There Is No Enrollment Problem
Higher education doesn’t have an enrollment problem.
A bold statement, for sure, but here’s the thing: plenty of students exist. The challenge is not actually that there aren’t enough students – it’s that there’s a shortage of students we can afford to recruit and retain. We have extended our ability/willingness to turn dollars from serving current students to recruiting the next ones. Ultimately, the challenge is the cost to recruit a student: or customer acquisition cost (CAC) in the business world.
The costs for us are money, fake money, and time.
Money is the easiest one to conceptualize. Every recruitment action we take comes with a cost – an invoice or a payroll dollar sent out. There is not a college fair we go to for free. Almost every list of names we buy cost money. Those that don’t are as close as you get to being unhelpful unless you can spend much money to convert them to inquiries. Every mailing, every phone call, and every data load into your CRM comes at a cost. Where do those funds come from? There are usually just two sources for colleges: student tuition dollars or donor funds. In both cases, every dollar we pay to recruit comes at the expense of serving enrolled students. Simply put, colleges do not seem willing to increase the portion of revenue currently being diverted away from serving students to get new ones.
Fake money is also a real problem. By this, of course, I am referring to discounting dollars. We all know our sticker prices spiraled out of control long ago, losing any semblance of reality to the actual costs students will bear. Thus, we post fake tuition prices and “fix it” with fake scholarship dollars. Of course, there are a few exceptions, but these coupons … I’m sorry, I mean “competitive scholarships” is how we make these two ends meet. The challenge facing enrollment leaders is that although we’ve always understood these discounting dollars to be make-believe, we face board members and Presidents who mathematically think the institutional budget is solved simply by eliminating some of the coupons but not losing any students as a result. So we’re at a limit here, as well.
The most challenging thing in my mind is the cost of time. A problem of our own making, admissions leaders have all slowly increased the applicant pool, foolishly celebrating each time we hit a new application record, to the point that admissions counselors cannot reasonably be asked to work with their applicant pool well. Instead, entire segments of the applicant pool that we sent a celebratory press release about whither on the vine, unnurtured.
I say higher education doesn’t have an enrollment problem not because there aren’t challenges, but because the challenges are solvable, but for the limit of these three resources.
Looking ahead to a demographic cliff is frightening, and very few colleges have identified a realistic approach for their institution to deal with it. Too many college leaders will just say, “Fewer recent high school graduates can only mean fewer students” – and ignore the core problem: we are putting an artificial upper limit in our capacity to recruit students to our campus.