While recent news indicates that enrollment declines may be turning around, enrollments remain well below pre-pandemic levels. For many systems and institutions, three collaborative strategies offer hope to fill empty seats.

It’s no secret that higher education enrollment has been declining. Despite recent good news about first-year enrollment, experts have talked about the looming enrollment cliff for years. But when the pandemic hit in early 2020, enrollment declines in higher ed accelerated, leaving many colleges and universities struggling to stay afloat. In an effort to offset decreasing numbers of students, many of these institutions reduced the number of sections, courses, and programs they offered, leaving students struggling to find the courses they needed to stay on track to complete their degree on time. Couple that with rising inflation, the credit loss students experience when transferring institutions, and the equity and access challenges facing many students, and the picture becomes even more bleak.

The Unfortunate Reality of Enrollment Declines in Higher Ed

While this year’s application reports look more promising and Fall 2022 enrollment saw a slight increase in some areas, the reality is that, today, fewer students are pursuing a higher education degree. In Spring 2022, National Student Clearinghouse reported a one-year decline of 4.1%, representing 685,000 fewer students. When added to the drop institutions experienced during the height of the pandemic, the tally rises to a loss of nearly 1.3 million students since Spring 2020.

Small institutions, temporarily boosted by federal funding during the pandemic, are being hit especially hard by enrollment declines, with a number already announcing they will close their doors. And many experts predict others will soon follow suit, leaving many institutions wondering what to do next. They are realizing that the strategies they employed in the past are less effective today, and to survive, they must look at strategies that span beyond their campus walls. 

Collaborative Strategies to Overcome Enrollment Declines in Higher Ed

While collaboration is common practice in higher education, collaboration when it comes to overcoming enrollment challenges is not. But many institutions are realizing that instead of competing for students, perhaps they should explore sharing those students through initiatives that focus on collaboration, not competition. It’s a mindset shift, but an important one as enrollments continue to decline.   

Collaborative initiatives like course and program sharing offer colleges of all sizes an innovative way to become more efficient, boost enrollment, and survive. Paired with other collaborative initiatives such as transfer process improvement and dual enrollment, colleges can bolster fledging enrollments while boosting student success, access, and equity. 

Course and program sharing offers colleges a way to collaborate and serve students together, allowing both institutions to benefit. It’s an alternative for colleges who need to offset enrollment declines by reducing the number of sections or courses they offer to their students. Through collaborative partnerships with like-minded institutions, students can take the courses they need at a partner institution, confident that the credits will transfer back to their home institution and count towards their degree. These partnerships benefit both students and the institutions. Students benefit from greater access to courses and the ability to find the course they need, when they need it. And institutions fill empty seats in their in-person or virtual classrooms. 

Improving the transfer process, another collaborative strategy, removes friction, making it easier for students to chart a path that ensures the courses they are taking will transfer to the institution they wish to attend. This strategy is important because the reality is, most students will attend more than one institution. According to our recent survey of current students and recent graduates, one in two students transferred institutions.

By making transfer equivalencies more transparent, students, and the counselors and advisors who support them, can make more informed decisions about their educational journey. This strategy is particularly effective for students who start their educational journey at a 2-year institution with the goal of transferring to a 4-year institution to complete their degree. 

Dual enrollment is the one bright spot in the enrollment story. Dual enrollment programs are actually on the rise, offering high school students the opportunity to take college courses that will ultimately count towards their degree while finishing their high school diploma. Collaboration between colleges and local high schools allows students to benefit from the ability to jump start their college career. Institutions benefit as well. At many community college campuses, dual-enrolled students account for up to 16% of the total student population, providing the boost they need to close growing enrollment gaps.

Innovative Technology That Supports Collaboration

Underpinning each of these strategies is innovative technology designed to support institutions as they implement initiatives to share courses and programs, improve the transfer process, and deliver a smoother, more seamless dual enrollment experience. Using the Quottly Platform, institutions can integrate course, program, transfer, and student data across initiatives and institutions, which helps to alleviate administrative frustrations and better meet the needs of today’s modern student.

As colleges and universities continue to struggle in the wake of enrollment declines in higher education, these three strategies offer new ways for institutions to boost enrollment, smooth transfer pathways, and improve equity and access. And that’s a win for students and institutions alike.

About the Author


Quottly helps higher education systems, consortia, and institutions expand academic opportunity, create new pathways to completion, solve transfer challenges, and drive efficiency. Explore Quottly solutions…