Even before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the higher education system, industry leaders had already been bracing for a major challenge on the horizon.
Projections indicate the typical college-going population will decrease by 15-20% after 2025 due to declining birthrates, a trend that is in part linked to the Great Recession.
“We’re running out of teenagers, I like to say,” Mark Mone, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee said during a recent Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce discussion with higher education leaders.
Industry leaders were in the process of making plans for the approaching enrollment drop-off when COVID-19 accelerated that timeline by five years.
Nationally, freshman enrollment at colleges and universities dropped 16% this fall compared to fall 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Marquette University’s freshman enrollment decline was in line with those averages – down 16% from last year, or roughly 350 fewer incoming students. President Michael Lovell said he does not expect those numbers to improve next year.
“We were preparing for a 15-20% decrease. … Suddenly now it’s upon us this year. We had to go from planning to prepare for 2026 to planning for next year and figure out how we can restructure the university in one year to deal with this demographic shift,” Lovell said on the MMAC webcast.
With fewer college-aged students coming in and a growing number of them opting out of college amid the pandemic, universities and colleges expect to see smaller student bodies in the coming years – a trend that will create a ripple effect across the region’s institutions.
For one, Milwaukee-area college leaders said it could mean their campuses have fewer – or at least smaller – buildings, a reversal of the facility expansion trend in recent decades at schools like Marquette and UWM.
“We’re going to find a way to decrease our physical footprint,” Lovell said. “We’ve found many people can work from home and don’t need an office here at Marquette. If we have a smaller student body, that means less residence halls and less need for classrooms, particularly as classrooms are changed to an online environment.”[gallery size="full" columns="2" ids="515597,515595"]
Mone said UWM will need to “right-size” to adapt to the declining demographics.
“Less real estate,” Mone said. “What’s wrong with that? The problem is how do we shed that quickly enough to reduce costs?”
Five years from now, Milwaukee Area Technical College campuses will have a “much smaller footprint,” said president Vicki Martin. More students will likely be learning off campus, but the college is working to build out its environment to be more engaging for students when they are on site. That will likely look like more clubs, more sports and a greater presence of four-year college representatives and employers on campus, she said.
“... When students are on campus, it will be much more of a college environment with a lot of different activities happening,” Martin said. “The look of the college will be different. We’re working on that right now to change our appearance.”[caption id="attachment_515596" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Vicki Martin[/caption]
Colleges and universities will also need to find new revenue sources to make up the gap, Mone said.
There could be a potential revenue opportunity for higher education as employers seek to upskill workers for the pandemic economy and the post-pandemic economy.
Martin said she expects a growing trend of adults “going to work to earn a degree.” Increasingly, employers are going to look for their employees to translate their work experiences into credentials or badges that acknowledge the worker has attained a specific skill. Those could look like a digital coding badge or a “critical thinking” credential, backed by a higher education institution.
“It’s just in time learning,” Martin said. “That’s what people are interested in.”
Building out a system of badges and credentials that meet the needs of industry partners in the region has been a recent focus of the Higher Education Regional Alliance (HERA), a coalition that includes the region’s two- and four-year colleges and universities and about 10 community organizations.
“We know there are a lot of industry partners out there who need to upskill and retool the workforce; they don’t need another four-year degree, they just need the skills,” said Cindy Gnadinger, president of Carroll University. “So, we’ve looked at micro-credentials and badges to make that happen. A lot of us are doing that work right now.”
As a recent example, Carroll provides badging for people to become COVID-19 contact tracers through Waukesha County.
“You go through the training program that Carroll provides, then you get your credential to become a contact tracer and you get hired by Waukesha County,” Gnadinger said. “... You don’t need a degree; you just need the training and the credential for it.”
Todd McLees, founder and managing partner of Hartland-based Pendio Group Inc. and a consultant with HERA, said the need for two- and four-year degrees is as important as ever, with low-skilled jobs being most at risk for automation. But credentials, which are more granular and incremental than a degree or certificate and can be added on top of a degree, offer an opportunity for “lifelong learning” and career advancement, he said.
With fewer high school graduates coming into college, a target demographic for higher education institutions will be those who have started but not completed a college degree, Mone said. Wisconsin is estimated to have more than 800,000 people who fit in that category. To that end, MATC in 2018 launched its Promise free tuition program to help returning college students receive credentials. This year, the college began offering eligible returning students with student debt relief for up to $1,500 of past-due balances. Mone noted colleges will also expand their reach to those in the corrections system and the unemployed and underemployed.
The challenges facing colleges have put an increased focus on student success, as higher ed institutions are pressed to justify the cost of tuition and value of a degree, Mone said.
In that context, reducing graduation equity gaps has become an imperative for colleges and universities, he said.
UWM, MATC, Carthage College and UW-Parkside recently announced they will work to eliminate the graduation gap for students of color by 2030 as part of a national initiative.
In the seven-county Milwaukee region, 56% of white students earned a degree or certificate within six years in 2020, compared to 32% of Hispanic students and 20% of Black students, according to data compiled by HERA.
Through a partnership with national education firm EAB, the four schools will undergo equity-mindedness training, improve transfer pathways and use a “student success management” software platform that allows advisors and faculty to monitor and reach out to students before they fall off track from graduation or take the wrong courses for their degree.
The effort to eliminate graduation disparities will include a roughly $8 million investment over the next five years.
Despite the industry’s financial headwinds, Mone stressed that now is the right time for the schools to sign on to the initiative.
“Especially in a time of the most significant financial challenges that higher education has collectively faced in decades, if not forever, we think this is the right time, this is the absolutely necessary time to bring about these types of changes at our institutions,” he said. “It is simply unacceptable to do anything less than make these types of investments.”