Are US colleges ready for the projected enrollment cliff?

  • The population of high-school graduates in the US is expected to peak in 2025 and then decline sharply afterwards

  • This, along with other economic and labor market factors, is expected to trigger an “enrollment cliff” for US higher education

  • More international enrolments are likely to be an important counterpoint for any decline in domestic student numbers and tuition fees

  • Not all US colleges, however, are ready or able to invest in expanded recruitment overseas

There is a widening conversation in the United States – among demographers, academics, and enrolment management specialists – of an approaching “enrolment cliff” for US higher education.

The idea is underpinned in part by long-term projections for the population of high-school graduates in the US. The analysis around such trends can be complex, but the short story is that the number of students finishing high school in America is expected to peak around 2025 and to decline sharply from there.

Writing in Vox, Kevin Carey traces the issue back to the 2008/09 global economic crisis, which, he explains, “Created a bomb with an 18-year fuse: birth rates immediately reversed course and began to plummet.” Looking ahead, he adds that, “In four years, the number of students graduating from high schools across the country will begin a sudden and precipitous decline, due to a rolling demographic aftershock of the Great Recession. Traumatized by uncertainty and unemployment, people decided to stop having kids during that period. But even as we climbed out of the recession, the birth rate kept dropping, and we are now starting to see the consequences on campuses everywhere. Classes will shrink, year after year, for most of the next two decades.”

If that pattern plays out as projected, it will surely exacerbate the decade-long decline in total higher education enrolment in the US. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that between fall 2010 and fall 2021, total undergraduate enrolment in degree-granting institutions decreased by 15% (from 18.1 million to 15.4 million students). Total post-graduate enrolment increased marginally over the same period.

Not all institutions will be affected equally. While the more elite, selective institutions are not expected to see any significant declines, the wider field of US colleges are at greater risk.

The bottom line, however, is that the coming demographic, economic, and labor market shifts are significant enough that colleges of all shapes and sizes will have to factor them in their planning.

“Regardless of whether they’re drawing prospective students from nearby states or their own backyard, institutions need to build a strategy to compensate for a smaller pool of prospects,” says Kelly Iler, an account executive at Mongoose Research.

The research specialists at Mongoose, and other observers in and around the higher education system, anticipate a more active and sophisticated recruitment effort on the part of US colleges, including a greater focus on student retention, streamlining admissions processes, and on expanded program delivery for remote and hybrid learners.

We can also expect that international students will continue to figure more prominently in the enrolment strategies of US colleges. “International students play a critical role in securing long-term tuition revenue for higher education institutions and in filling much-needed talent gaps in an already stressed labor market,” said Lucy Stonehill, CEO of edtech company BridgeU. “This is a growing, diverse pool of prospective applicants with strong academic foundations and robust English language skills.”

A recent report from BridgeU makes the point in analyzing post-secondary applications data from 32,000 international school graduates across 142 countries. The study finds resurgent interest in US higher education on the part of Chinese students, but also from key emerging markets in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

There are signs as well that US institutions are leaving behind the historical emphasis that many have had on so-called “armchair recruiting” in favor of a more active recruitment posture. A recent survey of US colleges found that more than six in ten were actively engaged with education agents, for example. “This is a sector-wide shift,” says Patrik Pavlacic of research specialist BONARD (the company behind the survey). “And it will be interesting to monitor the situation in the immediate future, as the sector moves on from the pandemic crisis and study destinations globally compete aggressively for student recruitment.”

That shift certainly appears to be widespread, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that all US colleges have already taken steps to ensure internal alignment around expanded international recruitment, or that more institutions are prepared to invest further in building international markets. Speaking to Inside Higher Ed during the recent NAFSA conference in Washington, D.C., Nikita Kotelnikov, sales manager for Keystone Education Group, expressed frustration that recruiting budgets remained soft at some colleges even as they aimed to counter the forecasted erosion of domestic enrolment with greater international student numbers.

“They are not adapting fast enough to the way this field is changing,” he said, comparing US institutions to Canadian ones, which were thriving post-pandemic. “At this point, my fear is that without investing more [in international student recruitment], many of the smaller schools may not survive.”

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