Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fall Enrollment

I'm intrigued by what I think I'm seeing around enrollment, this fall. I don't have any formal, objective data, yet, so I may be wrong, but it certainly appears that branch campus enrollment is very strong, everywhere I've checked.

For sure, university regional campuses, in Ohio, are up. The five Ohio University campuses increased by more than 1000 students, compared to last year, and the folks around the country with whom I've spoken or corresponded have experienced the same thing. Moreover, nearly everyone is telling me they are up more on FTE than on headcount, which means that students are enrolling in more classes.

I haven't seen any significant news coverage about branches, but clearly community colleges experienced nearly explosive growth. There surely must be exceptions, but reading about increases of 20% or more isn't unusual. I've talked with community college leaders who are struggling mightily to find classroom space and instructors, to deal with the growth.

What about other sectors? How are the smaller, not-necessarily-elite privates doing? My impression is that the story is not as positive. I don't know that there is any general decline, but the big jumps seem rare. On the other hand, the for-profit sector seems to be booming. Almost across the board they are reporting large enrollment growth. Distance learning programs also have continued their rapid enrollment increases.

For a branch person, an interesting question to ask is, "How are main campuses doing?" Again, I'm not sure, but I don't hear or read about truly dramatic increases. In Ohio, a few are down, a number are up, and there are a few institutions with high single-digit increases. I have the impression that urban institutions (read: those with a high percentage of commuter students) may be up more than rural institutions.

It doesn't take 30 years of experience with branch campuses to recognize that some of the growth going on is tied to the economy. Branches and community colleges, in particular, have always been countercyclical to the economy. But this feels like a bigger jump than could be explained just by reference to an economic cycle.

Nothing in what has happened this fall compells anyone to agree with my arguments that we are in a disruptive environment, but it is exactly what one would predict, if we are approaching the tipping point for change in higher education. I've argued that demographics, technology and the preferences of adult learners have created a Christensen-type disruption for higher education. Rapid growth in lower-cost alternatives may reflect the economy, but it may also include deeper realization that the cost of residential higher education is simply getting too high.

Interestingly, there are at least some main campuses experiencing record enrollment this fall, even as other sectors increase dramatically. Again, however, that is consistent with the dynamic of disruptive change, in which existing "products" are doing so well that providers don't see the change that is coming and miss the opportunity to adapt.

I'm not one who believes that residential higher education will disappear. There are too many reasons that young people leave home to go to school. I do believe, however, that most such institutions will become smaller (urban campuses and flagships may be an exception). I also believe that a much higher proportion of young people will spend only one or two years on campus, taking the first part of their undergraduate degrees at branches, community colleges, and online.

The concern about how we may be closing the doors to those with less money doesn't bother me as much as it might some, because I believe there is a deeper trend toward new business models, more flexible online and hybrid programs, and alternative ways of obtaining credentials. There will be more options for people to choose from, and the increasing availability of high quality online courses will be a driver.

Even now, we see many students who enroll in online and traditional courses, at the same time. In fact, I'd bet that one reason there is an increase in FTE over headcount is that more students are picking up an "extra" online course, while taking one or two classroom-based courses.

This is all speculation, I suppose, but I continue to predict that we will see a major shift toward lower cost providers, more flexible programs, and changes in how institutions think about everything from marketing strategies, student services and student life options, and the role of faculty members in instruction.

A scenario I can imagine is that an increasing proportion of young students choose to spend a year or two at a local community college. Some young people, but the great majority of adult learners choose online or blended programs. Young and older, if located near an urban university, choose to continue commuting, if they don't go with a distance learning program. Flagships and elite privates use their powerful pull to maintain or increase the enrollment of recent high school graduates, in the face of declining numbers in that demographic. Somewhere, there will be smaller privates and a number of public universities that fail to distinguish themselves in a way that will allow them to maintain the revenue stream that is required to support their personnel and infrastructure costs. In this last group, then, there will be winners and losers.

I'm not sure where the for-profits fit in this picture, but I think it will depend on their business model. Right now, the for-profits tend to be a high tuition alternative. I don't see that working well, down the line. If they can develop a model that allows them to compete on price, however, then I suspect their market responsiveness will allow them to continue to grow. That isn't great news for the institutions I see as being threatened.

Next month, I will return to a discussion of enrollment growth at branches, to offer some suggestions on how campuses can most effectively take advantage of growth to expand access and opportunity still further. I'd love to see branches prosper in the "new environment," but it won't be business, as usual, if they do.