The American Dream of Earning a Degree is Dimming. Here’s How to Reignite Interest

The American Dream of Earning a Degree is Dimming. Here’s How to Reignite Interest

December 19, 2022 | Jason Berman

Your students are your top priority, your bread and butter. Or are they? What if you could harness the power of your graduate data to strengthen and personalize your marketing and recruitment strategies…. perform benchmark research that drives improved academic programs and student outcomes… and build higher-yield fundraising campaigns?

In this ground-breaking, three-part series, we examine how higher education institutions can use a specialized type of data known as ‘graduate outcome’ data to optimize and enhance these and other core mission-critical functions by better simply understanding their graduate profiles. This article, the first in the series, explores the recent dip in college enrollment rates and how a data-driven recruitment strategy can help reframe the college value prop and reverse that trend.

Earning a college degree is part of the American Dream, right up there with homeownership. Except lately, that dream seems to be dimming. 

Year-over-year since 2020, fewer students are enrolling in college immediately after high school. While the drop was expected during the COVID-19 pandemic, most believed it would rebound in 2021. But it didn’t. 

This means that higher education could have a big problem on its hands. The “dream” is no longer selling itself. Schools must figure out how to reignite interest if they want to return to or exceed pre-pandemic numbers. 

Here, we explore this issue and share a unique, data-driven strategy to help colleges and universities boost recruitment and enrollment.

Fewer students are enrolling, for the third straight year.

Let’s start with the COVID-19 pandemic. It sucked the life out of high school and college experiences around the country. The pandemic robbed students of precious face-to-face engagement with peers and teachers. Celebrated milestones canceled, like proms and graduation ceremonies. Daily online classes dragged on like a scene from Groundhog Day. 

For many students, it was too much. Instead of heading off to college after high school, they opted out. And they’re still opting out. 

According to an October 2022 report from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), Fall 2021 college enrollment rates immediately following high school declined by 0.9 percentage points to 2.2 percentage points. The decrease affected schools regardless of income and poverty levels. It came at a time when most experts thought enrollment rates would recover from the sharp 4 to 10 percentage point drops in 2020. 

Further, a preliminary look at Fall 2022 enrollment rates reveals continued declines. Institutions losing 1.1 percent of undergraduates this fall for a total two-year decline of 4.2 percent since 2020. 

Enrollment can trigger things like potential revenue declines and workforce cut-backs. This trend is raising concern among schools for another reason. Many worry that shortsighted decisions to skip college may dampen the employment outlook for those students who opt out. And, as a result, this can negatively impact the larger economy over the long term.

Traditional college ‘value prop’ isn’t resonating. 

The NSC report blames the protracted decline on “a continued pandemic effect.” However, a September 2022 study supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation digs deeper to learn why more people aren’t enrolling in higher education. 

It suggests that students have far more education options than ever before. These include two and four-year schools plus coursework for a variety of professional licenses, certificates, and certifications. Many, up to 70 percent believe on-the-job training is the best path to career advancement. 

The study goes on to suggest that the traditional college value prop where students can “explore and find a passion” is no longer resonating. Instead, prospective students are focusing on the ROI of a college degree. According to the report: 
This audience makes its decisions about education based on value, investment, and opportunity cost. Yes, affordability matters, but return on investment matters more—to these young adults it is not about overcoming a financial barrier. In fact, 62% agree that they “would be willing to take on college debt if guaranteed a good job after graduation.” They want to be assured of the results that would make college worth their time and money. – Exploring the Exodus from Higher Education

In short, they’re concerned about outcomes. They want to know what they can expect in return for sticking it out through graduation. 
But, here’s the good news. This is a message colleges and universities can easily create, share, and even personalize to help boost recruitment and enrollment rates. Here’s how. 

Win more students by proving the value of a college degree. 

It’s one thing to promote the ROI of a college degree. It’s another thing if you can prove it. So, how do you do that? Like most things today, it begins with the data. 

Colleges and universities maintain straightforward databases of information on their students and graduates. This data includes things like demographic data and contact information. Yet, imagine being able to marry that data with detailed insights pertaining to affluence, wealth, income, credit, employment, assets, debt, property and more, to create more holistic views of graduates. This includes their ability to achieve sought-after outcomes such as: 

  • Getting recruited by top employers, Fortune 500 companies and more
  • Landing and retaining high-profile jobs
  • Maintaining a degree-focused career track
  • Earning higher salaries
  • Successful entrepreneurship

Colleges and universities can prove their ability to deliver what matters most by using what’s known as “graduate outcome” data. Unlike other data sources—think: survey data that’s self-provided by graduates—graduate outcome data from Equifax is 100 percent verified and comes from trusted sources of income, financial, wealth and lifestyle data. 

Three steps to a data-driven recruitment strategy. 

The concept of using graduate outcome data is simple. Graduate outcome data  helps schools differentiate the value of their degrees based on real-life proof points. Yet, there are practical steps schools can take to integrate graduate outcome data into their recruiting strategy. Here are three ideas. 

1. Identify desirable outcomes. Append as much or as little graduate outcome data as needed to your existing student and graduate information. This will create robust graduate profiles. You can then gain clear visibility into your graduates’ current lifestyle and achievements—as well as specific areas where your school can improve—and begin answering important questions, such as: What percentage of our graduates are homeowners? How many of our graduates have paid off their student loans? What percent of our female graduates hold executive-level positions? What’s the average salary of our graduates five years after graduation? The possibilities are practically endless.  

2. Strengthen marketing promotions. Research the outcomes that matter most to your school. Then, use those statistics in your marketing promotions as proof points. For example, a university might sprinkle its top graduate outcome statistics throughout its website, things like above-average graduate salaries, high student-athlete graduation rates, or top-ranked internship opportunities. The same goes for mailers, brochures, and social media messaging. 

3. Personalize your message. A recent survey of college students offers a valuable recruitment tip. “Of students who received personalized communications, 87 percent said that those communications were an important factor in their enrollment decision,” according to higher education tech firm Ellucian. Knowing this, use your resulting graduate profiles to create an “ideal student profile” that helps you identify and target prospective students who align with that profile. Once you’ve segmented your audience, personalize your messaging with the unique information and differentiated outcomes that matter most to them. 

College enrollment may be trending down, but schools can slow that slide—if not completely turn it around. It is all about taking the time to reframe their value prop. Creating a data-driven recruitment strategy powered by graduate outcome data can help colleges and universities shine a spotlight on the unique value of their degree programs, at a time when students have more higher education options than ever before. The dream of earning a college degree is still alive among today’s prospective students, only it’s far more compelling to them when it’s backed by a solid ROI.


Jason Berman

Jason Berman

Business Development Advocate - Retail

Jason Berman is the Director of Higher Education at Equifax. In this role he is responsible for expanding and growing Graduate Outcomes using powerful Data and Analytics tools and brings a strong passion for empowering colleges and universities to use "Data for Good" and influence student outcomes. Jason brings more th[...]