January is upon us. If you are like most people, your New Year's resolution is already lying broken and forgotten on the floor. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of: The idea or philosophy that someone can wait to make a meaningful change until January (and then wake up a different person on January 1) has never sat well with me. When I do that, I know that I am not bringing my best self to life on a daily basis. This is part of the reason that I do not believe in New Year's resolutions. In my mind, they are an excuse to put off until January what I know should be addressed today.
Instead, I approach each day and task with this mindset: I can be better than I was yesterday. This leads to a state of continual improvement (I hope). This approach is not always easy, in fact, it defies the very laws of nature. The law of entropy tells us that there is a natural tendency for the parts of a system to seek the lowest energy they can, which results in chaos. For a system to remain unified, we must continue to infuse new energy into it. The Infusion of energy for unification is needed today more than ever in both the society we live in and inside our institutions.
For colleges and universities, this is an important challenge to undertake: How do we avoid the chaos that entropy results in? To start with, institutions should develop a rallying and organizing principle that is relevant and actionable both internally and cross-functionally. I would encourage you to do this around the commitment to deliver Student Financial Success. The industry of higher education did relatively well in 2020, given the obstacles COVID-19 presented. However, anyone in the enrollment office knows this is not the end of the story. An honest review of Fall '20 enrollment reporting from the Clearinghouse indicates that first-time freshmen took a disproportionate hit, down around 13% year over year. Most impacted were community colleges at -18.9%, followed by public four-year colleges at -10.5%.
If we look at these numbers in isolation, (though disturbing) these figures could easily be excused by the pandemic as a one-time blip that will result in a surge in enrollment in 2021. However, early indicators for fall ‘21 show a similar trend. NCAN FAFSA tracker (as of January 1) shows FAFSA completion down nearly 11.5% and Common App Completion volume is down 8%. Those numbers should worry enrollment and financial aid professionals.
To reverse these trends, students need assurances that college completion is within their financial grasp. In the pandemic-related economic downturn, college affordability has become even more important to families who were already facing financial struggles. I have always viewed the American dream as an individual’s ability to be in a better position than the generation that came before them. The single greatest contributor to my ability to achieve this was access to higher education; an education that used every dollar of financial aid that was available to me. At its best, a college education – when completed – can lift students up financially and allow them access to that American dream. At its worst, it is a dream unachieved that results in debt without a degree and drags students down with loan payments and no new opportunities.
The easiest way to help students achieve greatness is for colleges to rally around Student Financial Success. To do so, they focus on student retention and enrollment. This duality reinforces a commitment to reduce the number of students who leave institutions with debt but no degree.
To achieve this, schools need to impart energy, resist entropy and make continual and daily commitments to cutting through complexity, unlocking every dollar, and charting personal paths throughout the student journey. Only then will we be able to start tackling the overarching financial challenges that face students and derail their education.
One thing I know from working alongside higher education professionals is that they do not shy away from hard work. Administrative and enrollment teams have overcome so much throughout the past 10 months, and I believe the coming year is going to present even more challenges. So, throw away that New Year’s Resolution, and instead, let us defy the laws of nature.
I hope during these months you keep the words of Anton Chekhov in mind when he said, “Only entropy comes easy.” Higher ed professionals didn’t pursue roles in enrollment or financial aid because the job was easy. You were motivated by the opportunity to change lives and open doors for students. Now more than ever, students need our continued commitment to them.
Thank you for everything you have done and continue to do each day to put energy back into the system and ensure that entropy and chaos do not overtake higher education. Together, Student Financial Success can prevail.