Increase Enrollment – Seize The Day

Cheryl King headshotBy Cheryl King Ed.D Edu Alliance Group Advisory Council April 6, 2020 – These are challenging times for colleges and universities even before the COVAD-19 crisis.  Public concern about tuition rates, fewer high school students to fill classrooms, and declining enrollment are just a few of the issues keeping higher education leaders awake at night. I would suggest there is no better time to consider and plan how your institution can serve or better serve adults. The higher education market is changing rapidly, and it’s time for us to change as well.

As a former president of a small private college, and years working in education and workforce development at the state policy level, I understand the pressures of increasing enrollment while dealing with shrinking budgets.  I propose we seize the day in these challenging times by recruiting and enrolling adults.  Millions of adults are unemployed or under-employed across the U.S. because they lack credentials and degrees to compete in the current and future workforce.

Adults without credentials and degrees live in every state.  Many struggle with low-skill, low-wage jobs while trying to take care of their families.  Some tried college, but for several reasons, they didn’t graduate.  Some never thought of going to college because they didn’t graduate from high school.  They are working-age Americans, and their dreams of a better job and a better life for themselves and their kids may not be realized without some form of higher education.

The statistics are staggering.  Twenty-four million working-age adults—12 percent of the U.S. workforce—have not completed high school.  The number of adults earning a GED is now at an all-time high, but the percentage going on to higher education is embarrassingly low.  Some states don’t even record this statistic.   There are also 104 million adults 25 and older who hold a high school diploma only.  Currently, almost a third of U.S. high school graduates do not enroll in college.

There’s more.  An additional 36 million started college but didn’t finish.  In just the past two decades alone, more than 31 million adults left college without receiving a certificate or a degree.  http://www.NewReport:AmericanAdultsCiteWork-RelatedIssuesAsTopReasonforStoppingOutofCollege.

The Lumina Foundation reports that most of the job growth in the U.S. since 2007 has come from jobs requiring some form of post-secondary education.   Jim Clifton, chairman of the Gallup Organization, predicts that by 2025, the United States will need 23 million more degree holders than our colleges and universities will have produced.

It’s an interesting, if not challenging, dichotomy.   Millions of adults need credentials and degrees, yet enrollment is stagnant.  College closures are on the rise due to low enrollment and corresponding financial constraints.  Since 2016, ninety-one nonprofit colleges and universities have closed or merged with other institutions. (Education Dive, 2020). The Chronicle, 2020 Trends Report, states that 40 percent of colleges will struggle in the near future. Some of these are smaller schools that live or die on the margins, holding their breath until enrollment goals are met for the next year or two.

It seems reasonable that some of college closures and mergers could be avoided if they embraced the adult student market.    The definition of a traditional student living in dorms, eating in dining halls, and playing on athletic teams are changing, with 30 percent of adults in the current college market.  But it’s not good enough.  We can do more.    Most of all, let’s understand that times have changed and we must change as well, or we risk closing the doors and selling the campus.

There is hope, however, as more adults are in college today, with large online schools such as Southern New Hampshire or Western Governor’s University and others serving thousands of adults.  But smaller state and private schools can be just as effective with some retooling of their programs and schedules.   According to Washington Monthly, the best colleges for adults tend to be regional public universities, private schools, and community colleges.  Check out the list of top 10 institutions at www.washingtonmonthly.com or the top 25 schools for adults going back to college at www.bestcollegereviews.org.

Colleges and universities have options to consider if they decide to recruit adult students.  Following is a sample of initiatives focused on attracting and serving adults, and programs involving partnerships and collaborations.   There are many others not included here.

  • Adult education programs are available in most communities, helping adults improve basic literacy skills and prepare for the GED or equivalency. Think about providing the students with information about your institution, connecting them with college counselors, and providing materials about how your institution can serve them. Consider offering a scholarship to GED graduates.
  • Websites. Take a fresh look at your institution’s website with the adult student in mind.   Are adult students represented in campus and classroom photos? Does the term adult student appear on your front page?  Do your recruiting and print materials refer to opportunities for adults?
  • Online degrees and flexible scheduling. Herzing University offers Adaptive Learning in the general education curriculum and various nursing programs, both on-campus and online. Adaptive Learning systems leverage data analytics and artificial intelligence to modify the learning experience based on student mastery of course content.  Faculty use the data generated by the student to inform them of the best use of class time. https://smart-classroom.educationtechnologyinsights.com/cxoinsights/why-adaptive-learning-benefits-nontraditional-students-nid-673.html.
  • Credit for prior learning allows students to move through coursework by earning credit for what they already know. Learn more by contacting the Council for Adult Experiential Learning.  CAEL.org.
  • Competency-based Education (CBE) is learning measured in competencies, rather than seat time. Students advance through programs based on mastering all required competencies, and courses or programs feature substantial self-pacing by students. Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 28, 2019 (Slow and Steady for Competency-Based Education). Consider joining the Competency-Based Education at http://www.cbenetwork.org.
  • High-quality advising services at convenient times and locations are vitally important. A recent report from the Lumina Foundation, Strada Education Network, and Gallup reveals that those who stopped out of college say they experienced significantly lower quality career and academic advising compared to their peers who graduated.   NewReport:AmericanAdultsCiteWork-RelatedIssuesasTopReasonforStoppingOutofCollege.

Adult students need access to advisors available 24/7, especially online.   There are companies that provide these types of services.

  • The Integrated Basic Educational Skills and Training (IBEST) model offered through community colleges in Washington state teaches students basic literacy and college-readiness skills along with work readiness skills so students can move through school and into jobs a quickly as possible. acf.hhs.gov or contact wdurden@sbctc.edu.
  • Employer Partnerships can take many forms, such as employer tuition reimbursement, and work and learn options. United Parcel Services and colleges/universities in Louisville, KY collaborate through Metropolitan College, allowing adults to work full-time and receive paid tuition benefits from UPS at various local institutions. Since its inception in 1998, this innovative partnership has helped thousands of students pursue free postsecondary education and on-the-job training while reducing workforce turnover at UPS from over 70% to less than 20%. More than 4,100 individuals have earned over 6,500 certificates, associate, bachelor, and graduate degrees. Source www.courier-journal.com-story-money-companies
  • Communities can also play an important role in partnerships. The Tennessee Reconnect program provides adults who do not have an associate or bachelor’s degree free tuition to attend a community or technical college.  Nashville is now working to close these equity gaps through a “sorting in” approach for education beyond high school. With the help of two novel programs— Reconnect Cafés and Reconnect Ambassadors—people can move into jobs with clear paths for growth in position and salary. (Two Unique Programs Are Helping Nashville Adults Go Back To School)

As educational attainment improves, the U.S. skill shortages will decrease, and the economy will increase.  Millions of adults will benefit from better jobs. Institutions will benefit with higher enrollment and financial stability.

But there is more to this story than keeping colleges and universities in business.  One of life’s greatest pleasures is watching graduates receive their diploma with tears of joy, and their family and friends cheering them on from the audience.   The joy and the thrill is the same regardless of age.

Get the ball rolling.  Seize the day.   Higher education attainment changes the lives of graduates and their families—forever.

Open the gates and seize the day

Don’t be afraid and don’t delay

Nothing can break us

No one can make us

Give our rights away

Arise and seize the day.

Seize the Day (Newsies, 1992)


Cheryl King an expert in the field of workforce development has dedicated her career focusing on adult and post secondary education at the state and national levels. She has held a variety of positions in state government and higher education. They include serving in 2006 as VP of External Relations then selected as President of Kentucky Wesleyan College from 2008-11, focusing on long term sustainability through a highly detailed Strategic Plan, that asked the tough questions.  She returned to state government as Senior Policy Advisor for Kentucky Council on Post-secondary Education to develop competency-based education options to help adults to be successful and complete a credential or degree.  Recently she has worked with the Lumina Foundation Strategy Labs program as a State Advisor to help states achieve the Foundation’s goal of 60% of U.S. adults with college degrees, certificates or quality credentials by 2025.

Many sides of skills gap issue – what the universities can and cannot do

By Dr. Senthil Nathan, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of the MENA Region for Edu Alliance. The Context: Reasons for students pursuing higher education have changed dramatically in the past few decades.

Just one hundred years back, going to a university was considered an elitist privilege for a select few from the community. Moreover, the reasons for attending college were to do with the broadening of intellectual horizons for the students. Only a few high school graduates went straight to college.

In 2017, about 70% of high school graduates enrolled in college [1]. The ratio of college students to 18 to 24-year-olds increased 20-fold, from 2% in 1900 to 40.5% in 2017 [2]. University education is becoming a matter of automatic progression in the USA. Over a third of the working population, today has bachelor degrees or higher – this was at 5% in 1940.

The past few decades have also seen manifold increase in tuition costs and hence increasing student debts. In-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions increased from $3,190 in 1987 to $9,970 (both 2017 dollars). [3]. However, from 1960 through 2015, the inflation-adjusted average starting salary for a new bachelor’s degree graduate increased only by 5.9% [4]. Student loan debt in the U.S. has now topped $1 trillion. Over 44% of recent college graduates are underemployed — working in jobs that don’t require their degree.

The issue of Skills Gap must be assessed by university, industry and political leaders with a profound appreciation of such a significant increase in access to and costs of higher education combined with stagnant starting salaries for fresh graduates.

Is the Skills Gap a myth or a reality?

A majority of employers – in the USA and around the world – cite the skills gap as a major reason for difficulties in filling vacancies over a long period. Employers also see this issue as a major threat to their business growth. The Manpower Group conducts annual Talent Shortage Survey with major employers around the world. Its 2016-17 survey shows that of the more than 42,000 employers surveyed, 40% are experiencing difficulties filling roles the highest level since 2007. The top 5 hardest skills to find are skilled trades, IT staff, sales representatives, engineers, and technicians. [5].

Skills gap skeptics in academia, social sciences and journalism – argue that the magnitude of the skills gap is overblown. A recent study from MIT Sloan School [6] found that less than a quarter of manufacturing plants had vacancies that had lasted for three months or more. This fact may be contrasted with the manufacturing industry claims at the time that 75% or more faced a persistent inability to hire skilled workers. As unemployment has been steadily declining since the recession peak of 10% in October 2009, these experts counter the argument that the skills gap was to blame for elevated unemployment then and today’s full employment counters the persistence of that view. Skills gap skeptics also contend that employers will always complain about their candidate pools as they adjust the job requirements depending on current labor conditions ensuring a perennial gap. They also point to stagnant salary levels and vastly declining apprenticeship opportunities in the USA as lack of employer responses to persistent vacancies. Typically, when the unemployment is low – as it is now in the USA – wages for in-demand skills should rise; but that is not happening. A New York Times editorial [7] painted a picture of suspicion on corporates, “Corporate executives have valuable perspectives on the economy, but they also have an interest in promoting the notion of a skills gap. They want schools and, by extension, the government to take on more of the costs of training workers that used to be covered by companies as part of on-the-job employee development. They also want more immigration, both low and high skilled, because immigrants may be willing to work for less than their American counterparts.”

However, it is illogical to dismiss a consistent and majority response from widely different employers from different countries around the world with overly simplistic theories – calling Skills Gap as corporate fiction. Jan 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data [8] shows that 6.3 million jobs remain unfilled in the USA and even the best recruiters are struggling to fill those roles despite millions of people who “are willing and able to work.” This is a rather “disturbing trend” for recruiters. Even in my brief experience in searching for university presidents, provosts, and deans, I faced significant challenges in finding appropriate talent in spite of receiving scores of applicants from interested candidates for each of these positions.

The World Economic Forum’s Talent Mobility Report expresses this frustrating paradox of unemployment / under-employment and talent shortages/skills gap, “Many countries struggle with vast unemployment, underemployment and huge untapped labor pools beyond what can be attributed to the recent global economic slump. Yet, many industries struggle with significant talent shortages and skills gaps that are dampening economic growth.” [9]

Interestingly, there is increasing consensus among experts taking extremely different views on this debate on at least two keys to address the “skills gap” issue: 1) to improve access to apprenticeship opportunities and 2) to enhance learning and development budgets of corporate sector.

Why should the universities care? Universities cannot afford to sit idle on this debate or continue to ignore graduate employability and salaries. Increasingly, universities are being ranked on “Return on Investment” or ROI.

PayScale reports “Best Value Colleges” on 20 year Net ROI (difference between 20-year Median pay for the bachelor’s graduate and 24-year median pay for a high school graduate minus the total four-year cost of higher education). Harvard, a perennial #1 in world and US ranking lists, is ranked 26 in this ROI ranking while Harvey Mudd College takes on #2 rank [10].

Forbes has begun to rank “Best Value Colleges” [11] based on a formula that weighs six factors: Quality (25%) + alumni earnings (20%) + median student debt (20%) + on-time graduation (15%) + drop-out risk (10%) + Pell Grant recipients (10%) / gross tuition and fees. In this ranking, University of Florida is ranked #4 – just pipping Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.

As this idea is spreading across the ocean, an UK consulting company “Expert Market” has begun to rank “Best value universities in the UK” [12] by cross-referencing the university expenses with the average income and opportunities available to students after graduating from each university. Loughborough University is ranked #1 in this list while many of the Russell group universities are missing from the top 25 in UK. Cambridge is ranked #12, Oxford at 52 and University College London at rank 54.

What can the universities do? Aside from the top-ranked universities in the world, most of the private as well as public universities and colleges must pay as much attention or more to graduate employability as they do for increasing their tuition and other fees. Universities and colleges must

  • Closely align their program offerings to the current and emerging demands from employers in their region. They must proactively seek effective and ongoing involvement of their regional employers in their program and course design. Traditional programs must be revamped to fit the era of technology-mediated
  • Increase partnerships with regional employers to increase apprenticeship opportunities for students. German experience clearly teaches the exceptional benefits of apprenticeships in minimizing the skills gap and the gap between expectations of employers and fresh graduates.
  • Revamping of curriculum and assessments may be done in line with meta-skills required for graduate success in the workplace. For example, the universities may switch from recording student achievements by letter grades / GPAs and transition to graduate outcome-based assessment reports and portfolios. When I was a graduate student at Rice University – in the 1980’s – the university used a practice of not reporting graduate GPA in the transcript – as they believed that graduate’s accomplishments must not be summarized or evaluated by a single number. (Rice was pressured to change this policy later as other universities and employers demanded to see a single GPA in the transcripts). Curriculum design and delivery must include many and varied learning opportunities for students to gain soft skills at the required competency levels. Curriculum design tools may include project-based learning, problem-based learning, community projects, applied research, work placement – co-operative experience and the like
  • Actively counsel students with program choices and careers, matching student aptitudes and interests with the selection of majors. Educate the freshman students on career prospects and average salaries of various program majors.
  • Measure, monitor and report graduate success and progression (employment or advanced education immediately upon graduation; career progression and salary details) as feedback to relevant faculty to validate or refine programs and courses.

What the universities cannot do? Employers cannot expect universities to produce graduates who can be productive in a specific corporate setting from day one. Specific industry induction, learning and development and performance feedback are the sole responsibility of companies and universities are not positioned to contribute much to the progress of entry-level graduates in these aspects. Most of the soft skills – teamwork, people skills, communications, problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship and the like – may be introduced at the university but are best honed and developed at the workplace.

A partnership model: There is a yawning gap between local industry and businesses and regional universities. It takes consistent and sincere efforts on both sides to develop and sustain strong linkages that would greatly benefit the graduates, the businesses, and the universities – in that order

  1. https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2017/69-point-7-percent-of-2016-high-school-graduates-enrolled-in-college-in-october-2016.htm
  2. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf
  3. https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-fees-room-and-board-over-time
  4. http://www.naceweb.org/job-market/compensation/salary-trends-through-salary-survey-a-historical-perspective-on-starting-salaries-for-new-college-graduates/
  5. https://www.manpowergroup.com/talent-shortage-2016
  6. https://www.aeaweb.org/conference/2014/retrieve.php?pdfid=316
  7. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/opinion/sunday/dont-blame-the-work-force.html?_r=0
  8. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/jolts.nr0.htm
  9. https://www.scribd.com/document/268005138/WEF-Talent-Mobility-Report-2012
  10. https://www.payscale.com/college-roi?page=2
  11. https://www.forbes.com/value-colleges/list/#tab:rank
  12. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/news/best-value-universities-uk-revealed

Senthil 2 copyDr. Nathan is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of the MENA Region for Edu Alliance.  Since the founding of the company in 2014, Senthil has been involved in numerous advisory & consulting projects for higher education institutions, and investment firms . 

He joined the Higher Colleges of Technology in 1993, the largest higher education institution in the UAE with 23,000 UAE National students. He served in a variety of positions and from 2006-2103 was Deputy Vice Chancellor / Vice Provost for Planning & Administration. He has been involved in numerous advisory and consulting roles in education / training & development engagements to a multitude of clients in the United Arab Emirates, Canada, The United States, Africa, and India and speaks on the current issues of higher education in the Middle East.

Dr. Nathan in 2014 received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the National Institute of Technology in India by the former President of India Dr. Abdul Kalam and is a member of the Board of Trustees for Livingston University in Uganda.  In addition to his Ph.D. in engineering from Rice University, Senthil has completed executive education programs from Harvard and MIT.


cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.