Meanwhile, higher education leaders looking for answers to their enrollment puzzle are turning their attention to adult students. The number of people who began college but left without a credential grew to 39 million in 2020, up nearly 9% from two years ago.12 That represents more than one in five people in the United States over the age of 18, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
For all the potential the adult student population offers, however, re-enrolling those who already have a head start toward a degree is not as easy as many leaders make it out to be. Compared to prospective 18-year-old college students, who are largely found in high schools, locating adult students who have accumulated post-secondary credits but are short of a credential is much more difficult. On top of that, persuading them to come back to college is also tough when tuition costs are high, good-paying jobs are bountiful, and the payoff of the degree is either unclear or something that seems far into the future.
No matter how American higher education reverses these enrollment headwinds and begins to reimagine its operating model to attract millions of learners left out of the system right now, doing so is critical to the nation’s future and its place in the global economy. At a time when population growth is slowing around the world, higher education has evolved as the newest natural resource to keep up with the demands of the labor market. The remarkable ascent of China and India, along with other middle-income countries, has upped the competitive pressure on nations everywhere to improve access to postsecondary education. China and India, according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, are on track to overtake the United States in the percentage of working-age adults (aged 25 to 64) with postsecondary education in the next 10 to 15 years.13
The United States can no longer assume its pole position as the dominant source of higher education across the globe, which has widespread ramifications for the operating model of colleges, the future of the American workforce, and global security. The challenge for American colleges and universities is to set themselves apart as whole institutions rather than to stake their future on a handful of new academic programs, a revised recruitment strategy, or a bolstered set of online offerings. Change around the margins is no longer enough to reverse or even slow down these enrollment trends.
Higher education in the United States has only known a growth mindset for much of the nation’s history. The issue facing higher education now is not adequate demand among learners; it’s a mismatch of supply focused on a segment of students where demand is no longer growing. Figuring out how to continue to grow by reaching new populations of learners is a necessity not only for the financial sustainability of the sector in general but also for the nation as a whole.