have some real serious conversations about what we bring to the table as a post-secondary education,” Howard says. “We have to ensure that we’re educating people and advise them in the right way. So hopefully when they leave here they can get a good job.”

With regional campuses in Trumbull and Columbiana counties, Kent State is in a good position to ensure its students get the training needed to work area jobs, says Andy Crawford, associate vice president for strategic enrollment management for Kent’s regional campuses. 

The university is making more of an effort to target nontraditional learners in Trumbull and Columbiana counties, where residents may have lost their  jobs during the pandemic and need to earn an income that will sustain their families, he says.

“From a regional campus perspective, I think we’re actually positioned pretty nicely, everything considered,” Crawford says.

Crawford hopes this will address the 57% fall-to-fall retention rate at Kent’s regional campuses, “which is just not acceptable,” he says. The students who leave regional campuses don’t go anywhere else. “So how do we pull them back in?” he asks.

While working at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Crawford found the main reason students left is because they found employment. 

He recalls after Amazon built a distribution center near the campus, a student texted him saying he was hired at $24 hourly plus benefits to work 36 to 45 hours weekly.

Kent is working to be more intentional about connecting students to resources and supporting them, he says. That begins with helping them to apply and provide a roadmap to achieve their goals, he says.

University recruiters also work closely with guidance counselors, Crawford says. Students taking college credit-plus courses are up almost 20%. Kent’s regional campuses are connecting with those students by tapping into the communities, he says.

“They’re deeply connected to their local high schools and the districts they’re working with,” he says. “The key there is converting those students to enrolling in the institution.” 

Kent is also rolling out new programs to meet academic careers, adds Broghammer. In fall 2018, it launched the mechatronics engineering technology major, which grew from a mechatronics concentration in applied engineering that began in 2013 with just three students. In fall 2019, 36 student had chosen that major.

“There remains a high value in a college education. It’s about being at an innovative institution that has the ability to adapt,” Broghammer says.

Pictured: Students on the campus of Youngstown State on the first day of classes. To bolster enrollment, YSU is putting greater emphasis on recruiting out-of-state and transfer students, says Eddie Howard, vice president of student affairs. 

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.