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Survival: The Impetus for Vigorous Undergraduate Student Recruiting

Budgets and Finance Leadership and Management

Survival: The Impetus for Vigorous Undergraduate Student Recruiting

Many of our institutions of higher education are presently in a fierce competition to recruit undergraduates. For some of them it is a matter of survival: improve your recruitment outcomes or suffer the fiscal consequences of increasing costs to offer a competitive student experience and incur annual deficits. Institutions that are at particular risk are smaller, stand-alone public colleges and universities and small liberal arts colleges with limited endowments. Large public universities with strong research programs, solid academic reputations, and widespread public support and high-profile private liberal arts colleges have been largely immune from fiscal demise due to enrollment declines, although some will claim they are experiencing some pain. Such institutions are backed by significant public accounts comprised of past excess income, large endowments, and a favorable economy of scale. For example, in 2018 there were 103 US colleges and universities with endowments of over $1 billion. (See this list.)

Student recruiting at the top colleges and universities

Large state flagship and land grant institutions have not had enrollment challenges thus far, with many of them turning away qualified applicants each year. As major state universities they have an array of professional schools (business, engineering, public health) and other undergraduate programs (music, dance, theater, art), some of which are highly ranked at the national level, that will appeal to students from other states and countries. Because the undergraduate tuition for nonresident students is typically two to three times the resident rate and because many bring diversity to the campus, these students are particularly attractive. Even at nonresident tuition rates, these programs are often less expensive than their similarly ranked, counterpart programs at private institutions.

The upper-level and elite private institutions are also well-positioned to recruit new students in numbers and quality that ensure their goals are met. They are more concerned about the “mix” of students they recruit for each class. They have very healthy (to say the least) endowments that can be tapped to create the right blend of students. The “top” public institutions also recruit as much for the characteristics of the class as they do for the final number of students.

Thus, all these institutions (top public and flagship, elite and upper-level private) are able to maintain enrollments that include many of the very best and most attractive student prospects. These institutions also offer the best of the “extras” (top-ranked athletic programs, great job placement, high percentages of professional and graduate school admissions, etc.) that prospective students and their families seek. Institutions in these categories remain active in student recruiting to stay competitive among their peers and to attract the very best students. In addition, many in this group are growing significantly in enrollment each year and seem limited in their capacity to accommodate more students only by the speed with which they can build new dormitories and other facilities.

Why has student recruiting become so critical?

There are a number of direct factors that are responsible for the fiscal squeeze that has resulted in the increased emphasis in student recruitment. Demographics show decreasing numbers of high school graduates in many areas of the US (Bransberger, 2018). This is particularly true in the Midwest and Northeast. In line with the increased diversification in the US, losses are seen very prominently in the white population, with the growth being seen primarily among Hispanic students. Despite recent increases among Hispanic students, the college attendance rate for minority students lags behind that for white students, a reality that translates into fewer applicants in the years to come.

The recently posted 2019 fall-term enrollment estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2019) showed an overall decline of 1.3 percent in the number of students registered in postsecondary institutions. The decline was seen in all institutional types, with four-year public and four-year private institutions decreasing by 1.2 and 0.6 percent, respectively. A deeper dig into the statistics revealed 1.9 and 3.6 percent declines (a total of 36,257 students) in the number of first-year students starting their collegiate life at four-year public and four-year private institutions, respectively. Demographics, coupled with the overall drop in the US higher education attendance rate, means and will continue to result in fewer students from whom to recruit the first-year classes for many of our colleges and universities. Although it is difficult to measure its impact, the current anti-intellectual environment in the US may be a factor in the drop in higher education attendance.

There are also some indirect factors that share responsibility for the increased attention being paid to student recruitment. Mounting student debt has received much media attention in the past few years and has resulted in most public institutions “approving” (some voluntary and others imposed by or negotiated with boards or legislatures) low or no tuition increases. Private colleges and universities have moderated tuition increases to address constituent resistance, to demonstrate empathy with students who must borrow to attend, and to avoid the criticism over student debt. Finally, for a number of years state appropriations to higher education have been flat or near flat at best or decreased at worst.

Concurrent with these events, overall campus costs continue to increase at a rate beyond that of inflation. These costs include salary increments for faculty, staff, and other personnel; federal and state-mandated compliance costs; improved security; more pervasive technology; instrumentation (for workplace competitiveness); voluntary efforts to improve diversity and inclusion; new faculty costs (recruiting expenses, salaries and benefits, and start-up costs); and more. The recent emphasis on STEM areas means hiring on the high end salary-wise, and if institutions expect these faculty members to offer cutting-edge education and student training (and to conduct research!), there will be significant start-up costs. Summarizing, we have a decreasing applicant pool; large, powerful universities growing their enrollments; the inability to raise prices to cover full costs; an atmosphere that questions the value of what we offer; no real increase in state support; and increasing internal costs. The only avenue to fiscal survival is to increase student enrollment, including both the number of students recruited and the number retained.

Ways to make your institution more competitive in student recruiting

So how do Local Public University (LPU) and Vanilla Liberal Arts College (VLAC) compete for students with a major public research university and a high-profile liberal arts college? The answer is that they must promote themselves as (1) distinctive and (2) meeting the needs of targeted subsets of the applicant pool. The first and obvious thing to do to recruit students is to emphasize what you do best and what makes your institution unique. If you have programs that outperform those of your competitors, don’t be shy about touting that in your recruitment efforts. Major Public University may offer two to three hundred degree programs, but there are others not represented in that number. Examples from my school and institution (an LPU) are forensics and neuroscience (both offered collaboratively by Biology and Chemistry and by Biology and Psychology, respectively), philanthropy, medical humanities, race car engineering, and new media. Perhaps you have or could develop a theme-based general education curriculum around an important contemporary topic (e.g., sustainability or world cultures or civility) that would resonate with subsets of students. There would be elements of the topic in all general education courses. Finally, if you have a graduate professional school on your campus, devise a program for undergraduates who are interested in having an experience with the school.

To attract subsets of students to LPU or VLAC, who may otherwise attend the major public university because it is expected of them or all their friends are going there, you may consider taking advantage of your location relative to the competition. If you are in or near an urban environment, you might emphasize the availability of internships or part-time work and the cultural aspects (e.g., diverse population, arts, museums, sports) of city life. If you are in a rural setting, emphasize field studies, outdoor activities, and the beauty of the location. Because your institution is smaller than the competition, you can point to differences in class size; the probably lower cost of attendance; the individual attention that is available; and special programming or support (e.g., undergraduate research, focus on first generation students, peer advising) that may be prominent at your institution.

A future view of US enrollments

The challenge of growing or maintaining enrollments that many of our institutions now face will remain over the next decade, and it will be accompanied by new challenges in retaining the increasing number of less prepared and low-income students who will mark the talent pools of the future. At the end of the decade, a major drop (the “cliff”) in the number of high school graduates is projected, which means that the problems facing LPU and VLAC today will grow more dire and move up the hierarchy of our institutions, forcing others to grapple with retention and related issues. In the meantime wealthy institutions will continue to thrive due to their reputations and deep pockets (cash reserves and endowment resources much of which is targeted to student scholarships). LPU and VLAC will be at risk if they can’t carve out and recruit distinct student populations within the annual pool of new students. They can achieve this outcome if they effectively market and promote their innovations and distinctiveness. This will be the subject of a future article.

Note: This article was planned and written before the COVID-19 pandemic. This affliction will result in across-the-board losses in student enrollment in the short term with the possibility of some long-term negative consequences. How long and how deep the losses will be depend on factors (e.g., When will an effective vaccine be available? When will the economy rebound? When will our campuses reopen? Will there be a special government intervention to allow students to continue their educations in the absence of full family employment?) that are largely unknown at this time.


Bransberger, P. (2018, July 24). Demographics, high school graduates & higher education demand [PowerPoint slides]. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57f269e19de4bb8a69b470ae/t/5b57353ff950b7329f3c9856/1532441920461/July+24+2018+PBransberger+Slides+for+web.pdf

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2019, December 16). Fall 2019: Current term enrollment estimates. http://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates-2019

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.


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