US admissions officers increasingly concerned about enrolment targets

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Admissions officers in the US are increasingly concerned about meeting enrolment targets for 2019/20, and more than half are worried about international student targets for the academic year
  • The Trump administration’s rhetoric as well as financial barriers are thought to be causes for the dampened interest in US college programmes

More than half (52%) of admissions directors at US colleges say they did not meet their enrolment targets by mid-year (1 July) and 86% are worried about their college’s ability to meet enrolment goals for 2019/20. In addition, most (58%) are concerned about maintaining international student enrolments in the current academic year. This is according to Inside Higher Ed’s “2019 Survey of College and Admissions Officers,” conducted in partnership with Gallup among 336 “admissions leaders” employed by either public or private colleges in the United States.

Mid-year, 1 July, is actually later than the end of the traditional admissions enrolment period, which is 1 May. By that date, only 37% of admissions directors said they had reached their enrolment targets this year.

The only programme level for which more than half of respondents said they had met their enrolment targets prior to 1 July was the doctoral level.

A sign of the level of current concern is the fact that 65% said they were attempting to fill their classes with more out-of-state students (e.g., students from states in the US other than the one where officers’ institutions are located) – and not because of a predominant desire for the increased fees that out-of-state students pay, which is different than in previous years when the higher fees had been a primary motivation. The overarching goal of recruiting these students this year appears to be to simply fill seats in classrooms that might otherwise go empty.

Similarly, admissions officers are increasingly interested in their institution considering financial aid to international students in order to meet enrolment targets. The survey found that half of admissions officers (51%) said that their college should increase scholarships to international students, up from 42% who said the same last year.

Greater variety in international recruitment

As per last year’s trend, more than three-quarters of admissions directors (76%) believe that “the policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration have made it more difficult to recruit international students.” And with many concerned about maintaining international student enrolments, there is also a widespread feeling that pathway programmes – which prepare international students for entry into a degree programme through a combination of English-language training and academic coursework – will become more important in the future to being able to recruit international students (51%). Thirty-eight percent of responding admissions officers say their institution currently has such a programme.

Nearly four in ten (38%) respondents said they are increasingly considering the use of commission-based agents.

Affordability a growing barrier

Part of the competitive context for US colleges and universities now is the growing availability of shorter courses leading to alternative or micro-credentials, free or low-cost online programmes, and even YouTube tutorials. As we reported earlier this month, a global survey by Pearson has just found that more than six in ten in Australia, Canada, and the US feel that education is getting more out of reach for the average person. The same survey found a high awareness of alternatives to college and a sense among students that short-term vocational programmes are helpful to career success.

Admissions officers seem quite aware of the increased competition represented by lower-cost alternatives to degree programmes. Eighty-one percent agreed that their institution “is losing potential applicants due to concerns about accumulating student loan debt.” Inside Higher Ed notes that “the percentage holding this view has been at or above 80% the last three years after being below that mark in 2015 (76%) and 2016 (72%).”

More than nine in 10 (91%) officers agreed that “higher education needs to do a better job of explaining the value of obtaining college degrees.” Of those who agreed, 59% agreed strongly with the statement.

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