The coming population cliff and how higher education institutions can prepare

Some regions of the United States, particularly the Northeast, are poised to experience up to a 30% decline in college enrollment by the end of 2029 because of the declining college-age population, and it’s time for higher education to plan for this inevitable future. Back in 2008, the birthrate in America took a steep decline, and many attributed this to the Great Recession and the economy. Since that time, and until the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the United States, the economy has had steady growth, but the birthrate has not returned to prior levels. Now, without major changes to how colleges and universities recruit and retain students, enrollment numbers will continue to decline.   

Not all colleges and universities will see a decline in student applications and enrollment; some areas including mountain states and the Southwest will see increases. While large schools with recognizable brands may continue to enjoy positive enrollment numbers, smaller schools will suffer greatly. Regional bachelor’s institutions are poised to lose nearly 11% of their students by 2029. 

In 2020, the average in-state tuition was just over $10,000 for in-state students, and just under $16,000 for out-of-state students. For medium sized college campus of 5,000 students, losing 11% of its student body is the equivalent of $5.5 million in lost revenue every year. 

The unfortunate reality is this is already baked in. There is not going to be an increase in available 18-year-old students walking onto campus over the next several years, and it’s not looking better after the decline in births due to COVID-19. So, higher education is going to have to look for alternative methods to increase enrollment numbers, and do it quickly. 


Constant Communication 

Prior to 2019, if a student was enrolled in classes for the upcoming semester, they were “untouchable” by other institutions; no other colleges or universities could contact that student or continue to do promotional outreach of any kind.  

After the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) decided to make changes to their Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (CEPP) and bylaws, this limitation has been removed, and students can now be recruited by other schools indefinitely. 

So not only are institutions trying to enroll and retain students from an ever-shrinking pool, but they also no longer have the protections they have enjoyed in the past. Students getting poached in the middle of the summer, or even in the middle of the semester, will continue to be an issue for institutions to overcome. 

As technology continues to advance, higher education institutions should follow the lead. This may include switching from email as the main form of communication to text messaging. To the younger generation, texting and chat have become the preferred method of communicating in real-time. 

The gap will only continue to grow as each new generation comes and goes, but for the current Generation Z, where a majority are still in high school, their main form of communication is chatting and texting from their cell phones, not opening and responding to emails. 

It’s clear the Gen Z students don’t want to talk over the phone or schedule their own appointments and would rather receive communication through text messages. This begs the question; how could recruiting and admissions staff manage to engage with thousands of potential students via text without some sort of intelligent automation to help?  

One of the fastest growing technologies used by higher education in 2021 continues to be artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots. As the population of students continue to decline over the coming years, institutions are going to need to be able to communicate with all their potential applicants instantly, and during hours where school staff are not at work (but at times when students are researching schools or able to engage). 

A single chatbot can have simultaneous conversations with thousands of students, answering questions and providing information so school administrators can focus on more pressing issues. 

Not only can a chatbot handle multiple conversations at one time, but it can do so 24 hours a day. The opportunity to answer questions at any moment has helped schools such as Purdue University‘s Krannert School of Management convert 20% of chatbot engagements into applications. 


International Portal 

With increased competition for a smaller pool of prospective students, colleges around the country are looking for ways to improve yield, and one of those ways will be offering more opportunities for students in foreign countries.  

Over the last four years, American colleges saw an 8% drop in their international students compared to the four years prior. Compare this to other countries like Canada and Australia, which saw double digit growth in international student enrollment. Just in 2020, domestic colleges and universities saw their international enrollment drop 16% thanks to the pandemic. 

Higher education is one of America’s largest services sector export. Students from other countries studying at colleges and universities in the United States contributed $38.7 billion to the nation’s economy and supported over 400,000 jobs in 2019, but that figure dropped by almost $2 billion in 2020. 

International students have been a crucial component to America’s economic and cultural success and has led to many scientific advances and discoveries. If the United States wants to ensure the population cliff isn’t as drastic as it appears to be, institutions will have to reopen their doors to international students. These students are still looking to pursue their education outside of their home countries, and as the world begins to open again, it will be important to have the technology to communicate with international students on their terms, and in their preferred language. 

There are several barriers a chatbot can break down at an instant. A college staff cannot be accessible 24 hours a day to students in various time zones around the world, answering questions about the application process, applying for their F-1 visa, and what financial aid possibilities are available to them. It also creates a negative customer experience when a school’s available hours fall in the middle of the night when you factor in time differences. Having a chatbot will allow these students an opportunity to have a self-service experience, getting the information they need when they need it 

Language is often another problem for many higher education institutions. The cost of hiring multi-lingual staff is burdensome, and there’s still a low likelihood that your staff would speak all the languages prospective students are using. Sophisticated chatbots, such as the ones AtlasRTX builds for its higher education clients, can perform live translation in over 100 languages. This feature allows the student to engage in their preferred language, and when a campus representative wants to jump into a live conversation, they can do so in English, with every message translated appropriately for each user. 

The population cliff is a growing concern for higher education, and it’s something that should be planned for, right now. Implementing an AI chatbot will go a long way to ensure an institution is able to communicate with every potential student in an impactful way, on their own time, and in their preferred language. Through the strategic use of technology to support a school’s recruiting and admissions teams, institutions big and small can continue to see enrollment and retention growth without having to scale up resources.