Enrollment at Colleges and Universities is Down Big and There May Be No End in Sight


Institutions Must Either Adjust to a Smaller Student Body and Lower Revenues, Risk Shutting Down, or Aggressively Invest in Enrollment Initiatives with Stronger Marketing and Outreach Efforts


College enrollment offices across the country are experiencing a calamitous trend. New and returning student enrollment numbers are bad. And they’re probably going to get even worse.

Four-year college and university enrollment for spring 2021 has fallen nearly 5%, with community college enrollment down an astonishing 9.5%.

Institutions of higher learning have seen a total reduction of enrollment by 727,000 students across the US, with the trend highly likely to continue into 2022 and beyond.

A recent survey by ECMC Group found that the likelihood of high school students enrolling in a four-year school sank nearly 20% since the summer of 2020. Now, just 53% of students are likely to enroll.

This is down from a 71% likelihood just a summer earlier.

While the pandemic has had a large effect on student enrollment, many students themselves cite the cost of college as a barrier to entry, and are choosing trade schools, apprenticeships, or startup companies as an alternative.

Because of this, the likelihood of a rebound in enrollment, post-pandemic, is very low.

In fact, applications for Pell Grants for the fall 2021 semester have already fallen 5.3%. And the 2022 spring semester isn’t looking any better.

Dozens of schools have already had to close or consolidate, with some of these institutions having been educating students for over a hundred years.

One devastating example of this can be found in Pennsylvania. Six Pennsylvania state universities have been forced to consolidate into a smaller organization of just two schools.

In 2020, higher education across the US saw a loss of over 650,000 jobs from teaching to administration.

Unfortunately, this trend is widely expected to continue.

With fewer students enrolling and paying tuition, institutions must either learn to operate on less revenue, close, or aggressively increase enrollment initiatives to attract students back into the university system.

Purdue University: a case study in higher education marketing

Universities must aggressively invest in enrollment initiatives with stronger marketing and outreach efforts, or face layoffs and potential shuttering.

While some schools have closed, Purdue University has led the way in marketing spend through the pandemic. The school was the country’s top marketing spender in early 2020, with a budget of $3.8 million.

As a result of its budget, and its marketing agency’s efforts, the school broke records for freshmen enrollment in the fall of 2020, and now has a total student enrollment of 46,114.

Purdue’s marketing efforts in the spring helped boost fall enrollment by 3.5%, or 1,563 students.

A four-year bachelor’s degree at Purdue costs, on average, $91,528. The schools aggressive marketing may now result in over $140,000,000 in revenue over the next 4 years, for these newly acquired students alone.

This would represent a return on investment (ROI) of over 3,600%.

While many schools are struggling to attract students, relying on traditional enrollment efforts and word of mouth, Purdue University is a case study in the importance of modern higher-ed marketing.

Its aggressive efforts have placed it in a position of long-lasting revenue growth with the likelihood of widespread layoffs and contraction now being some of the lowest in all of higher education.

The future sustainability and enrollment growth of colleges and universities certainly relies on proper, modern, and aggressive marketing campaigns as evidenced by Purdue.

Higher education institutions must market themselves as more than just continued education. High school students must be more aware of the real-world benefits of a college degree, and many should be dissuaded from seeking alternative options. Options which have proven to depress a high school student’s long-term earnings potential.

The shift away from college enrollment is not only hurting students but is crushing the long-term viability of colleges and universities as well. To remain competitive, Institutions should follow the lead of Purdue University, retain an agency, and increase their marketing budgets.

With a potential ROI of 3,600%, the results have proven to be well worth the expense.