How Black Colleges Must Prepare Now for the Coming Enrollment Bust

Professor Terrell L. Strayhorn looks at how the projected significant drop in college enrollments will impact the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.

An enrollment bust is set to hit higher education by 2026, if not sooner. Demographers and sociologists alike point to several causes of the dramatic downturn. The biggest factors include the public’s eroding trust in higher education (especially after recent college admissions scandals), legislated limits on in- and out-migration, and even the rebounding U.S. economy. When the recession hit in 2007, many people (especially older adults) went (back) to college. As the economy improves, however, people tend to graduate high school and go straight to work, postponing college and family plans.

The other thing that occurred during the Great Recession (circa December 2007-June 2009) is people stopped having babies and, consequently, U.S. birth and fertility rates have plummeted to record lows. Currently, the country’s birth rate is 1.8 (well below the recommended “replacement rate” of 2.1), equating to just 3,788,235 births — that’s the lowest it has been in 32 years. Levels have dropped annually over eight out of the last 10 years, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, rates have fallen significantly among Hispanics (the country’s largest ethnic minority group), Millennials (those born between 1982-1996), and teenage women. Low birth rates yield fewer babies, which, without immigration, can have a deleterious effect on education. It reduces the need for daycare teachers (294,560 in the U.S.). It leaves many kindergarten seats empty (numbers starting falling in 2014). It cuts down the size of high school graduating classes. And, ultimately, it will affect the number of college-bound students over the next 5 to 6 years.

While it’s expected that all sectors of the higher education enterprise (i.e., community colleges, state universities, for-profits) will be impacted by these seismic declines, I believe tremors will be felt greatest among HBCUs and small colleges that tend to be tuition-driven, enrollment-dependent, and, thus, sensitive to discernable drops in “supply and demand.” The latest report from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that we had 250,000 fewer college students this past fall, compared to 2018. Moreover, the thinning enterprise has lost more than 2 million students since 2011. It’s no surprise, then, that enrollment is ranked one of the “Top 5 Issues” for college presidents today.

Truth is, we’ve already started to see the impact of declining entrants at various levels of education. We’re down 100,000 students at America’s more than 2,000 community colleges. Shrinking enrollments at community colleges can have a deleterious effect on HBCUs (and other feeder patterns) that rely on transfer students year-round to meet enrollment targets. It’s known that about 20 percent of HBCU students start their postsecondary careers at two-year institutions. And though national data are not readily available, recent news headlines make it very clear that some HBCUs, particularly those with small reserves and modest endowments, are battling sizable budget deficits (or contemplating mergers) this year due to double- and triple-digit enrollment shortfalls.

To thrive in this uncertain economy, Black colleges must take action today to prepare for the coming storm. There are some simple solutions (or ways to start), like compiling enrollment trend reports from the past five years, disaggregating data by race, gender, residency status, school/district, among other demographics. Use this information to answer: Where do your current students come from? How many and how has that changed over time? What are the untapped markets where you draw few students, if any? Ask your enrollment manager for a copy of the “Admissions Funnel” or to create one, going back the last five years. Study and answer: How have the numbers (e.g., prospects, inquiries, applicants) changed over time?

Beyond these, most other efforts require deliberate action and advance planning. HBCUs would do well to engage in aggressive recruiting, especially tapping into new markets with enormous growth potential like veterans, emancipated youth, working adults, Hispanics, restored citizens, and both “non-completers” (those with some college but no degree) and “potential completers” (those with at least 2 years of college, but no degree). This can be huge as there are 36 million Americans with some college but no degree, according to recent data. Transfer incentives in the form of tuition discounts or course credits can help attract students from nearby community colleges and other four-year schools. Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list and there are many more populations that stand to benefit from gaining college access to HBCUs and, thus, should be part of any strategic recruitment plan.

While certainly important, recruitment is not a panacea for all the enrollment ills facing Black colleges. HBCUs must also shore up efforts to retain and graduate current students. Let’s face it: It’s cheaper to retain current students than to enroll new ones. The latest research shows that the following strategies, when properly mounted, can be effective: retention grants, “Last Mile” grants (that provide emergency aid to students within a year of graduation), wrap-around support services, centralized academic advising, and use of predictive analytics as a student success tool. When we work to streamline processes (from registration to aid disbursements), digitize campus services, and “meet students where they are,” we’re doing the work of enrollment management, retention, and student success!

There are many reasons why HBCUs must prepare now for the coming enrollment storm. I can give you about 298,138 of them — that’s the number of students attending HBCUs today. They deserve our very best efforts, ideas, and minds. In Good to Great, Jim Collins wrote: “Good to great companies [make] a habit of putting their best people [and minds] on their best opportunities, not their biggest problems.” Wise advice for colleges too. Taking action now puts Black colleges (back) in the driver’s seat and allows them to grab the “best opportunities” (and students) before the looming storm forces fierce competition between them and their state-flagship and for-profit peers that tend to have deeper pockets and bigger budgets. By seizing this critical moment now and shoring up recruitment and retention efforts, HBCUs position themselves not only to weather the gathering storm but to soar high above the clouds. To settle for anything less than urgent would be too little and, dare I say, too late. Only time will tell.

Terrell L. Strayhorn is Professor of Urban Education at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, where he formerly served as vice president of academic & student affairs. He’s also a faculty affiliate of the Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Professor Strayhorn is a graduate of the University of Virginia. He holds a master’s degree from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and an educational doctorate from Virginia Tech.

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  1. This makes a solid argument for why we need to reinvest in our HBCUs. They are crucial and we can’t let that number drop further down. Great article!

  2. Whenever HBCUs face an enrollment shortfall, the most frequent response is to intensify ongoing marketing campaigns.

    I would suggest instead a focus on offering students more useful and practical courses, and improving the quality of teaching materials and classroom instruction. Too many courses are developed by a single professor who has limited expertise and limited access to instructional resources.

  3. Interesting article. So, tell me. Will the graduation and retention rates be increased before the massive student grab begins? Because all HBCUs will be doing is to affirm the cycle of debt and lost hope for the elusive college degree. While what they need to do is to shave the top heavy administrations and hire people truly dedicated to student success. All the groups you mentioned (the most vulnerable of potential enrollees) have gotten “hip” to the ole enrollment games schools play; preying on the guaranteed veteran tuition; the fears of non-completers and adult learners trying for that better job situation.

    It is actually quite sad. Hopefully, high schools will start to re-tool their post HS diploma pipelines into more lucrative blue collar jobs. Where dual enrollment culminates with a trade certification and HS diploma. Hopefully parents/students are taking the time to re-assess futures and earning potential over a career. HBCUs, and colleges in general have moved so far away from what is best for the students and so much closer to what is best for the pockets of administrators, it is almost criminal.

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