A 7.5 percent enrollment decline since the pandemic, with community colleges taking the brunt of this decline. One-third of all universities in financial crisis, even prior to 2020. The Great Resignation plowing through colleges and universities at unprecedented levels, with not only fewer applications for open positions but fewer qualified applicants within those shrinking pools. And, alongside a sense of belonging and academic perceptions, the drivers of student persistence now include financial distress and student wellness, areas that many colleges aren’t prepared to address.
Moving Past a Recruitment Mindset
College enrollment officers spend a lot of time worrying about declining enrollments. We’ve been preparing for a new student enrollment cliff for years but, not surprisingly, never prepared for how a global pandemic would influence student’s choices to persist in their coursework. In many cases, the focus of enrollment challenges is on admissions where campus partners wonder frequently what is being done to boost new student enrollment. Fewer institutions look at the other enrollment problem, student persistence, under the same microscope that they focus so strongly on new student recruitment and the success or failure of an admissions team. When as many as 6,000 students drop out of college every day, new student enrollment can’t be the only piece of the puzzle.
To be successful in the current environment, college leadership and enrollment officers need to look beyond new student enrollment and focus resources on student persistence. Within the last month, the state of California committed to a $41.6 billion dollar budget for higher education, which includes designated funding for additional student financial support and student wellness resources. Specifically, the budget includes significant funding for food and housing insecurity and re-housing programs for low-income students; funding to support many of the academic issues students are facing, including learning gaps experienced during the pandemic as well as academic support students need; and professional development dollars for faculty to improve the ability to provide such support. Additionally, funding was allocated to support those student populations impacted most by factors of persistence.
Applying Ideas Locally
Not every state is going to commit the financial resources in the same way California has, but that reality doesn’t make student persistence any less important in the enrollment puzzle. Colleges and universities must refocus on the need for persistence resources that specifically address the challenges the students on their campuses are facing. Institutions like San Jose City College used text message data to identify issues, such as financial distress and food insecurity, that were impacting student persistence. They then utilized their AI chatbot, powered by EdSights, to connect students to necessary resources. Likewise, the University of West Georgia found mental health to be a primary concern for students and used AI and SMS to connect students to the resources they needed, thus reducing reported mental health challenges by 20%.
What it All Means
When 40% of students experience food insecurity and a third of students face housing insecurity, college presidents, budget officers, and enrollment managers cannot afford to ignore key issues that affect student persistence. For those institutions ready to tackle this challenge, they must be willing to focus on more than new student enrollment and identify those innovative solutions that support the real issues facing today’s students.
We know students of all ages spend time on their phones and rely on them as a source of information. Use the technology you know students embrace, such as AI and SMS, to engage and connect them to campus and community resources.
Admissions officers frequently say that recruitment is a campus wide responsibility. So is retention (probably even moreso). Invest in professional development opportunities for those who engage with students the most; faculty, student support staff, and other members of your community, to not only create a sense of belonging but also serve as a resource for other issues students face.
Time and resources are limited for most enrollment managers. Work with partners who can help you identify the true issues your students face; while also providing key next steps to address student wellness and improve persistence. Leverage partners who can provide valuable information and data-informed recommendations to support students at scale.
By Carolina Recchi
Co-Founder and CEO at EdSights
Carolina moved to the US from Italy at 17 for college. As a first-generation US college student she experienced first-hand the hurdles of navigating higher education. Not knowing who to turn to for help as a student, she decided to build a technology that helps all students navigate college. Today, EdSights works with ~100 institutions and Carolina was named by Forbes one of the most influential people in education.