Combat Declining Enrollment with In-Demand Niche Programs
Declining enrollment is a problem in higher education, and it’s only going to get worse. As Nathan Grawe explains in his book “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” when the economy slowed in 2008, many families postponed having children—which means that, starting in 2026, there will be several years of below-average numbers of incoming college students coming directly from secondary school. Other statistics, like the fact that only 54 percent of students whose parents only have a high school diploma go on to attend a university, suggest that the pool of prospective 18-22-year-old college students is additionally limited.
But while the population of these traditional college students might be shrinking, there are increasing numbers of students either returning to higher education or starting later, often to climb the professional ladder. Still others are returning to maintain credentials: law enforcement officers, certain clinical professionals, or athletic trainers, for example. Nurses are also supplementing their education to stay up-to-date in their field of practice and see higher pay.
To fight off the decline of traditionally aged college students, schools will have to develop niche programs to entice these non-traditional student groups, many of whom require a flexible course schedule that allows them to balance work and family obligations with their education. Further, given the rising tuition costs, these students are attracted to programs that will lead directly to a job upon graduation.
Benefits of a Niche Program
It’s time to find your niche and differentiate yourself from other schools competing for a declining population of students. If you have the same degree programs that every other college offers, you’ll find the field to be quite crowded; instead, find out what you can offer that other schools do not. This could mean more hands-on training programs or more certification and endorsement programs. These niche curricula will attract students who might have otherwise decided against college.
Schools such as the University of North Carolina; University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Texas have created niches by developing bridge programs that assist incoming freshmen in adjusting to their new college environment. The University of Oklahoma has developed a niche program by offering a Master of Arts in museum studies, while Rutgers University is offering a Master of Business and Science with a specialized concentration in genomics and biotech.
Four Tips to Implement Niche Programs at Your Institution
Niche programs cater to the increasing number of students following a non-traditional path to school. Maybe they’re looking for a career change or they want to finish a degree they started. Regardless, they’re not your typical high school graduates, and your niche programs shouldn’t be typical either.Here are four ways you can implement successful niche curricula at your institution:
- Offer condensed, pragmatic programs. Why offer a program for 128 credit hours or more when a student only needs 120 hours to graduate? Provide short, practical programs to attract non-traditional students.
- Build transitional programs. If you create programs that incentivize students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree to go directly into your master’s program, there will be more appeal for students to continue investing their time and money in your institution. You can make this transition even more attractive by eliminating or decreasing admissions requirements if a student graduates and moves on to the graduate program.
- Be financially competitive. Do your research on similar schools and set your tuition and fees accordingly. How can you make your school the most affordable option in the marketplace? With so many budget-savvy students shopping around, being affordable will work in your favor.
- Stick with what you do best. Find what your school is known for and go all in on it. The average college-seeking consumer should know that you have a track record of success and expertise in the programs you offer. Pick your best niche and outshine the competition.
When you appeal to a variety of students through niche programs, you will become an educational innovator—changing the world through cutting-edge programs that attract a more diverse student body. You’ll also stand a much better chance of weathering the coming enrollment decline.
Ron Wagner is the president and CEO of Relearnit, an organization that partners with universities to offer niche online programs and increase enrollment through strategic marketing. Dr. Wagner has a PhD in pedagogy and a master of science in educational/instructional technology, and he’s a tenured associate professor in the department of exercise and sports studies.