Seeing Past the Enrollment Cliff of 2025

By: Jesse Homan Apr 04, 2024

Seeing Past the Enrollment Cliff of 2025

What is the Enrollment Cliff in 2025?

With 2025 right around the corner, we’ve all been hearing about and preparing for the “Enrollment Cliff”.  Over the past year, there have been a plethora of articles describing the upcoming shift, but these are focused on hand-wringing about potential challenges, without showing a full picture of why this is happening or any clear strategy for what comes next. At its core, the “Enrollment Cliff” phenomenon is driven by declining birth rates in the United States, leading to a reduced number of traditional college-aged students that will come into effect in 2025. However, to view the “Enrollment Cliff” solely through the lens of birth rate statistics is to miss the complexity and breadth of the changes underway in higher education. At EducationDynamics, we’ve observed that the student population is undergoing a transformation that goes beyond mere numbers. A growing contingent of potential students is bypassing the traditional college experience in favor of immediate entry into the workforce. This shift represents a convergence of demographic trends and changing attitudes toward education.

Why is Higher Education Enrollment Decreasing?  

While the anticipated sudden drop in the number of 18-year-olds entering college will have dramatic effects in 2025 for traditional undergraduate programs, the ramifications for programs that are online or serve non-traditional students will take a little longer to come into effect but are coming.  The immediate implications for traditional undergraduate programs reflect broader societal changes. Lower reproduction rates are a tangible metric, but they don’t capture the entire picture of what’s happening in higher education. We’re witnessing a diversification in the pathways young people are taking towards their careers. In our 2024 Survey of the Higher Education Landscape report, we noted that individuals showing a high degree in confidence in the value of higher education has fallen by 21% since 2015. Many are questioning the value proposition of a traditional four-year degree, weighing it against the debt incurred and the uncertain job prospects in their field of study. Instead, there’s a marked increase in individuals who seek to enter the workforce directly, armed with specific skills and certifications that can be more immediately applied to their chosen professions. This shift necessitates a reevaluation of how higher education institutions approach recruitment, enrollment, and education delivery.

While the threat of an enrollment cliff has loomed before, during a cycle of birth decline in the 1980s, it was unexpectedly mitigated by shifting demographics in who went to college. What’s most unique about the present challenge is its arrival at a particularly inopportune time. 2020 – 2021 saw the first national year-over-year consecutive drops in enrollment for both undergraduate and graduate programs, due to the global covid pandemic. Schools were forced to shift to online models that they were not prepared for, which created a negative brand impact for many schools. Furthermore, the price of a degree has continued to rise, while the value of higher education degrees has become popular to question in the open market. It is not a good time for the landscape to encounter a systemic drop in the overall population of potential students. Private 4-year and 2-year institutions are among the most vulnerable constituents in this environment. The rate of closure of these institutions has doubled within the past five years, and as most private institutions are tuition-driven, they have the most to lose with a dearth of students to spread between their competition. Without a firm strategy in place, many more will close their doors before 2030.

How to Overcome the Enrollment Cliff 

Navigate the challenges posed by the 2025 “Enrollment Cliff” and the evolving student demographics by focusing on several key areas:

Improving Persistence in the Student Journey:

We have been talking about the “messy middle” of the student journey for quite a while now at EDDY, and for good reason. On average, students are requiring more points of contact in the small window of time between the moment of awareness to enrollment, but then, they are deciding on a program faster than ever. According to our latest Online College Student report, prospective students are making the decision to apply within 2 months and their selection pool is only 2 schools. Institutions need to be adept at an effective multi-channel marketing approach that seamlessly integrates organic search engine optimization (SEO), targeted paid advertising and student-centric awareness marketing while continuously nurturing throughout the student journey. But the journey doesn’t end there. Consistent communication and support through the student’s educational career is also crucial in fostering a positive student experience that your institution can leverage to build loyalty, encourage positive word-of-mouth recommendations, and ultimately, increase student retention rates while attracting a new generation of engaged learners.

Engaging Non-Traditional Audiences:

 A significant portion of the population is opting to join the workforce immediately after high school, bypassing higher education altogether. This trend represents both a challenge and an opportunity for educational institutions. Developing outreach strategies that highlight the benefits of post-secondary education as a means to advance career prospects can show this segment of people the expansive options of what is possible for their futures.

This involves not only traditional degree programs, but also skills-based training and certifications that can serve as stepping stones to higher-paying jobs and career advancement. Schools can innovate degree offerings to make them more flexible and clearly aligned with career outcomes. This could include embedding certificate programs within traditional degrees or designing courses that explicitly cater to the skills demanded by employers. According to our research in this year’s Online College Student report, 63% of students who enrolled in a certificate program made that decision in part because the certificate could be stacked onto a full master’s degree. By including “stackable” certificates, colleges and universities can enhance the perceived value of their programs, making them more appealing to prospective students who are evaluating their educational investment in terms of future job opportunities.

Addressing the Needs of Adult Learners:

This audience, increasingly comprising younger adult learners, is looking for flexible and accessible pathways to finish their education. Institutions must accommodate the diverse needs of this distributed student body, offering online courses, night classes, and accelerated programs that fit into the busy lives of working adults. 56% of the audience is employed full time, and they are on average 25 – 30 years old. That range is steadily decreasing, specifically for students who have no college credit prior to enrolling. As the age of adult learners decreases, the hurdles to enrollment will change, particularly the financial aspect of tuition as they have less full-time work experience.

In our Online College Students report for 2024, 57% of the students who delayed their enrollment after application did so either because they felt unable to commit to the financial commitment, or because they did not think they would have the time for classes with their other obligations. These are solvable problems for institutions. Tuition discounts, financial aid education for applicants, accelerated degree programs, or other creative ways to segment the degree process are methods that should be on the table for school leadership. Recognizing and catering to the unique circumstances of these students can help colleges and universities tap into a vast pool of potential enrollees seeking to enhance their qualifications and career prospects.

Some College, No Credential Students:

There’s a steadily growing demographic of individuals who have some college credits but have not completed a degree. According to the latest 2023 Some College, No Credentials report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the population has exploded to over 40 million students. In our 2024 Online College Student report, we found that 70% of students enrolling into an online program had at least 1-15 credits from a previous degree attempt. These students need a smooth transfer credit process, with a transparent policy on the amount of credits allowed by the school. Additionally, the school needs to adopt a generous policy of what credits will apply to degree completion. Any hurdles that these students face in the application process, or in shortening the amount of time they require to complete the degree, will serve as a high source of enrollment melt.

While the audience of SCNC is continuing to grow, these students have many life situations that create friction towards completing their education without the school’s involvement. Enrollment leaders would do well to make sure that they are not increasing the amount of friction between these students and degree completion.

 Higher Education’s Impact on the Enrollment Cliff

The 2025 enrollment cliff is more than a demographic blip; it’s a signal of profound changes in the higher education landscape. As the traditional college-going population declines, the industry must look beyond the numbers to understand the shifting attitudes and expectations of potential students. By focusing on flexibility, career alignment, and accessibility, higher education institutions can not only weather the challenges ahead but also emerge stronger, more relevant, and more responsive to the needs of a changing student population. The task ahead is substantial, but with strategic adjustments and a focus on value and outcomes, the future of higher education can be reshaped to meet the demands of the 21st century.