Colleges confront declining number of high school graduates: ‘We’re not going to grow our way out of this’

November 3, 2018 GMT

The number of Wisconsin high school graduates next school year is projected to reach its lowest level since 2000, sparking urgency and creativity in admissions offices across the state, all of whom will be competing to enroll the smallest pool of in-state students seen in years.

Colleges and universities across Wisconsin, both public and private, are employing new strategies to reach those students, who are currently in their junior year of high school, the year when college recruitment typically begins.

“We’re not going to grow our way out of this issue because there simply just aren’t enough students in the state of Wisconsin to do that with all of the fine institutions we have,” UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt said.

Projections based on the state’s birth rate show 64,065 students graduating from the state’s public and private high schools in 2019-20, the lowest number of students since 1999-2000 and down from 70,140 in 2008-09, according to a December 2017 report by UW-Madison’s Applied Population Lab.

The decline in the number of students next academic year aligns with a dip in the state’s birth rate in 2002 in the wake of a short-lived recession and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The number of high school graduates is expected to gradually rise again from 2019 until 2026, when Wisconsin’s colleges will again face an enrollment contraction as the Great Recession-era babies enter college. Since 2008, fertility rates have remained lower despite economic recovery, the report said.

“There’s just fewer students to recruit,” Viterbo University director of admissions Brian Weber said.

About two-thirds of students attending Viterbo, located in La Crosse, hail from Wisconsin. And the majority of those students come from hometowns that are two hours away or less, so the school lacks a large urban area to recruit from, Weber said, adding that more students are looking at public flagship institutions.

UW-Madison touted a record-high number of students enrolled on campus this fall. The state’s demographic trend is less central to Wisconsin’s flagship school because it can more easily recruit out-of-state and graduate students whose tuition rates are higher.

It’s the University of Wisconsin System’s smaller campuses that are more vulnerable to the demographic changes.

At six of the other 13 four-year campuses within the System, enrollment fell from the fall of 2017 to 2018. UW-Stout, UW-Platteville and UW-Stevens Point all saw at least a 5 percent drop.

Fewer students means fewer tuition dollars, which state schools have become increasingly more reliant on as the Republican-controlled Legislature cut state funding to the UW System in recent years.

A preliminary enrollment report noted about a 1.5 percent decline in overall enrollment within the System. That’s about 2,600 fewer students enrolled this academic year compared to last.

‘Going to college’ mentality

While the number of Wisconsin’s high school graduates isn’t expected to grow in the next two years, college officials are looking to increase the percentage that go on to higher education, a data point that’s barely budged over the past decade.

About a third of Wisconsin high school students enroll in a UW institution following graduation, according to System data.

UW-Green Bay has seen slight but steady enrollment growth in each of the past four years despite overall demographic trends. Enrollment manager Jennifer Jones attributes that, in part, to an aggressive effort in increasing the “going to college” mentality among students.

A prime example is UW-Green Bay Draft Day, a first-of-its-kind event held last spring, that brought nearly 200 students from nine area schools to Lambeau Field. Students rotated through “booths and drills” workshops. The table where students learned about campus living and dining was dubbed “training camp.” The booth on studying abroad was called the “away games.” At the end of the day, alongside Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby, students signed a “Letter of Intent” promising to commit to the college process.

The event “gets some exposure for UW-Green Bay, I’ll be honest about that,” Jones said. But more than that, it’s about showing students the potential opportunities beyond high school.

“If they come to us or don’t, we just want them to go somewhere,” she said.

Nichole Knutson, a digital communications specialist that works for the System’s Higher Education Location Program, works with guidance counselors across the state on how students can use UW Journey, a mobile app introduced last year, as early as their freshman year of high school to start exploring college options.

In early October, Knutson helped La Follette High School students download UW Journey. She recalled students’ surprise in learning how many UW schools were even in existence. For some, they had grown up believing UW referred only to Madison’s campus.

Signed letters, Instagram messages

Several Wisconsin colleges offer a touch of personalization to break through the marketing noise engulfing students through the search process.

Ripon College president Zach Messitte sends handwritten notes to accepted students each spring. The small size of the college, less than 1,000 students total, means the task doesn’t become too labor-intensive.

“When a prospective student gets a personal letter from the president of the college, I think it signals something about who we are as an institution — the student really does come first,” Messitte said. “I have had students — and parents — tell me that the letter made a difference in their decision to attend Ripon.”

Receiving acceptance letters by mail and email are standard for students. At UW-Green Bay, students can opt to receive notification of their acceptance through Instagram as well.

Started in September, prospective students who submit an application and provide their Instagram handle to the school will, if accepted, receive a direct message to their account. The picture is of somewhere on campus with congratulatory text laid over the image. Many of the students take a screenshot of the message to share with friends or post to their account.

“It’s all about building excitement for your university as (students) whittle down their choices,” UW-Green Bay social media coordinator Jena Richter Landers said.

In 2016, the university offered prospective students the option to receive acceptance via Snapchat, another popular form of social media among teenagers. Officials shifted their strategy to Instagram because the university is less active on Snapchat, a platform where content and analytics disappear.

Snapchat or Instagram adds an additional step in the admissions process — involving a student intern checking a list to see if an applicant signed up to receive notification through Instagram and then sending the student a message — but officials say the small amount of labor can pay off.

About 8.5 percent of prospective students, or about 120, signed up for the Instagram option so far, so the volume is manageable, Landers said.

At Carthage College, admitted students receive a postcard featuring their name spray-painted on Kissing Rock, a campus landmark. At college fairs, officials offer a personalized Snapchat filter.

Viterbo University officials see students exploring schools on college profile websites more and also building their college list earlier.

“The traditional word-of-mouth, that’s still happening, but we’re seeing more and more online,” said Weber, the admissions director at Viterbo. “This generation of students are savvy shoppers. It’s not about blasting people with information every week. It’s about personalizing it as much as possible.”