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What Are You Doing to Survive the Enrollment Cliff?

Leadership and Management

What Are You Doing to Survive the Enrollment Cliff?

Years after the publication of Nathan Grawe’s 2017 book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, there is still extensive discussion about how to best approach the impending enrollment cliff. Writing in The CPA Journal, Copley and Douthett (2020) cite research indicating that the college-age population will decrease by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029 as a result of the recession-related dip in the birthrate some 17 years earlier. Some types of institutions and some regions of the US will be hit harder hit than others. Institutions that have built a fiscal strategy on the assumption of steadily increasing enrollments will have a serious wake-up call.

As a department chair, what are you doing about it? Are you trembling in your shoes daily? Are you waiting for higher levels of administration to provide direction? Are you planning a premature exit—either from administration or from academia—so you don’t have to deal with it?

Your institution may remain unscathed by the cliff, but you can by no means be sure. So take the reins and begin by imagining what will happen if enrollments do drop by 15 percent. What will likely happen to the staffing in your unit—and can you live with that?

If your institution is like many, you have faculty and staff at different ranks and levels of seniority, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Who among them will likely remain if positions are cut? To what extent will your unit still be able to fulfill its mission? What will it be like to work there if certain positions—and people—leave (or are cut)? Will it still be a place you want to work?

These are of course extremely difficult questions. And yet preparing for the threat of reduction is far better than simply falling victim to it. There are perhaps ways that you can indeed shape the future of your unit. And even if things don’t turn out as you would have liked, you will know that you applied forethought and were creative. There are many ways you can provide leadership in the face of the enrollment cliff. Let’s consider three possible approaches.

Prepare some folks for retirement

This is a hot-button issue. At my institution, the word was “don’t bring it up.” And yet there may be folks who are near, at, or beyond retirement age and who persist at the university for various reasons. They may have adapted to the newest institutional priorities and may be productive members of your unit—or not. For those who may not be part of a more modest future at your institution, how can you help them see the bright side of retirement?

Genuinely see and believe in the bright side of retirement yourself

Get your own ducks in a row regarding finance and post-career fulfillment so that when you are ready to generate the topic in casual conversation, it is authentic. Academics have lots of opportunities to tuck away additional savings into 403bs and 457s. You can be ready before you ever thought possible. Read up on living retirement fully. Books like What Color Is Your Parachute? for Retirement by Nelson and Bolles (2010) provide helpful models for designing your life after retirement.

Provide information that makes retirement more attractive

If your human resources department is not proactively preparing employees for retirement, encourage them to do so. This can involve offering financial planning and retirement planning information. In a 2019 article in Higher Ed Magazine, Missy Kline makes the case for HR departments being integrally involved in high-level discussions about responses to the cliff. Another approach is to see whether you can collaborate with other department heads in your college to invite speakers in your fields who have transitioned to an active retirement, using their expertise to give back by serving on boards, mentoring, and consulting. Some may even be alumni. These role models will be inspiring—and the renewed connection to graduates can be a win-win.

Make your most vulnerable and valued faculty indispensable

Here’s where you want to get really creative, because sometimes faculty members with the shortest tenure or an annually renewable position are highly productive. They are on top of their game, work well with others, show themselves to be flexible and innovative—and yet are lowest on the totem pole. You might lose them unless you find new ways for them to stimulate enrollments and generate revenue.

Two ways you can respond to the enrollment cliff are by finding new ways to reach the student population your institution is already trying to recruit, and by finding and generating new student populations you haven’t reached in the past. Can you engage your most vulnerable faculty in these endeavors and demonstrate tangible outcomes of their reassignment? Here are two examples to stimulate your thinking.

Reach prospective students earlier and in a more personalized way through dual credit

In a blog post on CampusLogic, Lyquaia Purcell (n.d.) cites research showing that students who experience earlier and more personalized engagement are twice as likely apply to college. Dual credit offers you the opportunity to achieve this. You can reassign part of the load for a faculty member who is strong in teaching to expand dual-credit offerings. Many states pay the tuition for high school students who enroll in dual-credit courses at their schools. When your reassigned faculty member serves as a liaison to recruit, recommend for credentialing, and mentor high school teachers who offer dual credit in their schools through your department, you create a direct line of contact with teachers and their students. The high school teachers themselves are connected to your institution because you have recognized their expertise, and you provide them a service in the form of discipline-specific development. They subsequently feel good about recommending your institution. Your dual-credit liaison can communicate early and in a more personalized way with learners in the dual-credit courses than, for instance, a college recruiter who does not have the same knowledge about students and their interests.

Develop distinctive programs

Writing in Academic Leader in 2020, N. Douglas Lees argues for distinctive programs as an approach to surviving the recruitment challenge. Ron Wagner (2018), also in Academic Leader, touts a smaller version he calls “niche programs.” What you can do: Work with a faculty member who would like to grow their skills as they develop a new, small-scale program. This could, for instance, take the form of a certificate for working professionals or an add-on certificate for undergraduates. Study projections for the future of careers in your discipline and industry needs in the region and use this information as a basis for your proposal. Not all parts of the program need be new. You might use some existing courses or collaborate with another unit to develop an interdisciplinary program. Alternatively, see whether you can develop noncredit programming that helps reach new student populations. For example, if your discipline leads also to teacher certification, you might assign the faculty member to create a chapter of Educators Rising to inspire high school students to go into teaching.

Ask for support in creating and rewarding a culture of adaptiveness

Speak the same language

Request from the levels above you a practice of consistent messaging and transparency. If everyone has the same information about budgetary and enrollment projections, there will be less of a burden on you to create a sense of urgency. You are more likely to see colleagues pulling together to respond effectively.

Shift reward systems

Changed circumstances require us to adapt. And yet if the reward systems around us stay the same, then there is little incentive to correct course. Ask the administrators above you for support in creating the change that your unit and the institution need to survive—and thrive. Work with your dean and the levels above them to generate ideas for recognizing and rewarding those who help steer past the cliff. This will change how you do things. The time to begin is now.


Copley, P., & Douthett, E. (2020, October). The enrollment cliff, mega-universities, COVID-19, and the changing landscape of U.S. colleges. The CPA Journal. https://www.cpajournal.com/2020/10/05/the-enrollment-cliff-mega-universities-covid-19-and-the-changing-landscape-of-u-s-colleges

Grawe, N. (2017). Demographics and the demand for higher education. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kline, M. (2019). The looming higher ed enrollment cliff. Higher Ed Magazine. https://www.cupahr.org/issue/feature/higher-ed-enrollment-cliff

Nelson, J. E., & Bolles, R. N. (2010). What color is your parachute? for retirement (2nd ed.). Ten Speed Press.

Pursell, L. (n.d.). We’re facing an enrollment cliff. Here’s how we overcome it. CampusLogic. https://resources.campuslogic.com/blog/we-re-facing-an-enrollment-cliff-here-s-how-we-overcome-it

Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.


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