Can Rural Students Save our Colleges and Universities?

Why Are Rural Student Critical To Saving Colleges And Universities?

Rural student enrollment increases can slow the decline of rural, small and mid-sized colleges and universities.  Higher education enrollment numbers are in a slump and have been going downhill for some time. The steady enrollment decline has now persisted for nearly a decade according to National Student Clearinghouse. Higher education enrollment for 2019 was down from the previous year, making this the 8th consecutive year of statistically significant declining enrollment.

The 2020 pandemic only exacerbated this already existing trend. Declining enrollment is detrimental to campus housing occupancy in myriad ways to campus missions,  budgets and performance.  Rural and small to mid-sized institutions have been excessively impacted by enrollment declines.

How does the capture of rural students impact housing occupancy?

Low enrollment dominoes into occupancy issues. Enrollment problems don’t threaten the existence of big schools the way they do smaller ones. But they still pose challenges. “Many schools, especially residential schools, operate on a fixed-cost business model, so a 5-percent decline in enrollment can be a really big deal,” said Alana Dunagan of the Clayton Christensen Institute.

Rural students are a demographic opportunity pool for higher education matriculants. Rural students overall are more likely than the national average to graduate from high school in four years (87 percent, compared to 83 percent nationwide).  

According to the Rural School and Community Trust, among those three-quarters of students from rural high schools who get diplomas, only about half (59%) enroll in college creating an opportunity to cultivate approximately the pool of 41% who would normally not peruse higher education post high school graduation. 

That compares to a national average of 62%, the National Center for Education Statistics reports. Sixty-seven percent of students from suburban schools go straight to college, the Student Clearinghouse reports, 8% higher than their rural counterparts.  

Forty-two percent of people ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in all of higher education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but only 29% of rural students in that age group are enrolled, compared to nearly 48% from cities. That delta of 19% could mean the difference between some smaller Colleges staying open or forced to close their doors.  

Why is the rural student an undeserved market?

The reasons are myriad, and often specific to a community or ethnic group. High school students raised in a rural environments where college is not discussed as a viable option may not be interested to tack an additional four years into their learning for higher education development.

As the high school graduating populations overall declines and the percentage of high school graduates increasingly includes vulnerable colleges will need to address the impediments to attracting, enrolling, and graduating the rural populations less prone to pursue higher education degrees. 

Fewer students overall means fewer dollars for degree-granting institutions to chase, leading to mass school closures over the past few years. The total number of both two- and four-year colleges eligible to award federal financial aid dropped almost 9 percent between 2012–13 and 2016–17, with media accounts of small private colleges blinking out of existence.  

The Bottom Line

How institutions adjust to these changes in the demographics of the prospective student enrollment pools will determine whether they survive, thrive, or fall by the wayside. In order to thrive, Institutions must adjust to the changes in demographic opportunity pools. By focusing on recruitment programs to develop opportunities in rural areas in more creative ways can make a positive impact and create additional opportunities for campus housing occupancy optimization.  At OREG our trusted team of advisors can help your institution overcome today’s market challenges that directly or indirectly impact student housing.

Our mission is to provide best-in-class solutions to the problems higher education institutions and their students face. We offer a broad spectrum of professional advisory consulting services backed by research, including Student Life Optimization, Facility Optimization, Campus-Wide Communication Optimization, Student Experience and Engagement in Campus Housing, and more. Contact Oracle Real Estate Group for personalized higher education support today.

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