Recently, National Student Clearinghouse reported initial fall enrollment numbers and they do not look pretty. Numbers show that 3.2% less students enrolled in higher institutions in fall 2021, making last two-year decline at 6.5%. This is not surprising but certainly disappointing and concerning. You would have thought that in two years as COVID cases fall and as we have vaccination in place, our next generation will go back to college campuses to be ready for the next phase of their life. Unfortunately, that did not happen this fall.

6.5% number by itself as a unique event could have been OK but even before COVID college enrollment has been in decline for a long time. From 2010 to 2020 College enrollment declined by 10%.

Pre COVID: 2011 – 2020, college enrollment declined by 11%. (NPR article ).

 There was an additional 11% decline expected in next 10 years, called enrollment cliff.

COVID calamity:

Then COVID hit. Multiple surveys reported that 25% of students postponed their college plans, some indefinitely; Cirkled In 2020 Survey.

Fall 2020 enrollment was expected to decline. That writing was on the wall. But then in spring 2021 enrollment hit the steepest decline since COVID. Four-year college enrollment declined by 6% and Community Colleges numbers declined by 12%, as per National Student Clearing House Research Center.

And now the continuing decline in fall 2021 is very concerning.


Right now, it’s easy to assume that COVID is THE ONLY reason of this decline but if you look at the decline before COVID there is no one clear reason. There are multitudes of factors at play here. Another common belief is that students cannot afford higher education. If you think financials are the reasons, then know that

$2 billion of Pell Grant money goes unused every year.

I’m sure colleges would like to not only tap into that money but also have more students on their campus if they can find them. Certainly, this is a complex system with many moving parts and intricacies.


The impact of this is not going to be pretty on any front. And there will be many fronts that will be impacted. Not only our higher education system but employers are going to have a hard time meeting their goals.

Many colleges are already struggling to have enough money to operate.

There may be some consolidation happening for smaller colleges in next couple of years.

Some colleges are out rightly asking for help and that requires a lot of bravery and exposing their vulnerability which is exemplary.

A 153 year old Bloomfield College, a small private college in NJ, is seeking financial help to avoid closure next year. Why? Since 2011, enrollment has declined from 2,018 students to 1,598 in 2019. Pandemic worsened everything.

“We’ve been working hard to identify and explore potential strategic alliances with other higher education institutions for nearly a year, but nothing has been finalized yet and time is growing short,” said Marcheta P. Evans, president of the college.

Definitely there are other widespread impacts as well. A shortage of skilled workers was already a concern, and this decline made that pain stronger. We have seen the income disparity in our society and COVID explicitly showed that these are worse than what we thought they were. This decline exacerbates that income divide.


It’s a time for colleges to understand their customer and user base. The very first step in serving a user base is to understand them. Who are you serving? What is their buying behavior? Where can they be reached? What are their preferences?

Historically colleges have completely ignored this part of their operation.

Even today, colleges and universities are sending paper Flyers to these teenagers that directly go from mailbox to recycle bins. An example of not knowing their customer is evident by the fact that my daughter has received Flyers from all boys’ colleges. I don’t think there is any other example of this much mismatch of understanding of a user base.

Sending paper flyers to a high school student is literally asking a teenager to use a rotary phone or walk up to the TV to change a channel which by the way are limited to 9 and only live transmission.

Can you imagine their response to that? And that’s exactly what we are doing when we are trying to connect with this next generation of Gen-Z students who are all about personalization.

This generation of students is born in an era where they don’t even use a remote to change the TV channel rather verbally give order to Google Home or Alexa or Siri. Now whether that is the right behavior or not, that’s a separate discussion. The point here is that

when you are serving a user base, you need to understand them very intimately and act accordingly if you want to be successful.

Good News:

Since our higher education institutions expected enrollment decline in fall 2020, they started revamping their old, antiquated methods, processes, and techniques. Spring 2021 decline came a bit as a surprise and gave our higher education institutions another kick making them intensify their efforts. Recent decline has forced colleges to get the answers to these questions and change their actions.

“College fairs and mail brochures aren’t going to cut it anymore. To boost enrollment, consider focusing on new marketing channels in social media such as YouTube or recruiting brand ambassadors on Instagram.” Lucid Press Article, June 2021

The good news is I think we may have hit the bottom when it comes to enrollment numbers and there’s only one way to go from here, which is up.

I don’t think we can boil the ocean and fix all this in one day. But we can tackle one challenge at a time. So, let’s start by understanding our students their interests, strengths, and talents along with their motivations and aspirations. Let’s start by speaking their language and then get them in an institution where they will be successful. It’s not just a “college access” but “college success” is also necessary to move the needle for our higher education.

We, as a workforce, an economy and a nation need to stop this bleeding and ensure that we are educating our next generation. So that we can hand off this country and this planet to them to lead.