Over the past few years, many colleges across the country have been struggling from the impact of declining student enrollment and it is only expected to get worse. A recent article on Syracuse.com discussed the issue of shrinking enrollment at community colleges in New York. In this article, Community College administrators explained low student registration rates are the result of demographic shifts.
Essentially, declining birthrates over the years have resulted in fewer amount of high school graduates, and in return less individuals in the college pipeline.
To combat declining enrollment trends, it is pertinent colleges are creative in what types of audiences and demographics they are marketing their schools to. Think less marketing to high school graduates, and more non-traditional audiences such as adult learners, working professionals, and other audiences who may express interest in higher education.
Degree and certificate offerings, program formats, facilities, and marketing messages need to be enhanced to further attract these audiences and offset the loss of traditional students.
As a research company with a specialization in higher education, we see significant opportunity for market research to provide strategic direction for colleges experiencing this demographic shift. To enhance offerings or discover new and creative solutions, it is critical colleges speak directly with these new key audiences.
By utilizing different market research methodologies, colleges can create a strategic marketing plan to offset declining student enrollment trends.
1. In-depth interviews with adult learners
In April of 2018, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported a 35 percent increase in college students aged 25 to 34 between 2001 and 2015. Beyond this, NCES also stated enrollment among adult learners is projected to increase 11% between 2015 and 2026.
How can colleges attract these types of students? By conducting in-depth interviews.
In-depth interviews are a common form of qualitative market research in which participants are recruited to participate in in-depth conversations, lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. The idea here is to fully explore the participant’s answers as the interviewer can dig deeper on responses for context and insights.
By conducting in-depth interviews with adult learners, colleges will gain a better understanding of the types of messages that resonate and encourage adult learners to come back to school. Receiving this type of unfiltered feedback directly from target audiences is extremely beneficial.
2. In-depth interviews with working professionals
Colleges should also consider conducting this same type of in-depth interview research with working professionals in their communities. From online courses to professional certifications, many working professionals are also part time students looking to further their education to grow within their companies.
By speaking with these individuals in person or on the phone, colleges can gain a true understanding of gaps in skills and training in the workforce. Employers in the community can also provide insights on success and concerns with current programs offered by the college. The employer interviews help colleges better align offerings with the needs of the workforce.
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3. Email surveys with students who applied, but did not enroll
There is a whole pool of prospective students who took interest in attending a college, but did not enroll. By creating an online survey targeted to this type of audience, colleges can identify the reasons students select a different institution or choose not to pursue higher education altogether.
For example, a prospective student taking a tour of a college campus is a pretty good indicator this person is interested in applying to this institution. Colleges should set aside the contacts who took a tour of their campus, but did not apply or choose to enroll. Colleges can then send an email with a link to an online survey to this list of contacts, asking specific questions regarding their choice not to enroll.
With this feedback, colleges can review common themes as to why students are not choosing to enroll in their university. Perhaps, a common problem area for prospective students is the lack of extracurricular activities or club sports offered through the college.
This is actionable feedback for the college to consider adding popular sports and activities that competing colleges are offering to their roster.
4. Online surveys with students who recently enrolled
Colleges can also take a similar research collection method with recently enrolled students through online surveys.
This research will help colleges better understand the current motivators for pursing higher education. It will also help to understand what factors drive the decision-making process and why one college is selected over another.
A major benefit of conducting surveys online is reaching a mass audience at low costs and in little time. Traditional research methods like a phone or mail survey often require a large budget to achieve successful and actionable results. With online surveys, colleges can obtain quick feedback from a new class of students with a web based questionnaire at little to no cost.
Learn how this college continually utilized online surveys to provide data as needed to help guide important decisions at the college.
5. Focus groups with members of the general community
A great resource for colleges looking to increase student enrollment, is those who live near or around the college campus. Colleges can choose to partner with a focus group company to conduct focus group research with residents of their community.
A focus group involves an open dialogue usually between 4 to 12 people and a trained moderator. In this case, a focus group company would target and recruit those who live within a close radius from the college. Common forms of qualitative recruitment include email, social media advertising, and research panel groups.
By speaking with members of the community, colleges can understand the attitudes toward higher education as well as the image and perception of other colleges in the area. Focus groups allow for longer discussions and are not limited to short survey questions with canned multiple choice answers.
Colleges are able to receive long form and detailed feedback from a wide range of community members, to gain a better understanding of what improvements can be made to the institution.
6. Program evaluation research
Evaluation research allows organizations to take a closer look at their current offerings, solutions, and programs to see if it meets people’s needs. In the case of higher education, evaluation research is valuable in understanding what degree programs and/or certificates are attractive to potential students.
This type of research typically comprises multiple components including a market analysis, employer research, and prospective student research. The resulting insights ensure a college’s program roster reflects the needs of prospective students and the community.
The ultimate goal is for colleges to use facts and evidence collected from key stakeholders and make informed strategic decisions. Colleges identifying new opportunities, providing more attractive offerings, and improving student experiences through evaluation research will be key to fighting the trend of shrinking enrollment.
Drive Research is a market research company specializing in higher education. We partner with colleges and universities throughout the country to obtain student, prospective student, employer, and community insights through a variety of market research methodologies.
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