In this joyful season of graduation parties, millions of Americans have little reason to celebrate.

Many high school graduates won’t make it to college, and those who do may struggle to stay in school. Many will stop out—and then start and need to stop again. We all know a neighbor, friend, or relative—or even our own adult children—whose degree dreams are yet to be fulfilled.

A new National Student Clearinghouse report says 40.4 million Americans have some college but no degree, up from 39 million a year ago. Those numbers increased in every state, and the District of Columbia.

In fact, college enrollment rates are lower now than before the pandemic, says the latest Lumina Foundation-Gallup report, “State of Higher Ed 2023.” Even more concerning, undergraduate credentials fell for the first time in a decade in the 2021-2022 academic year.

We debated this trend—and what to do about it—at a recent conference on “Bouncing Back from the Enrollment Plunge,” hosted by Lumina and Gallup. Panelists agreed on the depth of the plunge but weren’t sure that higher education could stop the losses enough to bounce back. “Things are stabilizing, but we are still in a deep hole,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Gallup event from May 11, 2023

Breaking down silos

The high cost of college is a big part of the problem, but money isn’t the only issue. Today’s students may be working full-time, caring for children or elderly family members, and struggling with stress and depression.

The pandemic made these issues worse—and gave voice to them. Add the fact that today’s students of all ages, races, and cultures are trying to navigate an outdated higher education system built decades ago for a different population. Persistent equity gaps prove that it’s not working.

Compton College President and CEO Keith Curry told the conference that schools need to cater to the people they’ll likely serve in the future: nonwhite and nontraditional students. “We need to be having conversations about how best to help (Black and brown) students succeed … All the silos need to be broken.”

Leading the way

Compton is one of four schools leading the way with new ideas for retaining students:

  • Compton College prioritizes meeting students’ basic needs. The California school provides free, healthy meals daily, grocery money, a child care center, and a one-stop student services center. “You can’t pass math if you’re hungry,” Curry says. Compton also hired a director of Black and Males of Color Success to help them excel, and is building affordable student housing.
  • Cape Fear Community College enhances services as needs arise, says VP of Student Services Sabrina Terry. The North Carolina school offers free bus passes, emergency funds, and is expanding its daycare center to provide drop-in care for children of students. A new outreach coordinator focuses on the needs of the growing Hispanic and Latino populations. Meanwhile, an active TikTok page engages students.
  • At Florida International University in Miami, “proactive student support is critical,” says Bridgette Cram, Interim VP for Innovative Education and Student Success. Advisors who reach out to students at risk of failing have helped FIU retain 90% of its first and second-year students. They also help students at risk of being dropped from classes for falling behind on tuition payments.
  • At George Mason University in Virginia, student success coaches are especially valuable for first-generation students who need help feeling comfortable on campus and navigating resources, says Chief Mental Health Officer Rachel Wernicke. Meanwhile, a task force assesses ways to prevent suicides and other crises, saying, “It’s everyone’s role on campus to address mental health.”

These pioneering leaders and programs are showing results. For instance, George Mason welcomed its largest freshman class in the fall of 2022. To bounce back to pre-pandemic levels of enrollment growth—and exceed them—most colleges will need to take steps like these as they transform their operating models.

To start recapturing the million-plus students we’ve lost to the enrollment plunge and encourage future generations to keep learning, we’ll have to change who and how we serve students.

If we start now, next year’s graduation season will see many more students with good reasons to celebrate.

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