Don't Fall Off the Enrollment Cliff: How to Keep Your School Thriving

illustration of person on boat about to go over waterfall, reaching for Beacon branded hot air balloon for help

Published April 3, 2024 | Categories: Higher Education

There's no denying it.

Take a look at the data, and you'll see it there, in plain sight: the "enrollment cliff." 

Due to numerous factors including economic downturn and a changing culture, the number of traditional students (recent high school graduates) enrolling at colleges and universities across the nation is in steep decline. Maybe you've already noticed this phenomenon at your school or maybe you've just heard about it. Regardless, these are no wise tales or campfire stories – the evidence is everywhere. Colleges in the northeast of the United States have seen declines of about 75,000 students, while in the Midwest and South enrollment has declined at schools by about 100,000 students in each region. In the West, there have been declines of about 125,000 students. The impact of these declining enrollment rates is already apparent: since 2016, some 48 institutions have closed while another 22 have merged.

Unless changes are made, more colleges and universities could be next.

There is hope though. As was discussed in the recent webinar, Maximizing Enrollment: Leveraging Website Personalization to Attract Mission-Fit Students, sponsored by Beacon's longtime partner Hannon Hill, creators of the Cascade CMS, there are strategies you can be taking right now with your school's website and digital marketing to keep your school from tumbling over the enrollment cliff.

To do that, we'll need to take a closer look at who your student audience should be, what those students are looking for, how they're searching for colleges and universities, and what will really sell them on your institution.

narrowing your audience


Not everyone is your audience. One of your first steps towards maximizing your enrollment is figuring out who you should be speaking to with your digital marketing and website messaging. 

You may be thinking, "Don't I want to reach the largest audience possible?" Well, yes and no. While it's important to target prospective students and reach as many as you can, not everyone is necessarily right for your school. (And your school isn't right for everyone!) Make the most of your marketing budget and get HUGE traction by attracting the crowd that's looking for you.  

The first step in finding the right students for your school is identifying the wide variety of student types active in your community. While many people only think of recent high school graduates, don't forget to consider other student groups, like returning students, graduate students, and those attending school later in life. In recent years, it's been found that these groups make up 75% of active students in the U.S. (NCES, 2020), with 1.5 million dual enrollment students (Inside Higher Ed, 2023) and 3.1 million graduate students currently in the U.S. 

Are these non-traditional students a good fit for your school and its programs? Only you can answer that. But if they are, targeting them directly in your marketing can yield significant results. And of course, finding your prospective student audience goes beyond just traditional vs. non-traditional students. It could mean looking at different demographic groups or identifying your school's strongest programs and tailoring your messaging to students interested in those areas. Whatever your approach, the takeaway is clear: you cannot and should not try to speak to everyone. Seek out the students you want to reach and put your efforts and energy into pursuing them.

the secret's in the content

Come for the school, stay for the content. Once you've identified that prospective student audience, how do you reach them and show that your school is the right choice? It all comes down to your content.

After all, no matter how great your institution is, you have to grab the attention of your visitors if you want them to stick around your website long enough to apply. Regardless of the type of student, everyone prefers an eye-catching website with content that speaks to them, not at them, all while providing the information they need to make a smart choice about attending your school. To achieve this, there are a few things you'll need to consider. 

WDS-ResponsiveTablet.pngdon't put up a "knowledge barrier"

In the realm of higher education, leaning into the cryptic academia of it all is a classic mistake. We know your faculty is very skilled and knowledgeable in their respective fields. But if the average high school graduate or adult learner doesn't understand what your site is trying to get across (or is turned off by overly complex language), they're only a few clicks away from finding another school that captures their attention – and interest (and maybe drives an application). So, keep it simple, keep it conversational, and be authentic!

What does this mean? Avoid complicated academic jargon that may be second nature to you but is likely to leave students flummoxed. Also, steer clear of too many abbreviations or acronyms / initialisms. The tone and voice of your content should be friendly, conversational and accessible. As an institution of higher learning, its essential that the voice on your site easily shows that you care about your students—that they are truly valued—and are treated much better than they would someplace else, like the DMV (or another school). Engage them.  Make them want to read more.  Make them want to come back. Accessible language can help bridge that gap. 

Finally, authenticity is a must: while you want to be conversational, you don't need to use a lot of slang or references that feel forced. Even more important: be real about the value of your school. What makes your college or university stand out? What do students "get" by attending (versus what does your school do)? Focus on what you offer that makes your school special.  

make your site enrollment focused

Your website should be, at its core, a marketing tool. Most visitors don't want to navigate your entire website to discover the handful of things they are looking for. They want to find the information they need fast, and they should be able to do so in a way that is intuitive and logical. 

To make that happen, you first and foremost need make your site visually scannable (defined sections and headings), easy to read (simple language broken up with engaging imagery), and SEO-friendly. Once you've checked all these boxes, make sure your site feels fun and engaging, while staying true to your brand and personality. That means modern and appealing design, strong usage of your brand colors, and plenty of imagery (and not stock imagery, either). No one wants to pour over pages of black and white text. Make it POP with some photos, videos and banners showcasing your campus, active students, and all the unique parts of your community. Viewing your site, a prospective student should quickly discover what makes your school special.

your website isn't for you


Market to your students, not your faculty. We know: every school has its own politics and culture that must be respected and carefully navigated when building a website. If you want a truly student focused website that will help you engage students and maximize enrollment, it may require some tough conversations with people within your institution - many of which may have strong opinions about the website. As uncomfortable as it may get, the ultimate goal is to deliver the best experience for your student audience and keep your university thriving. 

Here's the thing: while it's important to capture the essence of your school's offerings, possibly at the request of professors and administrators, your content must reach students in terms of their interests, ideologies, expectations, goals and experiences. To do this, consider putting together small focus groups for each of your target demographics to learn firsthand what they look for when searching for colleges and universities. "But we don't have the time for multiple focus groups!" Trust us.  It's worth the time - any time you can get. You have the students right there! Meet with a few.  Ask questions.  You may be very surprised at what you find out.  One good nugget of information could be impactful!

Brainstorm.pngpick the right partner

Don't work alone. Of course, one of the best ways to find the time and resources to conduct focus groups, determine your target audiences, and build a website with engaging content is to partner with experienced experts. Experts like Beacon.

With Beacon, you'll get original content and effective marketing, from a partner that is focused on helping you reach, and attract, the audience you've been looking for. Plus, not only will you receive a great looking website packed with effective messaging, but you'll get all the help you need with development to ensure that your site works effectively and can be easily updated for years to come.

Pick a partner with years of experience using Hannon Hill's Cascade CMS, Omni's Modern Campus, and even platforms like Wordpress, for the best end product, done on your terms. Regardless of which CMS you choose, we'll work with you during every stage of your redesign project to ensure you have the resources you need to optimize accessibility and personalization. 

So, if you're concerned about the enrollment cliff or just want to boost your current enrollment numbers, don't hesitate to contact Beacon. Students want the exceptional education that your school provides so they can have a brighter future.  The Beacon Team knows how to leverage the digital world to effectively reach, attract and engage those students.  

Let's get to work!

Contact Us