Recent College Admissions Trends (and How to Beat the Odds with College Enrollment Decline)

When it comes to college admissions, name-brand (e.g., Ivy League, NCAA Division I) schools are finding their footing amidst a difficult landscape. However, this only accounts for a few of the thousands of colleges nationwide. Enrollment in U.S. higher education institutions is, unfortunately, continuing its downward trend; fall 2022 saw another 1.1% decline compared to the year prior.

As student behaviors continue to shift, here are three college admissions trends to watch—and steps your institution can take to gain a foothold on this precipice.

Trend 1: Enrollment declines are worse for less-selective colleges.

While U.S. college admissions saw an overall decline in 2022, highly selective colleges like Ivy Leagues saw undergraduate enrollment gains of approximately 0.5% that fall. Some larger, public university systems also saw gains. In spring 2022, the University of Texas system—including the highly selective University of Texas at Austin, which accepts slightly more than a quarter of applicants—saw a 2% growth in total enrollment.

In comparison, less-selective universities saw college enrollment decline. The University of Maine system (UMS), for instance, admits more than 95% of applicants across its seven schools. According to their most recent enrollment data, UMS’s student headcount fell from 26,394 in fall 2019 to 24,817 in fall 2022, with enrollment for the University of Maine, the flagship school, falling 5.1%. Rural institutions are also struggling more than their urban counterparts, in part because they are less well-known as well as less selective.

How to beat the odds:

If your school is caught in declining enrollment, you need to double down on finding new opportunities to get in front of prospective students. Direct admissions, for example, can help smaller and less-selective colleges access and compete for talented students by offering your school as a concrete and immediate option compared to the usual apply-and-hope model of college applications. This admissions model is hugely beneficial to recruitment because it simplifies the application process for eligible students, brings more attention to your college, and may even be cheaper in the long run.

Trend 2: Underrepresented student enrollment has taken a hit.

Recent years have seen a college enrollment decline of underrepresented groups, specifically minority, first-generation, and low-income students, in colleges and universities across the nation. Over the last several application cycles, FAFSA submissions have declined significantly, especially among students attending low-income high schools. This trend is most evident with Hispanic students, whose undergraduate enrollment declined by 7% between 2019 and 2021. Two likely drivers behind this trend are the rising cost of higher education and the debate about college’s return on investment.

How to beat the odds:

It’s up to you as an admissions officer to show these populations of students how they can afford your school. Few students—especially underrepresented students—have the financial literacy necessary to understand the differences between grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans. By breaking down available financial aid options and explaining what each means for the student now and later, you can help ease some of the fear and uncertainty that comes with “money talk.” Moreover, personalizing this experience—by hosting financial aid and scholarship open houses or offering to connect with students one-on-one—can demonstrate to applicants that you are invested in making your college work for them.

Trend 3: Online undergraduate institutions are seeing an uptick in enrollment.

Undergraduate enrollment at primarily online institutions, where more than 90% of students attended virtually before the COVID-19 pandemic, rose 3.2% in the fall of 2022 compared to the year prior. In fact, even at traditionally in-person institutions, online learning has become popular, especially among adult learners. At William Paterson University in New Jersey, for instance, matriculation rates fell by over 10% in fall 2022, while enrollment in the university’s online programs grew by 57%.

How to capitalize on this trend:

Assuming your institution has a reasonably robust online program, now is the time to emphasize these offerings in your marketing materials. Make sure that there is a clear and dedicated path to learning more about online courses, certificates, and degrees in your brochures, social media posts, and website. Then, expand the geographic reach of your promotions to students who can’t or don’t want to attend in person—because online programs aren’t bound by geography!

One way to break geographic barriers is by hosting virtual campus events. OnCampusEvents is a campus event planning platform that includes modules for in-person and virtual events, providing a custom-built experience that adds resources and capabilities which go beyond what can be achieved at a traditional campus event. Engaging with students virtually from the outset will help you showcase your school’s online offerings and get in front of the populations who are interested in them.

Not every trend shared here will apply to your college or your university, but they’re called “trends” for a reason: because they change over time. Therefore, keep an eye on the landscape and be prepared to react. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be adaptable and responsive. With these strategies as a starting point, you’ll be prepared to think boldly and creatively about how to recruit the best students for your school, no matter how the enrollment landscape is trending.