The Enrollment Cliff: How Holistic Admissions Can Pave the Way Forward

As the world of education rapidly evolves, institutions are grappling with a pressing challenge: the impending enrollment cliff. Today, we delve deep into reimagining the admissions process, emphasizing how higher education institutions can align their strategies to not only attract students that resonate with their core mission but also to provide optimal pathways for these students’ success. It’s a two-fold objective, ensuring a prosperous future for both the student and the institution. So, how can we achieve this balance? 

Yesterday’s Holistic Success Show episode covered this intriguing topic with insights from Dr. Kelly Dore, co-founder of Acuity Insights, co-creator of Casper, and VP, of Science and Innovation at Acuity Insights. The conversation was led by our Senior Director, Marketing Anju Visen-Singh.

Read on to learn about the insights shared on the Holistic Success Show’s latest episode.

What is the enrollment cliff and is it real?

The term “enrollment cliff” refers to the predicted decline in the number of students interested in and eligible for higher education, notably from 2025 onwards. This phenomenon will not impact all institutions uniformly. Variations will arise based on the schools’ demographic and program offerings. Two significant factors contribute to this decline:

  1. Population decline of college-age students: Stemming from the recession of the 2000s, there has been a noted reduction in the overall number of college-age students. This is primarily due to a decrease in birth rates during that period.
  1. Shifting student perspectives: Apart from the pure numbers, there’s a growing segment of students less inclined towards higher education. These individuals are either concluding their education earlier or are exploring alternative career pathways that may not necessitate a formal degree.

Dr. Dore underscores the urgency of this impending challenge. While the effects might not be evident in current institutional data, the overall population metrics and changing student mindsets signal its approach. However, this isn’t a time for panic but for preparation. Institutions need to anticipate this “cliff” and strategize on how to bridge the gap. The goal? Mitigating the dramatic impacts of this decline and ensuring that educational establishments can thrive even as they navigate these changes.

What can admissions professionals do about this enrollment cliff?

In essence, tackling the enrollment cliff involves a shift in mindset, from restrictive academic benchmarks to a broader understanding of student potential, ensuring not just admission but also long-term success. Institutions will want to take a three pronged approach to the enrollment cliff, this approach will include:

Holistic admissions: Traditional admissions have often relied heavily on academic achievements, primarily grades. However, to combat the enrollment cliff, it’s crucial to embrace a more holistic approach. This means looking beyond mere grades and factoring in a student’s life experiences, resilience, grit, communication skills, and overall character. The essence of holistic admissions is understanding that there are various indicators of success in higher education. The benefits of holistic admissions include:

  • Challenges assumptions: This approach urges institutions to redefine success, acknowledging that academics alone don’t define potential.
  • Broadens recruitment scope: By not solely focusing on GPA, institutions can attract a diverse array of applicants with different attributes, making recruitment efforts more inclusive.
  • Engages overlooked populations: A broader admissions approach can attract older students or those who, because of GPA inflation or other reasons, might have previously felt ineligible.

Recruitment evolution: By embracing holistic admissions, schools can shift their recruitment narrative. It sends a message that institutions care about more than just grades. Prospective students will understand that their unique attributes, experiences, and perspectives are valued. This inclusive stance can expand the pools of potential applicants and reduce entry barriers.

Retention focus: Beyond recruiting the right students is the challenge of retaining them. Ensuring student success isn’t just about academic support but encompasses a wider range of factors. For instance, students with perfect GPAs might struggle when faced with adversity, leading to dropouts. On the other hand, someone with resilience, even with a slightly lower GPA, might persist and thrive. The objective is to identify and admit students who will not only excel throughout the program but will also become notable alumni, indirectly aiding future recruitment.

In light of this impending enrollment cliff, why does a holistic approach to applicant assessment become even more critical?

The holistic approach in admissions is about seeing potential students in their entirety, not just through the lens of academic prowess. This approach prioritizes the recruitment of applicants who possess not only academic strengths but also other personal and professional qualities that ensure success both within and beyond the program. The following are three key reasons to prioritize holistic admissions.

Looks beyond academic success: Holistic admissions delves deeper than grades. It focuses on identifying applicants with personal and professional attributes that will ensure they thrive during and after their time in the program.

Supports program reputation and employment: Graduates’ success in the workforce directly influences a program’s reputation. Institutions that cultivate well-rounded students, who are valued in the employment market, inherently boost their attractiveness to future applicants.

Helps to differentiate non-elite institutions: With the anticipated challenges of the enrollment cliff, non-elite institutions can particularly benefit from the holistic approach. It offers them a way to set themselves apart, underlining their value to students, staff, and the broader community.

Why is it important to proactively plan for the enrollment cliff?

While the impending enrollment cliff might not be an immediate threat, it necessitates forward-thinking and early planning. Institutions should act now, ensuring they are not merely reactive to changing circumstances. A few essential takeaways include:

Programs should anticipate and adapt: Even if current data indicates stable or even increasing applications, this is the time for institutions to prepare for future challenges. Adapting early allows for smoother transitions.

Adopt holistic admissions as a differentiator: Adopting a holistic approach means looking beyond grades and academic achievements. By acknowledging the broader attributes that contribute to long-term success, institutions can distinguish themselves from the more conventional ones.

Value skills beyond technical knowledge: In our rapidly changing world, knowledge and technical skills evolve quickly. Institutions need to showcase how they equip students with skills that are timeless and pivotal for success in various fields, rather than just technical expertise.

Focus on creating tomorrow’s leaders: It’s not just about producing graduates but nurturing exceptional professionals and leaders for the future. Institutions should pride themselves on developing well-rounded individuals prepared to excel in tomorrow’s world.

To listen to the full episode on the impending enrollment cliff in higher education, visit our YouTube channel.