Three Perspectives on the 2026 Enrollment Cliff and One School that is Embracing Innovation Head On

Have you ever watched a horror film where the killer is the most calm, slow-moving, and predictable character in the film? Always staying a step ahead of the panicked group of teenagers that we all know will end up separating into groups, or running out into the dark room alone. Hiding in the most obvious places like the kitchen where the butcher knives are hanging from a hook for easy access and inevitably just waiting with deep breaths for what the killer is bound to do…use those knives to pick off the group one by one.

When I close my eyes and go into higher-ed dreamland, I see a similar picture play out. Rather than a mask-wearing psychopath, the slow moving but predictable “killer” is actually the pending impact of the coming student cliff. We know the cliff is coming and we read about it every day, but we are often like that group of teenagers in the film where we continue to do the predictable things or we’re too scared to do anything and we freeze. It’s not intentional, but we often ignore the advice the theater or living room is shouting at us, and wonder how it is that we got trapped in the corner with a killer on the loose!

Fear not! There is some positive light to be shed on these upcoming challenges we will all be facing. The time for hiding is over, let’s listen to the changing needs, and take the action that gets us out of the corner. Below, I have highlighted some resources that we can use to help prepare for the cliff, to get ahead of it, and to challenge the way we think about our enrollment efforts so our schools become better as we prepare for a changing student landscape.

Projections of Education Statistics to 2026 Report

  • Degree-seeking students from 25 to 34 years old will increase by 11% between 2015 and 2026 – this is an opportunity for us to find ways now to better reach this audience, and how we can better address their needs.
  • Many community colleges have already realized the need for flexible learning paths to meet the non-traditional student’s needs and have seen the benefits of engaging with this older audience.
  • Some of the many strategies to reach this older, but growing, student population include degree completion programs, technical certifications, and continuing education opportunities.

Hanover Research’s 2020 Trends in Higher Education Report

There is more good news for reaching new audiences as we work to supplement coming losses from our traditional students

  •  Students of color now represent more than 45% of undergraduate students, compared to just 30% in 1996.
  • The Latinx community provided the greatest amount of growth in college-going students, increasing from a makeup of 22% in 2000 growing to 36% in 2017.
  • By understanding the needs of these populations, identifying where and how to reach them and the content they need most to make decisions for higher learning, we can position ourselves for growth not only in numbers, but also in diversity, inclusion, and equity. A true win for all!

Through our regular podcast, Undeclared, we have heard from several guests and higher ed experts, that have also highlighted ways we can further prepare for this cliff. Those tips and tricks can be broken down into four simple categories and you can listen to our guest talk through them below:

These four issues are intertwined, and when addressed collectively, can help us steer clear of the cliff and make what is seen as a threat, an opportunity. One school bucking the trend and seizing the day to create new and innovative offers is Furman University. They are creating new learning paths and, and as a result new revenue streams.

Furman established its Division of Continuing Education to offer the Upstate South Carolina community an opportunity to pursue both personal and professional goals through education. The division offers degree completion, professional development, and even a specific institute, OLLI, for senior adults to enjoy lifelong learning. The university has also created the Office for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to focus on supporting entrepreneurs of all ages and backgrounds. This innovation makes the Furman experience more accessible to students from all walks and in any stage of life. May their success inspire your future growth and evolution as well.

So it’s simple. We can be the predictable group of teenagers in a 1980s slasher flick, or we can listen to our instinct and dare to try new things. We can be afraid of the coming changes, or we can embrace them and use this time as our opportunity to innovate, to reach new students, and to be prepared for what the new student landscape will look like.

Are you committed to doing whatever it takes to prepare your institution for future success? If so, please give us a call so we can make those changes a reality and see the results that can come from being proactive!

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