Sharing Contrary Views

I'm not convinced yet but would love to be wrong on enrollment trends

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I have recently described in three posts how I see enrollment-driven revenue concerns as the defining issue facing US higher education institutions, with the core arguments:

The stories I am reading increasing point to ‘we have a large structural deficit that is getting worse, and we have to [shut down, merge, cut departments] now’, which match what I’m seeing privately in our consulting and market analysis work. But even for institutions avoiding such cuts and changes this year, there is an attitude of ‘academic leaders must find new sources of revenue and diversify beyond standard degrees’.

Structural enrollment declines for traditional degrees are increasing in importance, despite all of the Spring coverage that enrollments are stabilizing. I’m not questioning the data from the National Student Clearinghouse, but I am questioning the framing of the Spring results.


You can think of this as a simplified version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as applied to institutions (or systems of institutions). At the base physiological and safety needs, institutions need reliable revenue to continue to survive, largely driven by enrollment - either directly through tuition or indirectly through state funding formulas. Needs at these lower levels must be satisfied before institutions can attend to higher needs, to paraphrase and adapt the model. If a college or university is facing a structural budget deficit driven by declining enrollments, it’s not that nothing else matters, but the primary focus must be on these base issues. At best, the higher needs can occur alongside enrollment and revenue-driven initiatives, as long there is no distraction introduced.

There are two recent articles that I think are important to share as contrary views, both dealing with Fall 2023 enrollment data points. While my arguments are more focused on enrollment-driven revenue and longer-term trends, there is speculation involved that makes it valuable to understand different viewpoints. We just don’t know how student behavior in accepting admission offers or reacting to the changing job market and won’t have broader numbers for another six weeks or so.

Inside Higher Ed on Community College Enrollments

Two days ago IHE published “Community Colleges Buoyed by Modest Enrollment Growth”, describing a handful of examples of community colleges seeing real increases in fall 2023 enrollment. After noting Wake Technical Community College (Raleigh, NC) and its 10% increase this fall:

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