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Meeting the Challenge of Shrinking College Enrollment

Just hiring more recruiters won’t address the issue. By partnering with community organizations that connect with young people daily, some higher education institutions have an opportunity to overcome demographic trends.

A student at North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Community College
A student at North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Community College. Reaching out through community engagement can help higher education institutions find a larger pool of college-age students, and it can be particularly helpful for minority-serving institutions.
(Photo: Blue Ridge Community College)
Experts are predicting that beginning in 2025, student enrollment in higher education will start to decline. The four main reasons they usually cite are lower fertility rates, resulting in a smaller pool of college-age kids; the rise of hybrid and online education; uncertainties faced by international students; and the nation’s rise in diversity.

These trends will play out differently for different types of institutions, but all of them might be affected. White enrollment in colleges of all types will definitely decrease, for example, while enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions might rise.

Sensing this trend around 2015, when I was president of Georgia Piedmont Technical College in metropolitan Atlanta, we embarked on a new way of recruiting students that might benefit other educators worried about or already struggling with enrollment woes. We called this approach the Georgia Piedmont Advantage (GPA).

Colleges typically recruit students by hiring a staff of recruiters and sending them off to college fairs at high schools, educational conferences and other places where college-age students are likely to be. This method is labor-intensive and expensive, and you take your chances because there’s lots of competition for the best students.

My idea for recruiting students centered on using community outreach and engagement strategies. We kicked off this initiative with a community stakeholders meeting, inviting leaders from faith-based institutions, nonprofit youth organizations like the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Clubs, civil rights organizations like the Atlanta region’s Latin American Association, college fraternities and sororities, labor unions, and civic organizations.

These organizations connect with thousands of young people daily, the same ones we want to see enrolled at our colleges. We thought if we engaged with those groups to help us get the word out about our academic programs, our jobs would be half done. At least, we thought, it couldn’t hurt us to work with our partners to make more pitches to more students. Not only did it not hurt our cause, we saw almost immediate gains in enrollment in the 15 to 20 percent range.

We went a step further by leaving admission applications and other materials with the organizations and encouraging them to distribute them to interested students. We also conducted train-the-trainer workshops to ensure that the organizations’ staffs understood the basics of enrollment and some history about our college.

Religious leaders in particular responded positively to the program because it gave them a tangible example of talking about what salvation meant on Earth — bettering oneself through higher education. When we told those leaders that we could offer tuition grants for certain high-demand academic programs like nursing, welding, automotive technology and early childhood education, they were more than pleased to know that. Students had only to pay a $25 application fee and get accepted into the programs. Many of our organizational partners picked up the application fees themselves.

In the end, I viewed it as a value-add proposition for all of the organizations involved — to offer their usual activities along with information about how to enroll in college. We benefited greatly as well from the partnerships. They helped us reach and promote our education programs. We saved money by not having to hire more recruiters. In most instances, our partners knew the kids in the neighborhoods better than we did, and probably had more credibility with them as well. By joining forces, we made recruiting students for college a fun, positive and unifying communitywide activity.

I know that the design of this program worked well for community colleges, but I believe it has utility for other types of colleges, particularly HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. Like community colleges, they often serve the greater communities where they are located. The GPA model would help them better accomplish their mission to serve. Another advantage for minority-serving institutions is that their graduates often remain active on behalf of their alma maters. It would bring additional satisfaction to alumni if they actively engaged with a program like ours that helped recruit local students.

Finally, when all is said and done, the numbers don’t lie. There is a shrinking number of 12th graders available for colleges. But there are many high school graduates who never step foot on any college campus because too many high school teachers tell these students, in effect, that if they are not interested in a four-year college they don’t count. High schools would discover that if they gave equal emphasis to technical education and associate degree fields such as culinary arts and digital technology, more students might give higher education a second look.

Beyond that, the problems that higher education institutions face go beyond the fertility rate. They relate to outdated notions on the part of education leaders at all levels and their refusal to innovate and look at new ways to solve problems. Will this change, or will leaders remain locked in to old approaches that won’t cut the mustard for today’s challenges — enrollment and otherwise?

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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