Student retention is often top-of-mind for nearly every university leader, but what happens when initial enrollment numbers decline? Declining enrollment is a significant problem facing the higher education industry.

The severity of today’s enrollment decline came to light last month in Boston when Beacon Hill leaders met to debate a bill requiring more financial transparency from higher education institutions. The headline: Massachusetts is witnessing an extraordinary decline in enrollment which, in combination with other factors, has led to the closure or merger of 18 private colleges and universities in the state in the past five years.

Private universities aren’t the only ones facing this issue. Additional state university, community college systems and the University of Massachusetts are seeing similar challenges. In fact, 18 of the state’s 28 public colleges and universities have seen a decline in undergraduate student enrollment, and half have witnessed enrollment rates fall by at least 20 percent.

The decline also spans well outside of Massachusetts. College enrollment across the US has been in a steady decline for approximately eight years at both private and public institutions, according to annual Census estimates.

Schools are ‘managing’ this issue by cutting costs and combining resources, including the work done by IT and human resources departments. Many schools are choosing to utilize more adjunct professors instead of employing faculty full time. One community college, Northern Essex, was forced to close 11 different academic programs in one year.

It’s important to note that these declines are also partly due to the fact that the birth rate continues to fall (it hit a 32-year low in 2018); there are fewer students to enroll as a result. However, schools should not be forced to fully shut down operations or close entire academic programs as a result of this statistic alone.  


Technology Could Save The Day

It’s not difficult to imagine how the student body suffers as a result of these cutbacks. Taking this one step further, the impact is likely much greater for students who need and depend on additional resources to meet their disability or varied learning needs.

Implementing further technology in classrooms, on campus and online could help universities cut costs and create efficiencies without adversely impacting the needs and lives of students.

With the continued growth of Artificial Intelligence and AI-powered assistive tools, universities can begin to automate more processes and use data to ensure campuses are operating effectively and student needs are being met.

Service providers are arming universities with AI tools to aid in these initiatives. For example, Verbit is helping public institutions combine available resources to ensure they can still provide accurate accessibility accommodations at an affordable rate.

Our team is regularly providing insights to university partners to aid in their planning and budgeting processes to help them accommodate requests for transcription, captioning and integrate these tools seamlessly into other systems, such as the LMS, they are using. We’re also hosting complimentary webinars with subject matter experts to further educate higher education professionals.

During these trying times, guidance is especially important. The last thing schools who are struggling financially want is to encounter a lawsuit for not complying with the legal guidelines set forth to protect students with additional learning needs. These university leaders have enough on their plates by being tasked to enroll more students and retain the students they do have.

These leaders can instead consider making their campuses smarter. Smart campuses which are fueled by technology are highly attractive to today’s prospective students. Students with full-time jobs, who are regular commuters or who are studying in a non-native language can all greatly benefit from additional assistive technologies being offered as a resource.

With more technology, schools are likely to garner more interest from prospective students and increase their enrollment rates as a result. They’ll also have more access to data to pinpoint the factors leading to their individual school’s decline in enrollment or retention. With more technology and data, institutions and their leaders will be equipped with further information to act on.