Thinking Ahead: How Colleges & Universities Can Plan for Long-Term Success

When considering how they should position their institutions over the long term, leaders of higher education institutions are accustomed to a familiar refrain. The recurring questions they hear are:

  1. What trends are evident in enrollment and retention rates over time?

  2. How tuition-dependent is the institution?

  3. What is the institution’s tuition discount rate, and how well is it monitored?

  4. What is the size of the institution’s endowment, and is growth in line with the overall market?

  5. How much does the institution rely on debt financing for operations (outside of large capital projects)?

While financial health and viability remain important indicators of an institution’s long-term success, another factor is growing in importance and intersecting with the above metrics: changes in student demographics. In order to plan for the future student body, educators and administrators must remain aware of these trends.

The Evolving Student Body

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) released updated projections in December 2020 for high school graduates. The study notes that students of color are making up a growing share of high school graduating classes. In 2019, White students were 51% of high school graduating classes. They will decrease to 46% of the Class of 2025 and 43% of the Class of 2036. For those higher education institutions that have not yet enrolled significant numbers of students of color, determining how to attract and retain these students may raise new questions: How well do institutions understand the needs of such students? Do students of color feel welcome within the campus environment? Many students of color that are currently underrepresented in higher education need financial assistance. How can institutions that have relied on increasing enrollment to fill budget gaps find other ways to fund themselves in order to continue fulfilling their mission?

Independent students are an additional layer in the changing demographics. Per the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), approximately 51% of all U.S. higher education students were defined as independent, or having at least one of the following defining characteristics per the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA):

  1. Being at least 24 years old

  2. Married

  3. A graduate or professional student

  4. A veteran

  5. An orphan, in foster care, or ward of the court

  6. A member of the armed forces

  7. An emancipated minor

  8. Someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless

  9. Someone with legal dependents other than a spouse

The IWPR’s 2018 paper noted that 55% of women and 46% of men enrolled in higher education institutions are independent students. Per the IWPR paper, these students are a median age of 29 years old, are mostly students of color, are likely to be a parent, have limited ability to pay for their education and are more likely to enroll part-time when compared to dependent students. COVID-19 has caused further strains—as noted in a May 2021 article by Higher Ed Dive, the pandemic has increased stressors for independent students that are parents, particularly for younger parents.

Facing the Future of Higher Education

So how can higher education institutions position themselves for success in the long term given changing student demographics? There are a couple of steps that leaders of higher education institutions can take now for future implementation in their strategic plans:

  1. Assessing enrollment strategies to increase inclusion

Institutions should determine the changes necessary to enrollment strategies to attract students of color as well as independent students. Understand how such data will be collected, monitored, and tracked going forward.
Some institutions have placed a direct emphasis on addressing increasing demographic changes, such as John Hopkins University, which developed its initial “Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion” in 2016 and publishes annual progress reports. The University also recently moved to permanent need-blind admissions, which resulted in its student population of underrepresented racial minority students growing from 14.9% in 2010 to 32.5% in 2019.  Similarly, the University of Minnesota has staff members dedicated to recruiting students of color and uses direct marketing and recruiting tactics to increase representation of Black students specifically. Other institutions waived requiring SAT or ACT scores from applicants due to the ongoing pandemic, and saw a surge of applications for the Fall 2020 and 2021 academic years — including an increase in applications from underrepresented student groups.

Other schools are partnering with community colleges to improve the pipeline of transfers from 2-year institutions to those granting 4-year degrees. While many state public institutions have already established these types of relationships, many private institutions are establishing these relationships for the first time in recent years. One example is in Ohio, where the Council of Independent Colleges has helped facilitate a program that allows students from 10 community colleges in the state to take classes following a specified pathway and transfer to one of 14 private institutions in Ohio to complete their degree without any loss of credits. These types of pathways support independent students, of whom 44% attend community college.

  1. Reconsider the campus environment

Considering how the institution can make its own campus experience more welcoming and supportive of students of color and independent students is key to attracting and retaining those students.
John Hopkins University previously established an Office of Institutional Equity and an Office of Diversity & Inclusion to address both the on-campus experience for students from underrepresented populations as well as diversity within faculty. Loyola University Maryland has a President’s Council for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that monitors and supports university-wide initiatives alongside student and alumni boards.
As noted by the IWPR, institutions should also consider whether its part time students have access to student support services (including the hours that such services are offered) and its existing financial aid policies, and whether they could be adjusted in ways that allow independent students to access more aid and potentially decrease work hours.

While there is no single strategy that will lead higher education institutions to long-term success, addressing the evolution of the student body is a good place to start. Taking active steps to make sure your organization is prepared to serve current and future students is a key move toward ensuring longevity.

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