Enrollment cliff still worries administrators

Kaitlyn Lorang, Reporter

The looming threat of an academic “enrollment cliff” that has worried college administrators for several years may not be as bad as originally predicted. 

In 2018, the book “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education” was published by Nathan Grawe, professor of economics at Carleton College. According to Grawe, the number of college-aged students could drop almost 15% by 2026. 

“Decisions in the next five years will be critical in determining whether institutions thrive or flounder,” Grawe said. 

This 10-15% drop has become the topic of many conversations concerning higher education and came to be known as the “enrollment cliff.”

“There are things that we’ve been doing for a number of years that are really intended to change this trajectory for South Dakota State University,” said Michaela Willis, South Dakota State University vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.

SDSU officials are saying some of the worries might be misplaced.

“While there will still be a drop, it may not be as significant as what has been projected,” Willis said. 

The timeline is the biggest question academics are concerned with when discussing the enrollment cliff. When will the enrollment cliff really happen?

This projected drop is because of the Great Recession, where the number of babies born from 2008-2010 declined, hence the enrollment cliff.

This means that there will be fewer students graduating high school, which means fewer people are likely to enroll in college. 

“While it can look scary, I am not scared of it,” Willis said at the campus conversation information session in early March.

State demographer Weiwei Zhang said, “We will actually not be at our lowest in 2025, however following 2025, we really decline.”

Zhang also said the overall birth rate in the United States is declining. Officials are, however, growing more concerned with the 2038-2040 time period, as the 2020 pandemic caused a large decrease in the number of births.

As SDSU administration finishes the university strategic plan refresh, the strategic enrollment management (SEM) plan committee is beginning  to come together. The SEM plan will be led by Willis and Victor Taylor, vice president for graduate education and extended studies.

The SEM plan committee will include 40 SDSU administrators, faculty and staff. 

“We want to be incredibly inclusive in this process, to ensure we are getting as many voices at the table,” Willis said. 

The committee had its first retreat in early March. The planning process will go through December 2023, and the SEM plan could go through 2028 or even 2030, according to Willis. 

“(The SEM plan) would include targets for the university and goals in regard to enrollment, but then also action plans,” Shawn Helmbolt, director of SDSU Admissions and SEM plan committee member, said. 

According to Helmbolt, the four major parts of the SEM plan include: recruitment and outreach, marketing, academic program development, and retention and student success. 

Retention rates have increased by 5.7%  in the last decade at SDSU, with rates being 73.5% in 2011 and 79.2% in 2022.

“As we have larger incoming classes, we have had lower retention rates, but overall, we have seen some nice growth,” Willis said. 

SDSU also had its largest freshman class this past fall (2022) since 2017. 

“Our percentage of growth in our first-year class in 2022 was higher than others. We are outperforming our peers and our competitors, which I think shows the strength of our university,” Willis said. 

Another factor that drives enrollment is affordability. In 2022, about 31% of those who completed undergraduate degrees at SDSU had no federal debt, according to Willis.

 “That is a pretty big deal,” she said. “We have seen a really great trend, that the average amount of student debt an SDSU student has when leaving SDSU is on a declining trend.”

SDSU administration is working on getting the pieces in place to combat the upcoming enrollment cliff. 

“Our preparation and planning for how we counteract that enrollment cliff by really focusing on recruiting students of all types and providing support for students of all demographics could allow us to come through that process a little bit stronger than others,” Helmbolt said. 

There are things that SDSU has already been working on that have made a difference in enrollment. 

“We have been doing a number of things to grow our market share and expand in new and different ways,” Willis said. “Getting our brand out there, in a bigger and better way.”

Willis said that there will be opportunities for growth in the graduate market in online education. She anticipates that these areas will have more emphasis in the SEM plan. 

Due to the lower number of births in the late 2000s, SDSU will need to start tapping into new markets and become more diverse with its offerings. 

“Colleges will focus efforts a little bit more directly at non-traditional or adult learners, but it will be an opportunity to make up for a loss of traditional learners,” Helmbolt said. “It’s been a big part of the conversation: how do we focus our efforts on really developing different pathways for students to utilize.”

Helmbolt said that SDSU will be looking into how the university can adapt programs to offer more flexible options for all students, but especially the adult learner and non-traditional student market.

Another area that SDSU is focusing its enrollment efforts on is the Sioux Falls market. 

SDSU Connect is a program that was started in hopes of building a strong connection between SDSU and Sioux Falls, because it is the fastest growing population center in the state of South Dakota. As of 2022, Sioux Falls had a population of about 208,000.

 “Our goal is to have every Sioux Falls middle school student have an experience on the SDSU campus before they enter high school,” Willis said.

This way of marketing SDSU’s brand will not have an effect on enrollment for quite some time, as  the middle school students are a few years away from applying for college. However, there have been many benefits from the SDSU Connect opportunities seen so far. 

“Minnesota has been the market that we continue to watch,” Willis said. “Many families are moving out of the rural communities to urban cities.”

Students are graduating college quicker than they ever had before, Helmbolt said, and that can also have a negative effect on overall total enrollment. 

“Students stay in the system for less time,” he said. “Students graduating in three years is not out of the norm.”

With the rise in dual credit, students are more likely to come to SDSU with credits already completed. On average, students are coming into college with 10-15 credits completed, according to Helmbolt. 

This recent trend may impact what the  total enrollment and retention looks like for SDSU, due to some students graduating early and only being in the system for three years. 

However, Helmbolt said, “Our goal is just to graduate students.”

Willis also said the university is just a few students shy of being back to the same first-time student headcount as they were 12 years ago. In 2011, the first-time student headcount was 2,241 students. In the fall of 2022, that number was 2,214 students. 

Another key factor that impacts enrollment numbers are scholarships. 

“In 2018-2019, SDSU was awarding about 53% of the incoming class a scholarship, while most of our competitors were awarding about 70% of their incoming class a scholarship,” Willis said. 

According to Willis, SDSU has increased the percentage of first year students receiving a scholarship since then. 

The Jackrabbit Guarantee has experienced some changes over the last couple of years:

2019: New scholarship grid (including ACT score of 22 and higher)

2021: Developed a new grid that was test optional (GPA/ACT/SAT) to increase access to higher education

2022: Enhanced the bottom right corner of the grid.

The South Dakota Freedom Scholarship started in fall 2022 and is the second needs-based scholarship in the state. 

“For this next fall, we will have $1.7 million in South Dakota Freedom Scholarship money,” Willis said. “Our goal was to award a third of it to incoming students and 2/3 to returning students.”

The purpose of this scholarship was to increase graduation rates and improve the workforce. So far, there have been 485 recipients with 303 for continuing students and 182 for first-time freshmen.

 “You can grow your enrollment by recruiting or enrolling more students, but you can also grow your enrollment by retaining and keeping those students,” Helmbolt said.

The SEM plan will be finalized this December and will include the efforts, strategies and goals to combat the upcoming enrollment cliff. 

“We aren’t just focused on the next five to seven years, we are focused on really creating a sustainable future for South Dakota State University,” Willis said.