IN 2009, THE U.S. WILL GRADUATE the largest number of high school seniors in the history of the country. That's the good news. Now here is what many feel is the bad: Over the next 30 years, for a full generation, the number of high school graduates will decline.
This demographic downturn has a number of schools, especially those that depend heavily on full-time residential students, in a dither. These schools are focused on the raw, declining demography, and they are worried.
However, when I consider all of the factors that impact enrollment, I wonder whether demography really is destiny. In other words, are there other factors that might have as much, or even more, impact on enrollment than the aggregate number of students in the marketplace? After some reflection, I think there are.
Although there are internal and external variables that affect enrollment, I want to focus on the internal institutional variables; variables that, to some degree, are controllable.
A GALVANIZING VISION
The No. 1 reason people do not donate to a college is that, from their perspective, the vision for the institution is not compelling. I think prospective students are a lot like donors. They do not want to attend an institution that is not going anywhere. They are instinctively wary of stagnation. Earlier this year, I did a focus group at the University of Kentucky and asked a group of students why they enrolled at UK. Without prompting almost everyone responded, "Because this school is going places." They were excited and enthused, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Students notice when an institution is on the move. So do donors and the media. This creates positive buzz for the college or university.
QUALITY OF LEADERSHIP
In previous issues of University Business, I have written extensively on the topic of leadership. I want to summarize those earlier columns by saying this: A leader's ability to develop and convey a compelling vision, build an effective senior team, focus efforts, and gather essential resources is critical. (The November 2005, and the January, March, and September 2006 issues of University Business featured a four-part series on how to build an effective senior team. In particular, notice the characteristics of effective leaders presented in the first column.) Institutions on the move, the type of institutions that attract students, are almost always institutions that are well led.
A VALUED REPUTATION
Being known for something that students (and donors) value gives an institution an unparalleled opportunity in the marketplace. Remember, it is not enough to be good at something students value; students must be aware of what you offer. When they are, they will seek you out and pay more for tuition. The marketplace will seek you out as well. NPR will call and so will donors and organizations that seek to co-brand. The result, again, is buzz. This concept is neatly summarized by the following adage: If you do not have mindshare, you will never have marketshare. (See the April 2006 issue of University Business for a lengthy article on brand building.)
VIVA LA DIFFERENCE
There is a misguided notion that every college must offer the same academic programs as its competitors. They believe that this will help them be a respected member of the higher education community. What they have done, however, is fielded an array of academic programs that are largely undifferentiated from institution to institution. When every college offers the same basic program taught the same basic way (all by excellent faculty), then students begin to differentiate on another variable: price.
Interestingly, this academic "keeping up with the Joneses," especially when dollars are tight, actually lessens quality rather than increasing it. Institutions have confused academic breadth with academic quality, and more students have tumbled to this phenomenon. …