DELAWARE, Ohio — Behind the deceptive quiet of a small college campus in the summer, things are buzzing at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Faculty at the 175-year-old liberal-arts school, which has about 1,700 undergraduates, are preparing new majors in high-demand fields including data analytics and computational neuroscience. Admissions officers are back from scouting out prospective students in China, India, and Pakistan. Recruiters have been on the road closer to home, too, in Cleveland and Chicago. In the athletics department, work is under way to add two sports and a marching band.
More money has been put into financial aid, the process of transferring to the college is being streamlined, and the ink is still wet on contracts with Carnegie-Mellon University and a medical school to speed Ohio Wesleyan students more quickly to graduate degrees. The number of internships is being expanded, along with short-term study-abroad opportunities. The university is considering freezing, lowering, or slowing the rate of increase of its tuition and fees, which are now $44,690.
All of these changes are a response to a crisis few outside higher education even know exists: a sharp drop in the number of customers bound for small private, nonprofit colleges like this in particular, and also some public universities and other higher-education institutions.
A dip in the birth rate means there are fewer 18- to 24-year olds leaving high schools, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. This has coincided with an even more precipitous decline in the number of students older than 24, who experts say have been drawn back into the workforce as the economy improves, dragging down enrollment at community colleges and private, for-profit universities that provide mid-career education.
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The result is that the number of students in colleges and universities has now dropped for five straight years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks this — and this year is the worst so far, with 81,000 fewer high school graduates nationwide heading to places like Ohio Wesleyan, whose entering freshman class is down 9 percent from last year.
How dramatic is the falloff? There were just over 18 million students enrolled in higher education nationally in the semester just ended — 2.4 million fewer than there were in the fall of 2011, the most recent peak, the National Student Clearinghouse reports.
“That’s unprecedented in the history of as long as data has been kept on higher education,” said Kevin Crockett, senior executive at the enrollment-management consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz.
There’s no upswing likely until 2023, and even then the recovery will be slow, projects the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. When it comes, it will be comprised largely of low-income, first-generation-in-college racial and ethnic minorities. These are the kinds of students institutions have generally proven poor at enrolling, and who will arrive with a far greater need for financial aid and expensive support.
“I have not met a president who isn’t saying this is really tough,” said David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, who was just back from meeting about it with members in Minnesota and was off for more talks on the same subject in Michigan and Virginia. “There’s a different consciousness than I have seen in the quarter of a century that I’ve been involved with this. Everybody understands the demographics and, more than any time I’ve seen, that it cannot be business as usual.”
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At a time when shifts in the number of tuition-paying students can make or break a university or college budget, 58 percent of chief business officers said their institutions have seen a decline in the number of undergraduates since 2013, according to a survey released in May by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, or NACUBO.
Every dorm room that’s not sold and every empty seat in the classroom, that’s a loss of revenue,” said Crockett.
Yet more than 400 campuses still had openings for freshmen and transfer students in the fall as of May 1, the traditional end of the admission period, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.
The rising cost of tuition also seems to be taking a toll; 68 percent of chief business officers of colleges and universities said in the NACUBO survey that price sensitivity was eating away at enrollment, and 57 percent blamed competition from the likes of software coding boot camps
Admissions departments have been responding by showering applicants with discounts. Small private, nonprofit colleges and universities this year gave back, in the form of financial aid, an average of 51 cents of every dollar they collected from tuition. That’s up from an average of 38 cents a decade ago — good news for students and their families, but a dangerous trend for colleges whose annual increases in revenue are failing even to keep pace with inflation.
Cutting the price has been the first impulse of many universities and colleges. Concordia College in Minnesota slashed its tuition by 34 percent in 2013, and enrollment rose. The University of Maine, in a state whose number of high school grads has fallen 9 percent since 2011, offered admission to students from elsewhere at the same in-state price they would have paid to attend their home flagships; that has attracted more than 1,000 new students for the semester that begins this fall, from all of the other New England states plus California, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
But there’s a limit to how many students some colleges want to recruit from the South and West, where the enrollment drop is less pronounced. More of them than ever are nonwhite and low-income. “That puts particular challenges on institutions that have relied on students who come from more advantaged families, who have parents who went to college, and who can afford more of the tuition bill without big discounts,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
More of these new students are the first in their families to go to college, attend rural or urban public high schools that may poorly prepare them, and require financial aid.
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Lowering the cost, too, is not enough, said Emily Coleman, senior vice president of Maguire Associates, another higher-ed consulting firm. “They have to deal with the bigger issue, which is how do we make this a place that people feel is worth paying for.” (Those big discounts may not even always work; 58 percent of institutions that rely on them saw no gain in enrollment, and in some cases a loss, the NACUBO survey found.)
Coleman, Crockett and other experts counsel better tailoring academic offerings to student and workforce demand and adding inducements that have proven popular, such as internship opportunities and affordable study abroad. They use terms such as “brand awareness” and “aligning offerings to market needs.”
Ohio Wesleyan is a case study for this. It’s in the dead center of the region where the declines are among the worst — the number of high school graduates in Ohio, from which it gets more than half of its students, has fallen 8 percent since 2011 — and the college is responding with a singular sense of urgency.
“Ground Zero turns out pretty much to be Delaware, Ohio, in the heart of Ohio,” where the college is located, said Warren, a former president of Ohio Wesleyan. “To their credit, they’re looking it straight in the eye and dealing with it.”
To see what appeals most to students, Ohio Wesleyan studies data about the 15 percent of admitted applicants who choose to enroll — and those who don’t.
Among other things, this revealed that one group of prospects attracted to the college was dropping faster than others: males. That’s a reason Ohio Wesleyan is adding more sports and making room on junior-varsity teams
The data also showed that students wanted internships and international study. Both have been expanded. Visitors are invited to use a high-tech interactive touchscreen in one newly renovated building to see the places around the world where undergraduates are studying and serving in internships, from San Francisco investment firms to the Mayo Clinic.
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The college also uses labor statistics to see what fields are in greatest demand, then tailors new programs to this. “It doesn’t do us any good to add a new major if they can’t get a job,” said Susan Dileno, vice president for enrollment.
“We live in a really consumer-driven society, and to be honest a college is an investment,” said Ohio Wesleyan’s president, Rock Jones. “Families are much more discerning, and they approach it as consumers. That’s a cultural shift to which the campus has to respond.”
One of the greatest challenges, as at other places, has been to get buy-in from the faculty, who have to approve new academic offerings. Ohio Wesleyan invited faculty on the curriculum committee to meet with the financial-aid committee, giving them a sense of how serious the problems were and asking them for help in coming up with majors that might attract more students.
This doesn’t always work. One faculty member suggested a new major in sacred music, for example. “Some faculty have a very clear understanding of the issues,” Jones said wryly. “Others, less so.”
There are early, albeit modest, indications this is working. Dileno said the new majors attracted about 10 additional students this year, out of the roughly 440 freshmen the university typically enrolls.
There’s another important sign of change, said Crockett: growing recognition of the problem.
He tells of speaking about the enrollment crisis to faculty and administrators at a private college.
“And a guy comes up to me afterward who had been scowling at me the whole time,” Crockett recalled. “And he said, ‘I’m a chemist and I focus on my discipline and I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what the industry I work in was going through.’”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher-education newsletter.