Higher Education Enrollment Trends: 4 Things to Consider in 2024

1/26/2024 Jeff Fanter

Higher Education Enrollment Trends: 4 Things to Consider in 2024

For nearly three decades of my career, I have been involved in the higher education space. Throughout that time, the most significant period of change that I’ve witnessed has happened in just the past few years. 

With continued population, demographic, and enrollment changes on the horizon, remaining competitive as an institution will depend on your ability to adapt to another new normal. Below, I touch on four topics that should be top of mind when developing an effective communications strategy.

1. The impending enrollment cliff

From 2007-2009, The Great Recession saw many adults delay or decide against having children due to economic uncertainty. Eighteen years later, fewer births means fewer high school seniors — a once-guaranteed funnel into higher institutions. Children born between 2007 and 2009 are turning 15-17 this year. They are entering the stage of college exploration, testing, and preparation, and they are beginning to show up on higher-education prospective student lists. 

As the number of high school students decreases, the pool of traditional prospective college freshmen will also decrease. And, in 2025, when those born in 2008 turn 18, the traditional student demographic will begin a population decline with no end in sight, an event often referred to as the “enrollment cliff.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the situation. Faced with mandated lockdowns and the uncertainty of the future, droves of students paused their higher education pursuits, embarked on careers without a degree, or pivoted to online-only certification programs. 

Forbes 1 reports that higher education enrollment as a whole has fallen by nearly 7.5% since 2019. Even as things return to a post-pandemic “normal,” recent NSC research shows that undergraduate enrollment still declined in the fall of 2022 when compared to the fall of 2021.

Institutions will only continue to face lower enrollment numbers and less demand in the years to come. Is your recruitment and enrollment strategy aggressive and proactive enough to win over students in a smaller pool of candidates?

2. The fight over the non-traditional student 

What is a non-traditional student? The NCES defines a student to be non-traditional if they fit the below parameters:

  • Over the age of 23
  • Enrolling in — and attending — a postsecondary institution at any time other than directly following high school graduation
  • Having financial independence from their parents, working full time, or having dependents other than a spouse in their care

This group has primarily been served by community colleges. Faced with a steady decline of the traditional student pipeline, however, traditional four-year institutions will begin tapping into this market to regain enrollment numbers.

Forbes 2 reports that 22% of Americans over the age of 18 — over 39 million people —  left college at some point with no degree or credential. Compared with 2019, pre-pandemic numbers, that number has increased by 8.6%. This pool of one-time college students is one of several ideal markets for higher-ed institutions to tap into to account for the continued drop in traditional students.

However, the number of higher-ed institutions going after this non-traditional audience is only going to grow. Both community colleges and four-year institutions will need to stand out to the non-traditional student  — a group that will have more options than in years past. Community colleges in particular will need to bolster recruitment efforts to account for new competition from four-year universities.

3. Staffing shortages within the higher education space

Stress and burnout caused by COVID-19 have hit education professionals particularly hard. The National Education Association reports that 55% of educators are more likely to either retire early or pursue another career path due to COVID-19’s impact on their job. Additional research from Higher Ed Dive shows that nearly half of surveyed regional college admissions counselors reported that they were looking for a new job and saw no clear path to a promotion at their current institution.

Educator, counselor, admissions, and leadership staffing challenges can negatively affect admissions and recruitment marketing efforts. The issue can snowball, as well. A lack of qualified staff can limit the quality and depth of the services that a potential student receives, no doubt diminishing an institution’s reputation and future.

However, as students return to campus following an unprecedented couple of years, employees in the education sector return to full-time, in-person roles. This removes the ability for employees to work in a remote or hybrid role, which can lead quality personnel to seek out opportunities with these benefits elsewhere.

How can you bolster recruitment and enrollment marketing efforts amidst a staffing shortage? Consider bringing in a sourcing partner who can execute content, develop and deliver on outreach strategies, compile nurture lists, and streamline operations. Outsourcing can provide resources and expertise, and can remove the need to recruit and hire new employees. 

4. New ways to source prospective student data

The long-considered “typical” prospective college student reported to high school five days a week. They were taking standardized tests at predictable intervals and — perhaps unknowingly — making their contact information available to most higher ed institutions in tandem. Schools then use these lists to solicit prospective students and send recruitment materials.

However, an increasing number of colleges and universities are transitioning to “test-optional” admissions strategies. Recruitment initiatives are more difficult when you can no longer simply purchase a comprehensive list of your target market’s information from a test administrator. 

Creatively sourcing data from non-traditional students — and from those not taking admissions tests — will become the norm. I recommend looking into partnering with an external vendor to optimize efforts in this area. Look for:

  • Depth and scale to help efficiently locate prospective students of various demographic backgrounds 
  • List acquisition expertise. Ideally, the vendor can produce lists of people who have completed some or no college, as well as lookalike audiences down to very specific parameters
  • Proficiency in not only list curation, but also in comprehensive outreach strategy planning and execution

The higher education playing field is changing. The coming enrollment cliff, an increase in non-traditional students, and the effects of COVID-19 have undeniably altered the path to higher ed. For even the most storied universities, there is uncertainty about the road ahead. A targeted, personalized approach and a trusted partner will help navigate these changes as the industry continues to evolve.


Jeff Fanter is RRD’s Vice President - Education Focus. Prior to joining RRD, Jeff served as Vice President of Marketing and Communications and Senior Vice President for Student Experience at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana. He also has an extensive background in college athletics, serving as an assistant athletic director and a conference commissioner. 

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