Can Adult Students Save Colleges From the Enrollment Cliff?

As the traditional-age student population promises to shrink, the “some college, no credential” ranks continue to swell. Can higher ed get them back in the fold?
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former columnist for The Chronicle ...
Published on May 7, 2024
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  • The college-age population is expected to decline considerably starting in 2025.
  • To counter drops in traditional-age enrollments, colleges can seek to re-enroll students who never completed degrees.
  • Adult learners have different needs than traditional-age college students.
  • Project Kitty Hawk in North Carolina helps state universities launch programs for working adults.

Just when higher education has had enough to worry about with the imminent enrollment cliff, another one appears to be looming on the distant horizon.

For some colleges and universities, the first cliff could prove fatal, rendering the existence of a second one immaterial.

But what if a lifeline existed, a solution colleges could employ to ensure their survival? It turns out a remedy may indeed exist right under their noses.

A Second Enrollment Cliff or One Continual One?

Experts agree the enrollment cliff will materialize during the academic year 2025-2026. Lower birth rates during the Great Recession, beginning in 2007, will translate into smaller college-age cohorts 18 years hence.

From there, the demographic math gets a bit fuzzy. In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that the population of 18-year-olds would dip in 2025 before rebounding around 2034, growing from 4.2 million to 4.45 million by 2045.

More recent projections, however, suggest that beginning in 2034 this population will precipitously decrease, dropping to 3.8 million by 2039.

An analysis in The Chronicle of Higher Education refers to this new demographic data as the second enrollment cliff.

Nathan Grawe sees it differently. A professor of economics at Carleton College and author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” Grawe has been tracking this population slide for some time. He told BestColleges higher education should anticipate at least 15 years of contracting pools of traditional-age students.

Grawe doesn't think in terms of a second cliff but rather one long, continual decline.

There's expected to be a slight and short recovery for a couple of years in the early 2030s, he said, but it's very brief.

The pandemic gave colleges a taste of what it looks like when students don't show up, Grawe said, and the results were far from palatable.

Many colleges and universities for the first time contemplated what it would look like if we had 10-15% fewer students, Grawe said. The answer was, it would be tough.

Re-Engaging Adult Dropouts and Stopouts

University leaders certainly understand the demographic challenges that lie ahead. A 2022 survey by Bay View Analytics revealed that nearly 90% of academic administrators expressed some level of concern about future enrollments for their institution.

Their spirits might be buoyed somewhat by the return of international students. Last year saw a 12% increase in international enrollments, the largest year-over-year growth rate in four decades.

Yet a Republican victory in November might clog that spigot, recreating the Trump effect that reduced international student numbers by 12%.

Could immigration save the day? Not under current projections, which show the youth population declining under even the most optimistic immigration scenarios.

Instead, colleges should embrace a population that already knows them — former students. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, some 40.4 million Americans have some college credits but no credential (SCNC), and their numbers continue to swell.

In 2021-22, roughly 864,000 of these SCNC students re-enrolled in college, according to the center's report. Yet that represents only about 2% of the total population.

An optimistic conclusion suggests any elasticity with that figure could bode well for colleges hoping to boost nontraditional student enrollments as traditional-age populations shrink.

A small penetration into this market would go a long way toward offsetting the decline, Grawe said.

On the other hand, re-enrolling only 2% of former students could mean the demand just isn't strong or that hurdles preventing adults from completing a degree are too high.

A similar report from the Strada Education Foundation sheds light on reasons why students stopped out and what, if anything, could entice them to return. The most common reason students left was their inability to balance school and work. Many said they'd return if options were affordable, flexible, and tied directly to career advancement.

That population said pretty clearly, Look, there's a reason why we stepped away from higher education. We tasted the experience, and we didn't like it. That's why we aren't there, Grawe said.

He added that colleges should be thinking about relational repair work when trying to re-enroll stop-outs.

How do we respond to the kinds of factors that led these people to step away and stop out? he said. How can we make higher ed meet their needs?

Like Grawe, Melissa Loble has been examining the enrollment cliff for some time and considering how colleges can tap into the SCNC market more effectively. As the chief academic officer for Instructure, whose most notable product is the learning platform Canvas, Loble has a natural bias toward online learning as a vehicle for student re-engagement.

She said student re-enrollment is not always just about the degree but instead specific microcredentials that adults need to advance in their careers. Colleges should be doing more to meet this demand, Loble told BestColleges.

If you already have a degree program, it's something you can chunk into certificates or badges and start offering those fairly quickly, she said.

Once the cliff arrives, there will be winners and losers among institutions, Loble added, and only some will figure it out in time.

Colleges should be worried about where their enrollments are coming from, she said.

Project Kitty Hawk Pilots Programs for Working Adults

Higher education leaders in North Carolina are indeed worried, even though they're seemingly on the right side of demographic shifts. As people continue to migrate away from the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, the South has benefitted the most.

From 2022-2023, North Carolina ranked third among states for population growth.

At the same time, growth among the college-age population in the state has remained flat, and enrollments have suffered at some campuses. Since 2019, enrollment has dipped by 12% at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Greensboro and by almost 19% at UNC Asheville.

Layer atop this recent stagnation the potential effects of the enrollment cliff and the state's university system is rightly concerned. How are they addressing matters? By trying to re-engage adult learners through an effort called Project Kitty Hawk.

The initiative took flight in 2022 with a $97 million grant from the General Assembly. Its mission is to help North Carolina's public universities launch online programs aimed at working adults.

There's a need to make the state's public universities more adult-friendly, Brian Fleming, the project's vice president of business development, told BestColleges. That comes with a much broader set of priorities to include not just how you market to and recruit adult learners but all of the services that go into ensuring they can be successful in this environment.

As colleges nationwide continue to move away from partnerships with online program managers, or OPMs, what does Project Kitty Hawk — essentially a state-funded, nonprofit OPM — do for North Carolina's universities that they can't do for themselves?

It's all about shifting the institutional mindset from the traditional-age student to the adult student, Fleming said, and doing so without upending a college's normal operations.

Universities are really tooled for a traditional-age audience, Fleming said. So when you think about the requirements needed to better serve adult learners at scale, there's a new capability that's required.

That includes providing services such as academic and career counseling during off-hours to accommodate the schedules of working adults.

Generally, most universities are open from 8 to 5, Fleming said. So that's where you have this kind of real friction that can be introduced into the student experience.

According to the project's website, North Carolina has around 1 million SCNC adult learners, and about 60,000 adults seek educational opportunities outside the state. Thus far, the project hasn't given these students an abundance of options to stay put, launching programs at only two schools: North Carolina Central University and East Carolina University.

The former offers degrees in nursing, information technology (IT), and business; the latter, psychology, IT, and cybersecurity, though several more are on the way.

As it stands, the model is based on completing degrees, not earning microcredentials of any sort.

Still, it's a model other states can learn from and possibly adopt, especially in light of portended enrollment declines. Education leaders and policymakers around the country have reached out to have conversations with Kitty Hawk's staff, Fleming noted.

They are following what we're doing, he said. They're interested in what we're doing. They're certainly interested in what we're learning given that we're really breaking ground in a unique way.