Fighting Dropping Enrollments: Students Academically and Emotionally Under-Prepared

Colleges have been worried about how pandemic disruptions have increased the number of incoming students who are not ready for college-level classes. But now, with public sentiment regarding college as less essential or affordable, under-prepared students may be less likely to choose college over other options. Many people even believe that K-12 education shouldn’t have college readiness as a top priority.

Adding to these issues is the student mental health crisis, which erodes students’ confidence. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that students increasingly feel unprepared emotionally and academically for college. Plus, students suffering from poor mental health are less likely to feel emotionally prepared to decide to go to college, even if their academic skills are on par.

When you combine actual academic deficits and poor student mental health with negative public sentiment, it can be a hurdle for admissions professionals to convince students to enroll in college. With looming demographic drop-offs for colleges, this threatens to make recruitment even more challenging. But savvy education professionals can act to counter these problems in their marketing and communications with students.

Why Students Opt Out of Enrolling in College

Even before we hit the demographic cliff for student enrollments starting in 2025, the period between 2019 and 2022 saw an 8% drop in undergraduate enrollment. In addition to students feeling educationally unprepared for college, other reasons for student reluctance include high costs, questioning the value of college, and derailed plans from pandemic interruptions. Scholastic deficits, feeling emotionally ill-equipped to deal with college, and fear of failing in their studies can exacerbate worries about cost and value.

The mixture of factors differs for each high school graduate choosing not to go to college. But these concerns comprise the dominant motivations for opting out of college. Your marketing and outreach can combat this constellation of reasons, and the more you understand why students opt out, the better you can design your marketing strategies and content to lessen the impact on your school’s enrollment.

Bridging the Gap for Reluctant Students

One of the first lines of defense can be bridge programs, which can offer skills training and boost confidence for underprepared college-bound high school students. Some community colleges offer formal bridge programs, but students often use regular community college enrollment to get better prepared before entering a 4-year college.

All colleges can benefit from offering summer bridge programs, following the models of large public institutions like U.C. San Diego, among many others. Smaller private colleges can design more tailored and unique offerings to bring new students to campus early, involving them in college life while imparting skills to help them succeed through graduation. One might think of these programs as optional super-orientations, with extended programs during the quieter time before the semester, giving anxious students more time to develop the ever-crucial “sense of belonging.”

Another way to telescope your acceptance of under-prepared students is to bring your student support services front and center in your written materials. Offering academic tutoring as an easy option without stigma or courses that begin with a review of prerequisite material can help students ease into the more rigorous academics of college.

For mental health concerns, offering counseling groups, individual counseling, and spaces that welcome student problems can give a “soft landing” for students who are insecure or suffering from the depression and anxiety that is so prevalent among teens and young adults. You might even add social groups for skill-building that can be an adjunct to coursework, somewhere between an extra-curricular and an emotional support service.

Marketing to Indecisive and Unready Students

You can help wavering students make the decision to enroll in your program, even if you may not be able to counter the overall narrative about college being “elite” or not worth the cost. How you reach students who are appropriate for your programs and will flourish—even if they need a little help to adjust to college expectations—makes all the difference. Your outreach and tone can help those skeptical about the value of a degree or their readiness for college feel more motivated to register.

Here are some areas to consider as you seek appropriate measures to attract uncertain prospects to your institution:

  • Testimonials: these invaluable assets can be used on your website, in email and social campaigns, and as substantial assets during in-person events.
  • Student personas: readjusting and updating your student personas can help you craft messaging that speaks to students uneasy about college for various reasons.
  • Career support: messaging about work-readiness programs can be helpful for students concerned about whether the degree will lead to career benefits. Highlight your experiential learning opportunities, externships, career services, alumni networks, and successful graduates.
  • Retention: for students who are not sure they can complete the program and therefore won’t get value from your school, emphasize your student supports and use testimonials from students who struggled but ultimately graduated.
  • Core messaging: re-evaluate your taglines and tone to address your prospective students’ specific concerns around the attainability and value of a degree.

Each education professional needs to consider their college’s target students and find ways to tackle these pervasive concerns for wavering applicants.


The news about enrollment slumps can be disheartening, but nothing is better for your morale than working on possible solutions. Every student counts, and each enrollment gets you closer to your goals. By communicating your support for students with academic or emotional difficulties and your commitment to helping students succeed, you can help the right students gain the confidence to give your college a try. Messaging speaking to students who are unsure if they can handle college can make a substantial difference in next year’s head count.

To better target your most likely prospects, partner with AMG to leverage your data and improve your enrollment. Contact us to find out how.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you adapt to the evolving education marketing landscape and ramp up your efforts, please contact us today.

Parent & Student Survey Whitepaper


The Annual PARENT & Student Survey

Advance Education conducted a nationwide survey to learn what students and their parents are looking for from institutions – and the right marketing channels to reach them.

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