From declining enrollments to a shift in student demographics, our educational ecosystems are experiencing challenges like never before.

Many schools are experiencing a decline in student enrollments. This is partially due to a decline in traditional-age college students, students who are 17 to 18 years old, as studies show declining birth rates with millennials and younger generations. The impact is already being felt in K12 schools and is beginning to impact enrollment in higher education. Higher education also experienced pandemic-induced reductions in their enrollments this past year, in addition to the reduction in the traditional college-aged population.

Having worked within community colleges for over twelve years, I understand the data that schools use to create their strategic planning efforts. Colleges analyze the class sizes of regional high schools and look at their graduation rates. As indicated above, this demographic of traditional students no longer represents the standard student population target for higher education. This is further evidenced by recently released U.S. Census data indicating a demographic drought. Whether a school is in a rural or metropolitan setting, less students means fewer enrollments, which impacts current college staffing and funding resources.

The data does tell us that the “new” traditional students are around twenty-seven years of age and are dominantly part-time students, advancing towards their degrees or adding to their skill set to stay competitive in the labor force. With this reduction in population, how will educational institutions meet their community employers demand for a skilled workforce with the abundance of available jobs?

In order for colleges to contribute to the declining workforce, high levels of creativity and innovation will need to be implemented as a key component within their strategic planning efforts. Below I am sharing a few strategic innovations that some are beginning to utilize.

The need to re-skill individuals ages 50+ is becoming a strong focus, and to enroll these adult learners, programs may need to be overhauled to meet adult learners where they are. Many of this target population come with career skills from previous employment and could benefit from a college’s credit for prior learning assessment policies and practices.

Accepting prior work experience as credit towards their educational pathway will help. The data from prior learning assessment programs and policies shows high completions rates within the older, nontraditional student populations, especially when they feel their prior work experience is valued. In addition to public colleges, all types of training providers should be shifting part of their focus towards nontraditional student population enrollments.


About the Author 

Dawn Busick 

Senior Director