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One Top Priority for Colleges to Retain Students

You don’t have to be a professor or a student affairs director to observe that the world of higher education is shifting. Like it or not, the data is in.

I fact-checked a report recently and found eye-opening research to confirm what I’ve been saying for years now. Colleges and universities are separating into successes and failures in terms of enrollment, retention and finances.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a report. “According to an analysis of 20 years of freshman-enrollment data at 1,040 of the 1,052 schools listed in The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education ranking, U.S. not-for-profit colleges and universities are segregating into winners and losers—with winners growing and expanding and losers seeing the first signs of a death spiral.”

Why is this happening now?

When I visit universities, it’s relatively easy to observe which ones are still flourishing and which ones are on the decline. I see it in the new buildings; the crowded rooms; and the morale on campus. For fifteen years, even mediocre colleges were doing well, simply for two reasons: (1) the Millennials made up a gigantic population of prospects—80 million strong and (2) the availability of generous student loans. Today, both the teens and the economy are different. Generation Z makes up a smaller population of teens and they’re less OK with debt. Times are changing.

What Is the Big Secret Behind Schools that Grow?

So, what’s the secret to the schools that keep thriving, building, growing and attracting students to the campus?

Believe it or not—it’s the ones who prepare graduates for careers after school.

What a practical piece of data to examine.

“The Journal ranking, which includes with more than 1,000 students, focused. The analysis found that the closer to the bottom of the ranking a school was, the more likely its enrollment was shrinking.”

The closer to the top of the ranking, the more that school accomplished outcomes that prepared students for careers, family and leadership. You can call this a coincidence, but I think both parents and kids figure this out and are pragmatic.

Two Case Studies

For example, two schools cited in the WSJ report are both in South Carolina:

  • Concord University
  • Clemson University

Clemson scores high on preparing graduates for life. The research-based school brought in its largest freshmen class in 2017 and is expanding its campus by adding an $87 million building for the college of business. Concord, on the other hand, is a mid-size liberal arts school that has seen its freshmen enrollment drop 19 percent in the last five years. According to the report, it has used up its $12 million dollar surplus, and it can’t afford to tear down two empty residential halls. Both schools attempt to attract Generation Z, but growth costs more now than it did 15 years ago.

The Bottom Line

To be blunt, if we teach literature, science and math—without making practical connections to life after gradation—we have failed. If we neglect to demonstrate how the course prepares students to be contributing adults, it doesn’t do the trick. If we offer classes—but no first-hand experiences—they’ll choose to go elsewhere.

“In the same way the bookstores fell when Amazon took over, now it’s higher education’s turn and it’s been coming for a while,” said Charles Becker, Concord’s Vice President for business and finance. “The shake-out is coming. It’s already here.”

Richard Vedder, Director of Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says: “You’re going to see, over the next five years, a real increase in the number of schools in serious trouble. A degree from a top school is still a pretty good signaling device (to employers). But a degree from one of these lower schools doesn’t mean much of anything.”

The winds are, indeed, changing.

“The birthrate fell, the pay advantage for college graduates over high-school graduates declined, states cut $9 billion in funding to public colleges and student debt soared. Competition from Silicon Valley in the form of technical schools that offer faster, cheaper credentials is rising,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

I am certainly not the only voice on this topic, but I believe that parents and students are yearning for practical skills and insights, in addition to research-based classes. Schools can be both academic and practical at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive, unless professors have long forgotten the trades they’re teaching, and it’s all become theoretical. In 1825 Horace Mann called the institutions in his public-school reform: The Normal Schools—because they prepared kids for the norms of society. That was the goal of a school.

This is still the need of the hour: Career Ready Students—for their sake and ours.


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One Top Priority for Colleges to Retain Students