Can the college enrollment cliff be stopped?

by Jeff Weiss

Doom and gloom is setting in at colleges and universities across the country and for good reason.

The population of college-aged Americans is about to crash and its impact will change higher education forever.  Beginning in 2025, the number of college-age students graduating from high schools will drop by 10-15%  compared to current levels largely driven by the continuous decrease in the birth rates.  We are already starting to witness the impact of this trend on campuses across the country as classes will shrink over most of the next two decades.  People in the education industry call it “the enrollment cliff.”

This won’t be the case for Ivey league schools and other elite colleges and universities where there is more competition than ever. However, we are already starting to see the effects of the cliff with lower-ranked schools across the country (and around the world) still having openings for the incoming freshman class. The consequences for these schools could be devastating.  Combined with other factors that have arisen, particularly since COVID disrupted in-person attendance and the entire college experience, school administrators need to find solutions in a hurry.

One potential opportunity is for educational institutions to focus new efforts on targeting and attracting older adults.  Research from our Revolution55 community indicates the desire of older adults to grow and develop through continuous education. They are also highly concerned about their cognitive health and what better place to meet their needs than at colleges and universities?

Below are some opportunities for colleges and universities to consider as they ponder their future existence:

  • Many older adults are looking at different living options, and turning dorms into full-time accommodations would likely appeal to some. Many older adults harken back to their university and college days and the fun times they had with friends in dormitories and student residences.  And offering foodservice as part of the living option would be welcomed by many who are no longer interested in the burden of preparing their own meals.
  • Whether their motivation is to land a new job or to expand their knowledge base, colleges and universities are a great option for older adults to learn new things and develop new skills in subjects they already know or ones they have always had an interest in. They may not be looking for (another) degree but that does not mean they aren’t willing to pay for this increased knowledge.
  • Older adults have a desire to contribute to society and one of the ways to do that is to mentor younger generations of students who are looking for guidance and advice from others who have experience in their fields of interest.
  • Older adults value deep relationships and like to be connected with others who share the same interests as they do, regardless of age. Colleges and universities are a natural place to make this happen.
  • With “wellness” being a buzz word for many older adults, higher education institutions already have the facilities and can offer a wide variety of activities that are aligned with what these “students” are looking for, including physical activities, mental stimulation and a social environment to cultivate new and deep relationships.
  • For older adults looking to get back into or remain in the workforce, further education and increased skill sets will go a long way in the search for new jobs.

The enrollment cliff is coming and now is the time for colleges and universities to act.  As an outsider I see a great fit between the needs of these educational institutions and the unmet needs of many older adults who want to stay productive in a safe and stimulating environment.

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