Higher Education: The REAL Reason Behind Low Enrollment Rate in 2021

Amidst the pandemic crisis, the enrollment rate was at an all-time low. Of course, educational institutions felt powerless at the extent of the COVID-19 situation in the U.S. Fortunately, the tide is changing and the roll out mass vaccination offers a glimpse into a new future.

But the new future will be more digital and modern than the education sector realizes.  The need of the hour dictates for academic institutions to make a transition from traditional marketing tactics to digital transformation.

Unfortunately, many colleges and universities are reluctant to make a shift to digital processes. After all, it is a more dynamic approach that would propel educational institutions to change a variety of their academic processes and that includes enrollment.

Enrollment Rate and the Role of Digital Transformation

Ideally, higher education should adopt this change and embrace digital transformation to boost the enrollment rate. In the digital age and IT revolution, college campuses and universities can no longer afford to overlook innovative tech advancements.

The good news is that many educational institutions have started to utilize data analytics to increase the enrollment rate. And the bad news is that some colleges and universities are still depending on old school marketing tactics to increase admissions.

Focus on Gen Z Programs

Academic professionals, however, are not surprised at the current decline of enrollment. But it’s not just about the affordability – it’s about the changing perspective of students. Higher education has to focus on the new generation of students that prefer to use digital tools.

In comparison, white enrollment is far more complex than African-American students. And that’s because white prospective students don’t have to deal with disproportionate population changes. In fact, it is high time for local community colleges and regional universities to pay close attention to the consistent decline of enrollment rate.

Once the pandemic crisis is completely over, education institutions should not abandon adopted digital processes that boost operational efficiency around campuses. Academic institutions also have to be categorical and specific about Gen Z students who live in rural areas and suburbs.

Declining Enrollment Rate: Is It Inevitable?

According to McKinsey’s report, the enrollment rate in higher education is bound to decline. In fact, the extensive research highlights that the consistent decline of birth rates in the U.S. will also decrease the total number of high school-level graduates from 2025.

Rise and Decline of Enrollment: Two Sides of the Higher Education

But the current decline in enrollment serves as an opportunity for higher education to launch and improve its digital processes. In the post-pandemic era, educational institutions can expect prospective students to make big academic decisions.

But those decisions won’t revolve around traditional enrollment trends of the past. It is the main reason declined enrollment rate is spread throughout the U.S. It is no secret that New Mexico, South Dakota, Mississippi, and Alaska experienced a double-digit decline in enrollment rate during the pandemic.

The spring of 2021, however, sees an increase in graduate enrollment in more than 40 states. What’s interesting is that colleges and universities that managed to integrate digital processes and roll out digital marketing campaigns saw a significant enrollment boost in the first few months of 2021.

Comparatively, traditional student enrollment saw a steep decline of 5% among 18-24 age groups.   Furthermore, the enrollment rate of adult students also declined by 2.5% in 2021. However, this state of slow decline differs based on age group and gender.

For instance, data suggests that the enrollment of female students continues to decline at a 5% rate for all age groups. In addition, the enrollment rate of international students also dropped by 5% and 15% for graduate and undergraduate students.

 The Right Approach at the Right Time for Colleges and Universities

Education institutions in various states have already started to roll out intuitive initiatives to attract more students in fall 2021. Academic professionals and the federal government insist higher education to follow more progressive and digital enrollment standards.

On the bright side, educational institutions can:

  • Perform equity audits to figure out the right procedures and policies in order to make college campuses more adjustable.
  • Perform qualitative and quantitative data analysis to understand the decline of the black enrollment rate.
  • Implement progressive initiatives to attract Latinx students.

When it comes to higher education, the number of prospective students who decide to attend schools and colleges differs each year. Fortunately, most educational institutions have realized there is massive diversity in the new student body.

Enrollment Rate: White and Black Students

In the past few years, there are fewer white students in different colleges and universities across the U.S. More data suggests that it is not a one-time trend but an evolving body of students. It means academic institutions need to focus on operational and marketing efforts that would attract younger generations.

In late 2021, there is an indication of a high enrollment turnaround. Once the economy gets back on its feet and COVID-19 restrictions become a thing of the past, higher education should opt for a significant boost in the enrollment rate.

Community colleges and regional universities have to step up their game to regain and improve its enrollment rate. Many academic institutions are seeking the services of professional digital marketers to capture the interest of a new generation of students.

But as mentioned earlier, there should be more programs that can lead to high enrollment rate among students of color in various colleges and universities. The increase in students of color reflects the change in demographics in the American population, and that’s great news for higher education.

Sum Up

It would be fair to state that educational institutions are in the middle of an uncertain year. In fact, 2021 may be the most unique year in decades for higher education. Ordinarily, the post-secondary enrollment rate was quite common in pre-pandemic age.

However, the future holds new trends and operational requirements for colleges and universities. There is a good chance college and universities may have to make operational budget cuts to handle the consistent decline of revenue due to the low enrollment rate.

But more cuts don’t necessarily have to impair the academic efforts. Instead, there is a need for higher education to take a step back and evaluate the concerns and needs of potential students. Most of the Gen Z students just want the educational programs to be more convenient and accessible online.


  1. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/11/12/enrollment-declines-continue-national-student-clearinghouse-finds
  2. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/higher-education-enrollment-inevitable-decline-or-online-opportunity
  3. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/03/11/colleges-continue-losing-undergraduate-enrollment-spring-even-graduate-enrollment#:~:text=Enrollment%20across%20all%20institution%20types,over%20year%20across%20the%20board.
  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2021/03/11/college-enrollment-declines-have-continued-this-spring/?sh=b6daa815aca1

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