Weathering the Enrollment Drought

Revamping Your Higher Ed Student Recruitment Plan

For many colleges and universities, good students are getting harder to find. In fact, a survey released in January by the Chronicle of Higher Education found 52 percent of private colleges and 44 percent of public colleges didn’t meet their enrollment goals in the fall of 2017. And that trend is likely to continue.

Why? First, the rising cost of education has made many students look to alternatives such as trade schools and online degree programs, creating more competition. Second, birth rates have been declining since 2008 and just hit historic lows, meaning there are fewer college-age students in general. According to professor Nathan D. Grawe, author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, this decline will result in a nationwide drop in the number of traditionally college-aged students of between 5 and 15 percent by the mid-2020s.

These are potentially troubling trends, and they require new recruitment strategies to overcome them. Here are some ways to prepare your institution:


The Northeast and Midwest have the most higher education institutions, but their populations are also steadily shrinking. Grawe predicts “dramatic losses of 15 percent or more” in the college-going populations in these areas by 2030. This means colleges and universities in these regions that rely on nearby communities for a large portion of their student population will need to look for ways to expand their recruitment efforts and target prospective students who live farther away.

While the Northeast and Midwest are seeing a decline in student population, the West and South are growing. The South will be responsible for nearly half the nation’s high school graduates at the peak of its growth in 2025, and the West another 30 percent.

Tapping into these growing markets is going to become increasingly important for colleges and universities across the country. So, while schools in the South and West have a home-field advantage, they can’t afford to get complacent. California may not have enough institutions to fill the demand of its residents, and many East Coast colleges are hiring full-time recruiters in the West and South to attract students.


Racial minorities, particularly Latinos, are the country’s fastest-growing demographic. Speaking their language – literally – is essential to your recruitment efforts. And as economies change, technology advances, and global development accelerates, less traditional populations like adult learners, military veterans, and international students are seeking degrees in greater numbers. Make sure you effectively market to these groups by promoting benefits that resonate, including online courses and financial incentives such as tuition discounts. If you don’t provide these kinds of enticements, you can bet your competitors will.


Families spooked by the Great Recession need to know that investing in a college education from your school is an investment that will set up their child for success. To make your value proposition clear, your higher ed marketing plan should emphasize what attending your school will mean for students AFTER they’ve graduated. Information about the career resources you offer, stories about successful alumni, and positive statistics about your school’s job placement rate can help make your value proposition clear.


While overall demand for higher education may decrease, demand for elite schools shows signs of increasing – by as much as 15 percent over the next decade. This has to do with an increase in the number of people who have two parents who attended college, and an increase in the Asian-American population. These groups attend college in large numbers and are encouraged to apply to elite schools. Many come from families who can pay their college costs.

With more students seeking entrance to elite schools, space becomes competitive, and other high-performing schools have an opportunity to attract these students. Robust honors programs, degree programs in which the school excels, updated technology, star professors, an environmentally friendly campus, and a culture of giving back to the community are all qualities you should cultivate and market to appeal to these students.


Paying attention to demographic trends can help keep your institution’s enrollment up in the future, especially if you’re already seeing a drop in application numbers.

Contact us to learn how LIGHTSTREAM can help you revamp your student recruitment plan and improve the impact of your higher ed marketing.