Want to Solve the Enrollment Gap? Focus on Students We Don’t Serve Well – Or At All

Dale Whittaker
Blog Post

The return of fall brings our attention back to enrollment – and a crisis in the making.

For years, enrollment managers and administrators have anticipated a “demographic cliff” where schools could expect more than a 15 percent drop in traditional freshman prospects. COVID-19 sped up enrollment concerns — not just for recent high school graduates, but also for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and working adults, who were making promising gains before the pandemic hit.

Now higher education simultaneously faces an enrollment and equity crisis, one partly of its own making. And it comes at a time when the demand for educated workers exceeds supply. But it’s one that institutions can solve if they focus on the students for whom the traditional university was not designed, like the part-time learner and single parent who works 40 hours a week or the first-generation student from a low-income background who is unfamiliar with the higher education system’s (often unnecessary) complexities.

We need to pay more attention to these prospective — and promising — students, because they are the key to resolving this crisis. More importantly, they are necessary for creating a more prosperous and equitable future for more people in an economy that’s hungry for skilled and diverse talent.

Sobering Realities

Fewer students are in postsecondary institutions now than a decade ago. The pandemic exacerbated this when undergraduate enrollment fell to new lows this spring with 727,000 fewer students, including significant drops at community colleges and among students of color.

The future holds even more ominous signs. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education outlined the dual threats of the 2025 enrollment cliff and 2020’s declining birth rate that portend significant enrollment losses for at least the next decade. In that article, economist and demographer Nathan Grawe argued that the situation requires “fundamentally and foundationally transforming who we reach through access, but also how well we support student success so that we retain the students that we do recruit.”

He’s right. Institutions must honestly consider how to better reach the millions of people who have the grit and talent to go to college but can’t — either because of societal barriers or the roadblocks traditional higher education (often unintentionally) puts in front of them.

Solutions Within Reach

During the past year and a half, universities and colleges have proven that they can quickly adapt to students’ needs in the face of growing challenges. In the early months of COVID-19, institutions across the country stood up structures that supported students with emergency financial aid, online learning platforms, and on-demand or digital resources like virtual faculty office hours and advising.

Several of the institutions we work with in the Postsecondary Success strategy weathered the onset of the pandemic last year with fewer enrollment losses. With the technological and student support infrastructure they had in place, they were able to quickly scale resources needed for remote learning and living.

Even as institutions offer more face-to-face learning this fall, they need to double down on their COVID-era infrastructure and resources and reimagine how they’ll attract and graduate the millions of people whom traditional higher education has too long left behind.

Equity As the Answer – and the Challenge

When I talked with leaders last year from more than 50 institutions — four-year public research universities, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and private institutions — about their greatest challenges in the coming years, enrollment and equity frequently topped the list. But at too many predominantly white and affluent institutions, the conversation stops at “How can we get a more diverse population in the door?”

Before COVID-19, about one-third of students who enrolled in a four-year college never graduated (and about two-thirds at two-year institutions). Among those who do, the Postsecondary Value Commission earlier this year found significant and continuing differences in post-college outcomes and wealth based who a student is (race, ethnicity, income, gender) and where they attend college.

So what equity barriers do colleges and universities need to “fundamentally and foundationally” address to avert an enrollment crisis?

The first and foremost is financial, meaning a clear and consistent net price, targeted and reliable aid, and minimized debt – all things that the Postsecondary Value Commission calls for in its action agenda. A recent survey found that about half of those not attending college this fall say they would if they received adequate financial aid.

Financial hardships worsened when the pandemic hit. That’s when the startup emergency aid technology platform Edquity partnered with several institutions, including Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Dallas College, to distribute millions of dollars to students. The foundation provided support for this platform to help reach the 3 million students who drop out every year due to a time-sensitive financial crisis of less than $500.

Finances are not the only barrier for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. While online learning and remote student support infrastructure proved crucial last year, they are indispensable moving forward.

Not surprisingly, many institutions with robust online learning platforms fared better — and even thrived — this past academic year. Arizona State University reported record enrollment last spring and a 19 percent increase for ASU Online. Part of its success and popularity is credited to its online success coaches who help connect students with university resources, offer time management advice, and provide other needed support.

Other institutions have focused on helping those with some college credit earn their degrees. Morehouse College earlier this year launched a reduced tuition online program to encourage Black men to complete their unfinished degrees.

Many institutions with large populations of students online and minority-serving institutions are delivering innovative solutions to recruit, retain, and graduate more people. But they cannot be the only ones helping to increase access and eliminate race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success.

Nearly every college and university across the country has an opportunity, responsibility — and the know-how — to redesign themselves to work better for more students, especially those they do not currently serve. The time has never been more urgent than right now.


Dale Whittaker is a senior program officer in Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He is a former university president and former administrator at some of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing public research universities.