The Enrollment Slide

We’ve become a nation accustomed to top-line data and headline news.  In-depth investigation and reporting on why issues arise are left to those who want to dig deeper themselves.  After all, they can do so by accessing the Internet.

Because, as you know, everything on the Internet is truth. (Yes, the sarcasm is intentional).

If you Google “Declining Enrollment,” the top stories that appear deal with the declining number of students attending college.  In them, college officials cite many reasons why colleges may not be enrolling more students – fear of debt from tuition, difficult economic times, changes in population, the desires of today’s college student for the college “experience” rather than simply a place to further their education, the pandemic, etc.

No one says this was an expected phenomenon since, as you can see from the featured image for this article, the public school student population may be on the decline.  Therefore, it seems that the rationale is quite simple: fewer students in the K-12 experience will lead to fewer students in college.  Why is the K-12 student population declining?  Lower birth rates and difficult economic times are cited by a number of resources.

It’s interesting that the possibility of a fewer number of parents of school-aged children than there have been in the past isn’t cited as a potential reason.  After all, back in 1973, abortion was legalized in this country, and 30 years later, in 2003, those children that would have existed could be having their children enter the K-12 experience.  Simply put, fewer parents means fewer children.  Combine that with the continuing “less than replacement” factor of the average family, since the average family in the United States is 3.13 persons (Source: http://www.statista.com/statistics/183657/average-size-of-a-family-in-the-us/), and declining enrollment may be become a trend, and then the norm.  The more frightening ramification is a declining tax base, since students will eventually become those who contribute to the economy of this nation.

When you look at private and faith-based schools, however, some K-12 schools are having success in attracting students, while others lament the fact that their schools are shrinking, with higher numbers of students in the primary grades, but fewer and fewer students in the “middle school” environment, and ultimately, high school.  In the typical PK-8 faith-based school, there may be 20 or 30 kindergarten students, but only 5 or 6 eighth graders.  Interesting the pandemic has done one of two things – either have spurred these schools to some significant growth, or accelerated their already shrinking enrollments.

My question to schools that ask why that happens is a simple one?  “Who’s responsible for enrollment?  Is there an admissions or enrollment director for your PK-8 faith-based school?”  Or, more bluntly, “Who owns this process?”  Usually, the answer is no one, even though there might be a development director to seek out funds for financial aid – and, sadly, frequently there’s no one to do that either.  It’s quite fascinating to discover that there’s no one responsible for enrollment when a new student could bring four or five thousand dollars in tuition revenue to a school, yet a fund-raising event for a school (like a candy sale) is celebrated when it raises $2,000.

As author Jim Collins states in his work, “Good to Great,” (2001) “People play differently when they keep score.” When metrics are important, they need to be tracked and analyzed, AND acted upon!  Just doing research is a great first step, but when there’s no one in place to do anything about the data collected and analyzed, tracking trends just becomes an exercise to increase anxiety and foment hope.  While hope is indeed a great thing, it’s an AWFUL strategy.  Sometimes, we know the “why;” we even know the “what.”  When we discover the “How” that connects the two, that’s when the issue can become even more difficult – because it’s going to require a heck of a lot of work people aren’t ready for, and most of the time, it’s just because they don’t want to change.