Inside Higher Ed, Capture Higher Ed, and The Chronicle of Higher Education all agree that universities and institutions are due to experience a “demographic cliff.” With enrollment rates not yet fully recovered from COVID-19, higher ed marketers and enrollment teams should be looking towards future-proofing their strategies to mitigate the compounding effects of such changes.
But what is the demographic cliff?
The demographic cliff is the result of the lowest birth rates since the Great Recession. A decline in first-year enrollment of up to 15% is projected starting in the fall of 2025 and continuing for years, possibly decades. Although the demographic cliff will impact undergraduate enrollment rates more severely, it will amplify institutional pressure on graduate and executive education programs to combat the effects of enrollment decline. The previous demographic cliff, anticipated in the mid-1980s, was mitigated by outside factors, including the high cultural and professional value that was placed on college degrees and the industry shift toward international recruitment. However, the same factors are not expected in 2025.
Who is talking about the demographic cliff?
Through our client work, we’re connected to so many incredible and innovative higher education marketing teams who have begun preparing their institutions for the arrival of these demographic shifts. We invited Allison Turcio (Siena College), James Seidler (Purdue University Northwest), Kristin Gasser (Arizona State University), Carrie Herrera Niesen (Arizona State University), Anthony Owen (Wrexham Glyndŵr University), and Sabiha Afrin (American University) to discuss the demographic cliff and the steps that are being taken to prepare for the change. Suzan Brinker, co-founder and CEO at Viv Higher Education, moderated the discussion. Read on for actionable insights from this discussion.
There are strategies being implemented at the institutional level to prepare for the upcoming demographic cliff.
Review the lead-to-enrollment process.
Assess the journey of a prospective student, from lead nurture through the admissions process. Thinking about how to make this journey seamless for students is imperative as you look to expand your audience. A pain point shared during our discussion highlighted the difficulties experienced by first generation students when navigating complicated admissions forms without parental know-how, a problem solved by providing a “first gen handbook”. Uncovering this type of accidental bias in your processes will prepare your institution to diversify its traditional audience.
Develop strategic partnerships to stand out in a crowded market.
Explore how partnering with different institutions, platforms, or organizations can help you create enticing and accessible programming. Carrie Herrera Niesen of the innovative Arizona State University, shared how the institution has developed a partnership with YouTube that allows students to earn course credit from online learning that will contribute toward their degree. As universities grapple with how to diversify their methods of delivery, partnerships can address multiple barriers to access that will support diversification efforts, as well as extend the reach of programming to traditionally underserved populations.
Work with projected demographic changes.
The research shows less overall population growth in traditional undergraduate audiences, but this can also inspire innovation. Sabiha Afrin shared that American University is “looking at Houston.” With a projected “16 percent increase expected to happen during the demographic shift” in the area, Houston is a new market for the D.C.-based American University. Afrin further explained that “if New York is giving us 20% less and Houston is giving us 16% more, it [makes] more sense for us to have a recruiter who’s going to [focus] their efforts in Houston.” As demographics change, using the data and leveraging it to strategically execute recruitment efforts, can make all the difference year over year.
Prioritize high-quality lead nurturing.
As competition continues to increase, developing and maintaining high-quality lead nurture practices is imperative to support your enrollment goals. Anthony Owen shared data from an ISEF report (2022) that expressed how universities are falling short in lead conversion. ISEF’s research shows that “1 in 5 students’ queries are not answered by universities.” In fact, “only 1 in 4 prospective students reported any follow-up.” Students are also expressing growing discontent with these gaps in lead nurturing. “Over a third of students who inquired said they would not continue or engage with the university because they hadn’t had a follow-up.” Developing lead nurture streams that support prospective students can help at every stage of the marketing funnel. Audit your processes to find gaps in communication and design touch-points that will limit this type of friction.
There are actions you can take via your marketing and marketing enrollment management.
Use technology to lower institutional costs and increase the likelihood of student conversion.
One example would be to consider switching from a manual chatbot to an automated one that allows interested students to access information about your institution immediately, increasing the likelihood that they will convert. Additionally, automated chatbots lower institutional costs by lessening the need for third-party call centers (who oftentimes have a limited understanding of your course offerings). As chatbots keep evolving, Anthony Owen of Wrexham Glyndŵr University explained, there will soon come a time when automated chatbots can provide personalized course recommendations for prospective students, identify what industries they’re interested in, analyze their academic history and interests through data, etc.
Add in-demand programming.
Collect data from students and prospective students to inform decisions about what new programs should be developed. Allison Turcio (Siena College) highlighted that “programs are markets too,” hence the need to review data and understand what in-demand programs you are lacking. Data from changing labor markets can also help foster collaboration and innovation about which programs to fund. As Owen shared, according to the World Economic Forum in 2016, “65% of today’s primary school children would eventually work in jobs that don’t yet exist”!
Work with your internal teams.
A lack of connection between marketing teams and other institutional departments can hinder the efficacy of your marketing efforts. Our conversation touched on the siloed nature of institutional teams, and offered an example of an enrollment team not knowing that their IT department had collected data that would support their new marketing efforts. As marketing and enrollment teams design new campaigns for these more competitive markets, look towards collaborating with your internal departments to understand what assets, data, and information exists to leverage in your marketing efforts.
Consider your organizational culture and how to encourage a culture of innovation.
Encourage buy-in from multiple departments.
Don’t limit your efforts to one team, involve different departments and your enrollment efforts will be better for it. Allison Turcio created a marketing plan for Siena with the help of admissions counselors, financial aid counselors, IT staff, the communications team, and people from the student experience department. Together, they crafted a student-centered marketing plan that addressed multiple student concerns, while speaking directly to their interests. Turcio noted that this collective involvement improved their daily work and their decision-making, as well as their communication with students.
Recognize and leverage your best qualities.
Understanding and highlighting the unique selling points will differentiate your institution in a hyper-competitive market. Collect quantitative and qualitative data where you can, about what students, faculty, and alumni feel makes your institution great. Do you have a strong law department with a small class size? Is your institution located close to a high school with a low tuition? Sabiha Afrin posed an important question: how is your institution going to stand out as a leader in the industry?
Start with micro-steps.
To quote Carrie Herrera Niesen “let’s start with micro-steps.” Working on smaller projects at the start can encourage continued collaboration and creativity. Think about “how [you can] build slow momentum and continue to showcase folks with your results, building stronger relationships with folks on campus who may or may not have even thought about this previously.” Institutional change can take time, but remembering that “any progress is good progress” may help foster a culture of collaboration as you adapt to these changes.
For more information about the demographic cliff, watch the roundtable below. You can also learn more about Viv Higher Education on our website. Viv is a full-service higher education marketing agency specializing in enrollment marketing.