Ivy-Covered Woes

American students may feel colleges are as powerful as ever—able to charge higher and higher tuition while remaining incredibly selective. And Peter Druckeras we’ve discussed, had his own concerns in this regard.

In reality, though, many schools are struggling to maintain enrollment numbers.

Every year presents a new puzzle: how to fill a class and bring in enough tuition revenue to run the college,” Eric Hoover and Beckie Supiano reported this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Nobody wants to preside over the next big shortfall; nobody wants to lose his job.”

That’s why wise college leaders, according to the authors, are engaging in more personalized recruiting, going out into the field more, changing their approach to financial aid, focusing on brand strengths and aggressively surveying students who choose not to enroll. In short, they are following Drucker.

Drucker saw institutions facing such challenges more than once during his long career. Demographics are often a major factor; colleges that expand during baby booms must retrench during baby busts. But how do you weather all the changes?

Image credit: Jorge Quinteros

Rule one—which might be summarized with the old punch line “first, don’t start from here,”—is that you change before you have to. “Refocus and change the organization when you are successful,” Drucker wrote in Managing the Nonprofit Organization. “When everything is going beautifully.”

Related to that advice was the notion that you must build on what you’re already doing right. “The best rule for improvement strategies is to put your efforts into your successes,” Drucker advised. “Improve the areas of success, and change them.”

Rule two is to practice the discipline of looking out the window. “The most successful college I know has managed—at a time of shrinking student population—to increase the number of its applicants and improve the quality of those applicants by just such a discipline,” Drucker wrote. “The president and the director of admissions spend alternate weeks visiting high schools and inquiring about the changing expectations of the kids.”

Also, see what your competitors are doing. And find out as much about your noncustomers as about your customers.

In sum, follow the eternally valid strategy of using change to create opportunity. As Drucker put it, “You can force yourself to drive a different route to work; you can force yourself to sit down and talk with students, who are still in high school but thinking of college. You can force yourself to look at demographics.”

How can colleges hope to keep up enrollment in leaner times?