Learn why high schoolers are opting out of college — and how to change their minds.

Graduate high school. Go to college. Get a degree. Find a job. For years, this is the course teenagers have been expected to follow. But, recently, more and more students have started to deviate from that path. 

Since 2020, college enrollment has dropped by 9.4% (or 1.4 million students). And, while many universities are quick to blame the pandemic, this trend is nothing new. 

“The truth is, college enrollment has been declining for the past decade,” said Gus Bolognesi, head of client services at Net Natives. “For example, between 2011 and 2019, college enrollment dropped by 11%, which comes out to more than 2 million students.” 

So, why are fewer students attending college? Part of this decline can be attributed to environmental factors out of our control, like the continuously decreasing birth rate or the state of the economy. Then, there are the factors that colleges and universities can influence. Read on to find out what they are — and how you can tackle them. 

1) Affordability 

It’s no secret that the cost of education is high. “As states allocate fewer funds to public colleges, tuition is steadily increasing,” Bolognesi said. According to a survey conducted by the Princeton Review, 98% of families claimed financial aid would be “necessary” to afford college. 

So, what can you do?

Promote the support available to students. “Whatever financial support you offer — such as merit scholarships, work-study programs, and grants — should be at the forefront of your advertising,” Bolognesi said. 

Highlight student experiences. For some students, the question isn’t about affording college. It’s about whether the experience justifies the cost. “Providing tangible examples of how your university has impacted student lives can be a great incentive,” Bolognesi said. “For example, for one of our clients, we launched a ‘Choose Your Own Story’ campaign that presented potential education and career paths students could take. It ended up being a massive hit and outperformed key performance indicators.” Ultimately, a visual representation of results can be far more effective than just the concept of a degree.

2) Online learning 

Tuition isn’t the only cost students need to worry about. Room and board can also make a significant dent in wallets. Couple the cost of living with continuing concerns over COVID-19, and suddenly, online learning becomes a much more popular option. 

“Seventy percent of students believe online education is better than or equal to on-campus learning,” Bolognesi said. “If you’re not already offering flexible, accessible hybrid and online programs, it’s time to start.” Here are two of our tips:

Do your research. Not every class will translate well as an online course offering. “Before you invest time and resources into building out an online course, make sure the demand is there by conducting research, such as a Net Natives program viability report,” said Kas Nicholls, research director at Net Natives. “By collecting data sources, this report can evaluate student demand and determine whether a program will be viable in the market.” 

Market effectively. “There are many advantages to online learning that should be showcased in your marketing materials,” said Amelia Pavlik, content and campaigns manager at Net Natives. “For example, not only does online learning reduce costs, but it’s also more flexible than traditional learning and helps reduce carbon footprints.” 

It’s also important to market to the right demographic. A Net Natives’ Student Pulse report revealed that more than 10% of mature students were considering an online provider, in comparison to 2.8% of those under 21. “Use platforms that appeal to older demographics, such as ‘on-the-go’ resources like podcasts,” Bolognesi added. You can learn more about launching an online program here. 

3) Transfer students 

While we often associate prospective students with incoming freshmen, a large portion of your applicants may actually be second-year students. “Community colleges offer low tuition and easy access, which is appealing to many high schoolers,” Bolognesi said. “As a result, we’re seeing more students start with community college, then transfer to a traditional, four-year institution.” To ensure you’re not neglecting transfer students, consider the following strategies: 

Target community colleges. “New freshmen enrollments are just one potential audience,” Bolognesi said. “Make sure your outreach campaigns are also targeting potential transfer students at community colleges, especially those in your area.” 

Make transfer procedures clear. Most incoming freshmen follow similar application procedures at every school they apply to. For transfer students, however, procedures may differ between universities, which can get confusing. “Your transfer procedures should be clearly outlined in communications materials,” Bolognesi said. “And, make sure your staff is briefed and ready to respond to questions.” 

4) Diversity 

The increasing cost of education has negatively impacted diversity. For example, after California banned race affirmative action in 1998, minority enrollment dropped at UC’s most selective colleges: Berkeley and UCLA. And, now that the Supreme Court is planning to reduce the use of race affirmative action in college admissions, more and more minorities may face obstacles in accessing education. So, what can you do about it? 

Change your admissions requirements. Strict admissions requirements can be a huge deterrent for high schoolers. “Higher-income, higher-class groups — which tend to be white — are more likely to have the time and money to pad their applications with impressive extracurriculars, essays, and exam scores,” Bolognesi said. “Simplifying your application process and highlighting regular, high school coursework can encourage a larger, diverse group to apply. 

Hire more diverse faculty. Did you know that having a more diverse faculty could improve minority performance gaps by up to 50%? “Ultimately, students want to see themselves represented by faculty,” Bolognesi said. “If students don’t see people like them in positions of power, it can be discouraging.” You can learn more about diversifying your inquiry pool here. 

5) Summer melt 

Every higher education professional has experienced the dreaded summer melt. Juniors maintain relationships with a university for more than a year, only to melt away as senior year begins. “Across the country, up to 20% of students melt, with higher figures for low-income minorities,” Bolognesi said. “This can have detrimental effects on your enrollment cycle — a melt rate of just 8-10% can result in a net loss.”

Instead of wondering why this loss is occurring, it’s more productive to try and incentivize students to stay. Here are a couple of strategies to consider:

Provide a support team. “Have a support team, or even just a support person, work throughout the pre-enrollment period to ensure communications are consistent,” Bolognesi said. “Having someone dedicated to staying in touch with students helps foster stronger relationships, lowering the likelihood of students giving up on your university.”

Leverage technology. Tackling summer melt may seem difficult, but there’s a silver lining — you don’t have to do it on your own. “At Net Natives, our technology stack can support effective, consistent communications throughout the pre-enrollment cycle, giving insight into summer melt patterns and helping inform the most effective strategy,” Bolognesi said. To learn more about how we can help you, get in touch with an expert today.