2018 in Review: Key Events Shaping Higher Education Enrollment

A look back at major news events that will have long-term impacts on marketing and recruitment strategies for higher ed admissions pros.

by Steve Kerge • December 12, 2018

Did someone accidentally speed up the clock? How can we be closing in on the end of 2018 when it seems like it just started a few weeks ago?

So much has happened throughout the year, and with headlines continuously re-focusing our attention, it's sometimes hard to keep track of the milestone events that will continue to shape your future classes of students for years to come. To help you better plan for what’s ahead, we thought it would be both interesting and provocative to highlight a few of those events and provide insight as to how each may impact your enrollment efforts.

Hurricane Maria

Leave it to a former enrollment professional to use an event that actually occurred in 2017 as a kickoff focal point for 2018, but bear with me. Though Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, demolishing many Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico, many of the longer-term impacts of the storm only started to become evident in early 2018.

Enrollment Impacts:

The immediate impacts of the storm are somewhat obvious. At the local level, colleges and universities in the Caribbean and South Florida were closed due to damage, had to re-organize class schedules, and more. Also, admissions offices throughout the nation that normally recruited in Puerto Rico, South Florida, and other affected regions had to modify their recruitment schedules and expectations for enrollment activity in those areas.

Looking ahead, Maria will provide longer-term impacts that should continue to shape your new student marketing and recruitment approach for years to come. For example, according to a study by The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, more than 10,000 students flooded Florida’s elementary and secondary schools shortly after the storm. We also know that storm-affected families chose to migrate to other states, such as New York and New Jersey. In the coming years, your efforts to attract and accommodate these students with opportunities to flourish on your campus should not be overlooked. Work to identify, segment, and communicate to these prospective families the relevant support and opportunities that exist for them at your institution.

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica Scandal and GDPR

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal — which revealed that a consulting firm gathered data from millions of unconsenting Facebook users’ profiles and used the info for political purposes — was technology’s top story of the year. (Facebook didn't consider the event a breach until CEO Mark Zuckerberg called it one in his congressional testimony.) There is so much to digest here, including the loss of the personal data of 87 million people, increased scrutiny on the practice of taking your data and the data from friends in your network, as well as questions over how much value Facebook places on the security of that information.

Though the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — the EU's new, stricter rule governing how online companies can collect your data — is technically a separate item, it and the Facebook scandal were so strongly linked by both topic and timing that they had to share a spot on this list. GDPR went into action in May of 2018, but became a widely focused topic for higher education marketers as early as January of 2018.

Enrollment Impacts:

If you believe digital and social media marketing are powerful parts of your efforts to enroll undergraduate, graduate, and adult students, then you can understand that the long-term impacts of these events will be far reaching. In fact, they have already begun to inspire more privacy related safety measures and regulations that will force marketers to adapt in order to continue to be effective on these platforms. For example, Facebook, Google, Bing, Instagram, and LinkedIn have already made user-level modifications to the data they collect that, comparatively, limit our ability to hyper-target in marketing. Also, while GDPR is only in effect in the European Union, it is likely that similarly strict regulations will come to the U.S. soon, even if it’s under a different name or in a different format. Furthermore, the data that you and your marketing partners collect and store will be equally scrutinized and have to be properly secured.

Trump Tariffs, Trade Wars, and Tighter Visa Restrictions

This would not be a proper 2018 year-in-review without a mention of President Donald Trump. 

His administration began imposing tariffs on China in January, and by June, the continued rollout of tariffs impacted almost every country, with the exception of Argentina and Australia.  (This is not a political blog, so we’ll veer away from the political complexities of 2018.) 

Regardless of whether you think the tariffs are a good strategy, one thing is undeniable: The tariffs have placed the U.S. in a trade war with China, and it continues to stress relationships between the two nations. Additionally, on June 11, 2018, the U.S. applied even tougher restrictions on Chinese graduate student visas. The new policy shortens the duration of visas from five years to one year for those planning to study aviation, robotics, and advanced manufacturing.

Enrollment Impacts:

By May 2018, many institutions that rely on international enrollments from Asia began showing stress. Applications were already down for the most part, and while visas may have technically been approved, at the same level, the perception of confusion, reduced approvals, and harder processes abroad drove away many international students and families. Notably, this pattern was not exclusive to the U.S. and China. For example, this spring, many of us in higher ed enrollment discussed the impact of the strained relationship between Canada and Saudi Arabia, where students were directly involved.

Avengers and Deadpool Prove Comic Book Movies Still Rule

“Avengers: Infinity War” wasn't just a movie; it was a cultural touchstone that seemingly everyone was talking about. All that chatter about comic book movie fatigue went out the window after Avengers hit. The film debuted on April 27, 2018 and grossed $257 million in the first weekend alone. It also surpassed $2 billion globally throughout the year.

Enrollment Impacts:

What could possibly be the connection of a movie’s success to your institution’s enrollment? Well, let me begin by admitting that I am not a fan of comic book movies whatsoever. While I admire the phenomenal work created by Stan Lee, who now rests in peace, I rarely take the time to watch a superhero guard the galaxy. But that’s just my point….at age 49, I am not your target market — and if you are similar to me then you, yourself, are also not your target market. Take the time to understand that comic book movies experienced a crazy amount of success because an entire demographic saw themselves on screen in ways they hadn’t before. Your job is to have a similar demographic see themselves flourishing to success on your campus the way they never had envisioned before.

Me Too Movement and University of California, Irvine

The Me Too Movement has to get a shout out on a 2018 year-in-review. It’s a truly positive movement for women and has been highlighted throughout the year in many contexts. However, to demonstrate the movement’s impact on higher education, I’d point to the major investigation that took place at the University of California, Irvine this summer. As Wikipedia explains

"the landmark event … spearheaded the removal and reprimanding of several campus officials and professors accused of sexual harassment and discrimination. In early July 2018, UC Irvine removed millionaire benefactor Francisco J. Ayala's name from its biology school, central science library, graduate fellowships, scholar programs, and endowed chairs after an internal investigation substantiated a number of sexual harassment claims. The results from the investigation were compiled in a 97-page report, which included testimony from victims who endured Ayala's harassment for 15 years."

Enrollment Impacts:

The MeToo Movement is an important topic to prospective Gen Z students of all genders. While the reality is that the vast majority of your campuses are safe, nurturing, responsible communities, the question is: Do you convey that effectively enough with relevant messaging throughout the recruitment cycle? For example, it annoys us to see schools taking any time to highlight their “blue light” systems. These systems are not what provide a secure feeling in 2018. Instead, it’s the people on your campus and how they uphold policies of transparency and accountability that will win on this level every time.

Starbucks Announces The Demise of Plastic Straws

The Dalai Lama once said, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” By announcing a plan to ban all disposable plastic straws, Starbucks quickly realized how they might start a profound movement by making a seemingly insignificant change. This news broke in July 2018 and it immediately received widespread support. Other companies quickly followed suit. For example, at the end of July, Disney announced that it would eliminate single-use plastic straws and stirrers in all its locations by mid-2019 as part of its “journey of environmental stewardship.”

Enrollment Impacts:

While the Millennial generation brought environmental consciousness to the forefront, Generation Z has demonstrated an even fiercer commitment to the cause. In fact, “environmentally friendly” is now right up there with “academically challenging,” “affordable,” “supportive,” and “career-focused” on the checklist of college must-haves for many of today’s prospective students. Presenting your institution’s campus as sustainable and environmentally friendly is now a necessity for attracting a class. But don’t stop there — work with your faculty to promote contemporary academic programs that revolve around the environment and sustainability to help you gain additional recognition among this generation of students. It can be especially impactful if you can if you can demonstrate a correlation between the programs and a successful career path.

A Migrant Caravan Marches Toward The U.S. Border

Throughout late October and November, there were many national headlines about the migrant caravan moving from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border. Like many of the events in this review, the headlines resulted in a wide breadth of emotional reactions, but I promised earlier I would not get political in this blog post. Instead, let’s use the the event as an example of the ongoing population surge in the southwestern United States in recent years.

Enrollment Impact:

The facts are that the southwestern U.S. has experienced, and continues to experience, a population surge from Mexican and Central American migration. Simultaneously, enrollment managers in the Northeast and Midwest have been dealing with declining or flattening college-bound student populations for more than seven years. So, it is natural to look at the country to find territories where there is statistical growth in population so that you can adjust your recruitment plans accordingly. Thanks to their proximity to areas with significant growth, institutions on the western side of the country are best positioned to take advantage of these changes. If you sit on a campus that is east of the Mississippi River, my word of caution to you is that students within these growing populations are highly unlikely to enroll at a school more than 1,500 miles away. Even if these students are willing to travel, enrollment challenges could be compounded by issues related to the students’ ability to pay, academic preparation, or other complicating factors.

Tumultuous Financial Markets 

Check your TIAA-CREF account lately? This year hasn't been as kind as last year, that’s for sure. The financial markets really began to show their volatility in late winter 2017, and it continued throughout the year. We don't have the time (or patience) to go through all of the culprits, but I think we can summarize the reasons for the ongoing fluctuations with an all-of-the-above rationale that includes a range of factors from global political pressures to domestic-interest-rate and credit-policy fluctuations.

The effects are being felt at all levels. For example, if you are not familiar with the acronym FANG, check it out. It represents a handful of high-growth technology companies that were once thought to have bullet-proof stocks and that are now being pressured and tested each and every week.

Enrollment Impacts:

As an enrollment manager, your job is somewhat akin to a high-wire balancing act. Don’t look down as you dance across 100 feet of a tightrope while working to balance your institution’s enrollment goals and discount rate. Your ability to do this successfully is absolutely affected by the financial markets and interest rates — the 2009 financial crisis proved this. Thankfully, many of your institutions were able to control or even lower discount rates this past fall, and much of that can be attributed to the families’ ability to pay and confidence in their own financial stability. As you enter into this coming spring, you may see signs of stress from those same families. Start thinking about how you’ll respond now.


Wondering how you can prepare to stay ahead of the curve next year? Stay tuned for my follow-up blog in early January, which will highlight things you can do to get the most out of your higher education enrollment marketing and recruitment efforts in 2019.