Strategies to Overcome Your Undergraduate Enrollment Problem

Colleges and universities are suffering from an undergraduate enrollment problem. Here are the best ways to increase college enrollment.

“Fifteen years from now more than half of the universities [in America] will be in bankruptcy,” predicts Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. He’s not alone. Financial services firm TIAA CREF anticipates closures among the “1,600 schools in the U.S. with little or no name recognition.” Moody’s credit agency offered an even darker analysis foreseeing for a “death spiral of closures” among colleges. 

And it’s not just analysts outside higher education who are worried. In a recent survey, “only fifty-six percent of [college] presidents expressed confidence about the sustainability of their institution's model over the next five years, with this number dropping to a dismal 39 percent over ten years.” Since 2016, 91 private U.S. colleges or universities have already closed or merged with another school.

Undergraduate Woes – Not a Pretty Picture

"It's not a pretty picture," says Stanford education professor Mitchell Stevens.

No, it’s not.

But, colleges and universities are fighting back against this bad news and looking for ways to increase college enrollment. They are diversifying their revenue streams. They are pursuing different models to increase enrollments in graduate programs and adult learning programs by:

  • Opening satellite campuses

  • Enhancing online and hybrid models

  • Building relationships with corporations to provide training for employees

  • Unbundling degrees into certificate programs and individual courses

And they are improving income. These strategies are working. However, a revenue hole remains: increasing undergraduate enrollments and especially undergraduate residential enrollments.

That’s what we’ll tackle here:

  • Why are there empty dorm rooms?

  • Why can’t colleges attract more residential students?

  • How can colleges fix the problem?

What’s the Cause of Declining Undergraduate Enrollment?

It’s not every college and university
First, we’re talking about the approximately 2,500 smaller, regional colleges and universities in the United States that are financed by tuition. These schools don’t have huge endowments or large alumni groups (that’s part of the challenge). We’re not considering top-tier schools, public universities, or selective schools.

There’s a demographic shift in college education
Second, there is a real shift in undergraduate college demographics that is making recruitment more difficult.

  • Students are older. In 2009, 39% of undergraduates were over 24 years old. Nearly 50% were financially independent and 53% were not enrolled full-time. Undergraduates aren’t the typical 18-year old straight out of high school. If you’re looking to recruit these adult learners and degree completion students, be sure to get our analysis on Reaching Adult Learners for Online Programs.

  • Students are living on campus less. Fewer students are attending a 4-year college overall. An education policy study reports that a “mere 13% of beginning students live on campus.” And over the last 20 years, there has been an 18% increase in first-year undergraduates attending a two-year non-residential college. According to one report, “about 57% of all first-year undergraduates attended two-year colleges in 2008.”

“In short, the traditional college student is no longer the typical college student.”

Marketing Strategies to Increase Graduate Student Enrollment

If your school is more focused on adult learners and graduate students, I've written an article focused specifically on the three core marketing strategies to increase enrollments for graduate programs and degree-completion programs.

Ways to Increase College Enrollment

Despite the changing demographics and rise of online delivery of education, “Americans also don't want to give up the residential college experience, with all its bells and whistles” commented Sandy Baum, a higher education economist with the Urban Institute.

Banking on this demand, colleges and universities are making investments to increase enrollment with undergraduates:

  • Build an international program. Building relationships with schools outside the US has proved effective in bringing more undergraduates on campus and increased revenue as most of these students pay the tuition price.
  • Build a sports program. Attracting athletes for a particular sport has become an anchor solution for some schools. Athletes are more likely to live on-campus since practices create another reason to spend more time on campus. In addition, when George Mason University hit the NCAA Men’s Basketball Sweet 16, their increased visibility spiked applications.
  • Raise student academic profile. Some colleges try to increase their academic credentials and attract more qualified students with a higher GPA and SAT/ACT scores. The goal is to be considered alongside more selective schools that have a built-in residential base of students. The challenge is getting a critical mass of these students on campus to build an effective community. Some sources show that academic rigor is increasingly valuable to prospective undergraduates.
  • Enhance residential facilities. Some schools pursue an aggressive building campaign to create new non-academic environments such as dorms and fitness centers that make campus more attractive to students. “Many colleges are creating new residential facilities to attract and retain students, have added inventive amenities designed to extend the educational experience outside the classroom, and are slowly transitioning to more comfortable living quarters such as up-scale, apartment-style suites.”

Engagement Strategies to Increase Undergraduate Student Enrollment

Alongside these investments, colleges and universities should be looking to build a bigger funnel of students. This is where we see so many schools falter. The most important shift is to turn communication groups into metrics-driven marketing groups and align marketing efforts to the business goals of the school. Every marketing effort needs to be tied to a measurable result.

Deepen relationships with guidance counselors. Based on our research, guidance counselors are a key influencer in directing prospective undergraduates to a particular college. It’s important for a college website to speak directly to guidance counselors and to make their navigation of the site quick and easy. Consider these great examples from Dartmouth College, Penn State, Dominican College, and Concordia College. While not the most compelling design, Longwood College offers a fantastic hub of information.

Tailor Experiences from College Confidential, Naviance, Niche, and BigFuture Referrals. College comparison sites are the first stops for prospective undergraduates researching schools. First, colleges and universities should monitor their profiles and ensure their information is up-to-date (where it can be influenced).

Second, colleges can use real-time content personalization to tailor messages to links from these websites. Our research shows prospective undergraduates use the third-party sites to compare schools and research costs, degrees, test scores, and demographics. Prospects link over to the college website to learn about dining, dorms, and to confirm their intended major is offered. This is where schools have an opportunity to wow prospects by using personalization to target prospects with information about life on campus – it’s the point when they are most interested in learning about residential life.

Who Are You? Differentiation is Critical
Most schools are simply not differentiated enough. They need to look inward to define who they are and outward to find a message that resonates with prospects. Roger Williams University’s President has confronted affordability head on – both in blogs and in developing the term “affordable excellence.” He’s put his money where his mouth is by freezing tuition for 4 years. Not only does this differentiate the institution, but it also offers talking points that resonate with prospective families. Babson University has differentiated in the crowded business market by positioning around entrepreneurship.

Focus Your Outreach and Targeting
Conduct data analysis to understand where you have the best success recruiting undergraduate residential students – look at both current undergraduates and prospective undergraduates. The admissions team can focus their efforts on working leads from these markets that offer a higher rate of return. Then you can again put real-time website personalization to work on the website by tailoring messages to audiences coming from these zip codes.

Focus Social Media On Residential Life
Colleges and universities never have enough photographs that show actual life on campus. Schools need to find ways to leverage social media channels to promote campus life activities. Consider working with student content creators to develop an authentic voice. Consider these examples:

Before getting started, establish a point of view. Develop an editorial strategy that showcases the student residential experience. 

Drive All Website Traffic to Your Campus Tour
Across the country, schools tell us if they can get students on campus, they can get prospects to apply and matriculate. Vice Presidents of Enrollment report that of admitted students who have taken a tour, 50-60% will matriculate. Invest in driving as many campus visits as possible – from the website, in your mailers, and with your high school guidance partners.

Then, Improve Your Actual Campus Tour
The tour needs to be real, authentic and personal – and on message. Tour guides need to emphasize the campus, residential experience. The tour is the best in-person opportunity to increase enrollment and expand the funnel.

Ways to Increase College Enrollment: Investing for the Future

Like the multi-year initiatives to build an international program or raise the academic standards, these marketing initiatives will take time to impact the pipeline. But they are the steps required to move a school out of the red zone of closure and financial distress.

  • Raise student academic profile.

  • Build an international program.

  • Build a sports program.

  • Enhance residential facilities.

  • Deepen relationships with guidance counselors.

  • Tailor Experiences from College Confidential, Naviance, Niche and BigFuture Referrals.

  • Focus Your Outreach and Targeting

  • Focus Social Media On Residential Life

  • Drive All Website Traffic to Your Campus Tour

  • Improve Your Actual Campus Tour

Tactics to Increase Student Enrollment

Now that you've got the macro-picture, I'd recommend starting to looking through some individual tactics:

This post was originally published in 2015. It was updated January 15, 2022.