Higher Education: Building Community Relevance

How are colleges and universities meeting the challenge of declining student enrollment?

Enrollment in Decline

The number of college-bound students is on the decline. The Department of Education reports undergraduate enrollment in post-secondary schools decreased 6% from 2010 to 2015. A significant number considering the previous five years showed a 20% increase from 2005 to 2009. Many schools are understandably struggling, and some have even been forced to close. A major reason for the decrease in enrollment is declining birthrates—and those numbers only look to grow smaller. The US Census Bureau projects a regressing annual population growth rate from 0.8% currently to 0.46% by 2060.

Attracting Students in a Crowded Field

Colleges and universities are now forced to find ways to stand out in a more competitive landscape. Attracting students with new or updated facilities is one popular solution. Traditional residence halls with double-occupancy rooms down a long hall with communal showers and dingy laundry rooms in the basement have become upscale apartments with private bedrooms and restrooms and lavish amenities like plunge pools and coffee bars. Student centers are being designed like high-end shopping malls with gourmet food courts, and community spaces like hotel lobbies. Recreation has become a huge attraction as well, with wellness and fitness centers being built or upgraded. I saw an example of a luxury amenity this week when I took my high school junior son to visit a college that actually had a lazy river!

Another great recruitment tool for colleges and universities has been athletics. Recently, DC Business Development Manager Steve Staley wrote a blog titled Updated Athletic Facilities Attract Student Athletes that tells the story well. Schools are also getting really creative and have started offering more than just the typical sports we all think of. Adrian College in Adrian, MI, offers bass fishing and synchronized skating, while Trine University in Angola, IN, has e-sports, and even offers scholarships for e-gamers! Other unusual sports like Quidditch (inspired by the Harry Potter series), rodeo, and snowshoe attract students, too. More sports clubs and intramural leagues are being developed and promoted during recruiting, like bowling, billiards, boxing, rifle, fencing, roller hockey—and the list goes on.

Another strategy that we’ve seen for increasing enrollment has come with the advances of technology, in the form of online degree programs and adult education programs. Indiana Wesleyan University, is a great example of a school that has successfully developed robust adult, graduate and online programs. They started in 1985, and now have 15 regional campuses in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky, with over 10,000 students enrolled in their online and onsite campuses, while their traditional on-campus student population in Marion, Indiana, is 3,000.

Attracting Students with Community Engagement

Visiting campuses recently, however, I’m hearing new conversations about other, more basic ways to attract students. It’s all based around community relevance. Community Colleges have been doing it for years—working with their local and regional businesses and industries to create programs that might benefit their local economy more directly. A logical reason for this approach relates back to the declining population growth. Businesses are struggling for a sufficient workforce as Baby Boomers retire, and are asking the universities to partner in numerous ways to help retain graduates in their community.
Getting involved with students while they are in high school, and even middle school, is also becoming more common with higher education. With a growing Hispanic population in Goshen, IN, Goshen College developed a program in community high schools where they offer remedial courses specific to the Hispanic population to help prepare these students for college-level courses. They also work with first-generation students and their families through their College Navigator program to help them acclimate more successfully to college life. Most universities I visit are partnering with their local high schools to offer dual credit courses. Students can sometimes have a semester or two of credits before even starting their first year, which tremendously reduces the financial burden of attending college. And, of course, engaging with businesses for internships, co-ops and scholarships helps to encourage student enrollment and potentially helps to retain the graduates in their community.
In addition to these tactics, higher education institutions are increasing their community relevance by listening to the voice of business and creating programs to align with workforce development needs. As an example, Huntington University in Huntington, IN, recently started an Agriculture program to answer the agribusiness need in northeast Indiana. They’re one of only two higher education institutions in Indiana that offer four-year degrees in agriculture. Another example is Marian University’s new Osteopathic Medical School in Indianapolis, IN. In Indiana, 57 of 92 counties have medically underserved areas and the state was previously served by only one medical school, which graduated approximately 300 doctors a year. Marian University built the state’s second medical school which now graduates approximately 150 new doctors each year. Vincennes University in Vincennes, IN, even developed a Miner Training program for the mining industry as a response to the needs of the communities in southern Indiana.

Sometimes the universities are branching out away from their physical campus to be closer to the businesses with which they align. Manchester University in North Manchester, IN, built their new College of Pharmacy over 40 miles away from their main campus, and chose a site “in the heart of Fort Wayne’s northern medical district” with closer proximity to the region’s health care facilities and pharmacies. University of Saint Francis decided to expand to downtown Fort Wayne with their School of Business and Entrepreneurial Leadership and is in the center of the business community now. Indiana Tech, also in Fort Wayne, has committed to become a part of the Electric Works development that is underway in the city, another example of outreach to the business community’s success.

Student Attraction + Community Building:
A Sustainable Win-Win

Ultimately, there is no single solution, and I see most colleges and universities implementing multiple approaches to attract students by expanding their programs and creating more extra-curricular offerings. But the ones that are also recognizing the needs of their community and developing solutions to help energize the workforce are becoming truly relevant and building a more sustainable future.

Cathy Waggoner ASID
Director of Business Development