THE BLOG
02/24/2014 03:49 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

Private Colleges Face Enrollment Challenges

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the falling enrollment at small private colleges and the national trends contributing to it. Most telling is a quote from Jonathan Henry, vice president of enrollment at Husson University in Bangor, Maine: "I think it's fair to say 30 percent of these private schools won't exist in a decade."

This is exactly what I've been predicting for some time -- that smaller, private colleges and universities will either close or merge due to soaring costs and declining enrollment. In its own prediction article, eCampus News leads off with Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen's prediction that half of the country's universities will be bankrupt in 15 years. While some have called this alarmist, the point is that higher education is facing significant enrollment and financial challenges that will result in some dramatic outcomes. These challenges will force schools to rethink how they do business in order to survive.

The Wall Street Journal article states that between 2010 and 2013, 45 schools have merged with another institution. During this same time period, freshmen enrollment at more than a quarter of the country's private four-year schools declined 10 percent or more. At Husson University, 2013 enrollment was 17 percent lower than in 2009. Struggling schools are responding with closures, layoffs, cutbacks, mergers and new recruitment strategies.

The article looks at other solutions -- Georgian Court University in New Jersey, a single-sex institution since 1908, decided to go coed. Ripon College is one of 100 colleges that have traveled to Sao Paulo high schools to attract students from wealthy families that are willing to send their children to the U.S. Spring Hill College in Alabama began offering a $1,000 scholarship to anyone who scheduled a campus tour.

The factors facing private schools affect all of us. These include a national decline in the number of graduating high-school seniors, expected to continue falling or remain flat through 2024, technologies, such as online alternatives, driving down both costs and profit margins, rising student debt, a soft job market for college graduates and stagnant household incomes.

The eCampus article addresses the impact technology will have on higher education. While the high school class of 2023 may have fewer options in terms of physical schools to attend due to bankruptcies or mergers, they may actually have more choices in terms of getting an education. Ray Schroeder, Associate Vice Chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, believes students will take a mix of courses -- in a traditional classroom, online, flipped or blended courses, and massive open online courses (MOOCs). In addition, students will take these courses through a combination of four-year institutions, community colleges and for-profit companies, like Coursera, before completing their education.

In a related study from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, an estimated three million college students (14 percent) are enrolled in fully online programs, while 30 percent of all college students take at least one online class. The fall enrollment numbers at College of DuPage reflect this: Our recent online unduplicated head count was 5,771 or 20 percent of our total headcount. Since 2009, COD's online headcount has increased by almost 2,000 students (from 3,775 to 5,771) or 53 percent. To put this in context, of the 48 individual Illinois community colleges, almost 50 percent do not have a total online headcount as large as COD's.

I've also predicted that there must be a greater connection between K-12 and colleges to improve graduation rates. In the eCampus article, David Palumbo, vice president of Compass Learning, takes this further and predicts that the gulf between a K-12 education and a college one will shrink, with students having more access to a broader range of college courses before finishing high school. In short, he said students will expect college to be faster, cheaper and more customizable.

Palumbo also said that more employers, especially in fields like computer science, will accept online course certificates as a means of demonstrating learning. Employers and incoming students will need to be on the same page. I've predicted before that career education will become a major focus, driven by the availability of jobs and certificates. I've also indicated that competency credentials that demonstrate a marketable skill set will become center stage in the quest to determine the value of higher education.

Speaking of the value of higher education, a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses how community colleges must be strategic about enrollment management. Although community college enrollment numbers aren't as alarming as those at private four-years, and while national enrollment in community colleges is still up over pre-recession levels, the total head count in the spring of 2013 dropped by 3.6 percent over the previous year -- the third straight annual decline.

Analytics is the guide to help presidents know their market and identify areas for growth, and marketing is vital. But you and I already know this, and we've already responded during the past several years with improved customer service, the successful Scholars Award program that includes Presidential Scholars, new academic degrees and certificates, the 3+1 program and a variety of other initiatives.

I mention these programs not to be repetitive, but to emphasize that we must be proactive and innovative to meet the challenges ahead of us. As the Chronicle article states, we can no longer sit back and wait for students to come to us. We must continue to identify the needs of our students and community and differentiate ourselves in the marketplace for continued current and future success.

CORRECTION: This blog post originally stated that St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College in Buffalo, N.Y. had merged. The schools are currently conducting a feasibility study on the benefits of an expanded partnership, but have not merged. The blog also stated that Hilton's enrollment fell 27 percent between 2010-2012. This figure referred to new freshmen enrollment, not total enrollment.