The past few years have proven challenging for many colleges and universities across the country. Historically, college enrollment is inversely related to the economy; as our economy (job market) improves, some colleges and universities may be seeing as much as 2-3% decline or more in enrollment. Post-secondary education is a competitive market. Where non-profit schools once spent 2% of their tuition revenue on recruiting, today many are spending 5-10 times that- a trend that began gaining steam before declining enrollment.
Schools have also been investing more in student retention. Amenities like apartment style dorms, mixed use buildings, prolific and accessible technology, community building events, gaming centers and high-end athletic facilities are used to lure students on to campus and keep them coming back. It was easy to justify these expenses when enrollment was climbing during the recession. Now, some of these projects may be held or cut as enrollment continues its trending decline.
There are, however, some areas of post-secondary education which are still growing and for which colleges and universities are spending money. Health Sciences, medicine, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines are seeing an increase in interest and enrollment. Many liberal arts colleges are adding new degrees (and new buildings) in line with these increasingly popular tracks of study to recruit new students.
Both private and public schools such as Curry College and Montclair State University have found real value by investing in science and nursing programs during this stagnant time. Many schools like these have applied for federal grants to help supplement the total cost of new buildings and equipment dedicated to the STEM fields. We have noted in previous posts that one of the main reasons why healthcare is booming is because boomers are aging…lots of them. Today, they make up almost 30% of the US population. Additionally, medical technology continues to evolve and directly impacts the average life-expectancy. Diseases and afflictions that would have killed someone 50 years ago are cured with medical treatment or minimally invasive surgery. We will clearly need more specialists in the STEM fields.
Another strong growth opportunity for colleges and universities is with non-traditional students. This is a broad variety of individuals who do not find themselves beginning their college education as an 18 year old straight out of high school. Some other circumstances resulted in a return to education after a short (or long) hiatus. This could mean a voluntary career change, corporate lay-offs, the need for a flexible school schedule, a transfer or first-generation students, etc. Colleges like SUNY Cortland provide a special new-student orientation for non-traditional students. Not only does this allow them to receive and understand targeted information specific to their circumstances, but it also creates a support structure for the group, resulting in a greater probability for engagement and success.
Whether focusing on STEM disciplines or non-traditional student tracks, colleges and universities can still experience growth in this challenging time. Like any business, balancing expenses and revenue is key. Investing in what are clear opportunities and responding to stable demand now could be the difference between double digit decline and significant advancement and expansion.