Book Review: "The Agile College – How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes"

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

In a book titled "The Agile College – How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes," author Nathan D. Grawe examines how demographic changes may impact the market for higher education in the coming years. "It will come as no surprise to anyone in enrollment management when the author points out that the response to market shifts typically falls on admissions and financial aid. Short on students? Recruit more. Yield isn't high enough? Offer more aid," writes David Sheridan, who read the book and shared his opinions of its content with NASFAA. "But the number of students to recruit is shrinking, and the problem with awarding more aid to fix enrollment is that three-quarters of private colleges surveyed by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) in 2018 reported recruitment strategies that prioritize increasing the net revenue." What follows are his takeaways, thoughts, and reflections.

David SheridanReviewed by David Sheridan, Director of Financial Aid at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs

College leaders are all too aware of the population trends that will create challenges to higher education enrollment in the coming decade plus. Even prior to the pandemic and its resultant enrollment declines, we knew many pipelines were shrinking at a time when maximizing tuition revenue was becoming a necessity at many schools. In his previous book, "Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education" (2018), Nathan D. Grawe presented valuable data on demographic trends — primarily a prolonged decrease in the birth rate and racial and ethnic shifts in the population — that will force schools to adjust their enrollment management strategies for the coming years. He examined how these changes might impact the demand for different types of colleges in various geographic regions of the country and introduced readers to his Higher Education Demand Index (HEDI).

When I reviewed that book for NASFAA in 2019, I found it offered information all enrollment management professionals, college presidents, and other officials should incorporate into short- and long-term planning, although it did not offer shovel-ready solutions. In his new book, "The Agile College," Grawe provides an effective sequel in which he updates and digs deeper into his data, and he touches on some strategies colleges may consider while faced with these changing demographics.

It's important to understand that Grawe offers projections, not predictions. The difference? When this football season started, I could project that my New York Jets wouldn't be very good (that's not hard). What I didn't know was which (few) games they'd win – those are predictions. So Grawe's HEDI data shows us what to project as the demand for college as opposed to predicting what will happen with actual enrollment, which will be affected by conditions that haven't happened yet such as affordability, the economy, the job market, and other factors. In "The Agile College," Grawe updates his data, peels back more layers of the onion, and explores issues under-addressed in his previous book, such as how immigration plays into college enrollment (who immigrates here matters more than how many do), intra-state migration, transfer and dual enrollment students, and for-profit college attendance. He also does a deeper dive into regional differences in ethnic/racial diversity, including its relationship to immigration.

Financial aid professionals will undoubtedly be drawn to the chapter, "Recruitment and Financial Aid Policies." Here Grawe gives us plenty to think about. It will come as no surprise to anyone in enrollment management when the author points out that the response to market shifts typically falls on admissions and financial aid. Short on students? Recruit more. Yield isn't high enough? Offer more aid. But the number of students to recruit is shrinking, and the problem with awarding more aid to fix enrollment is that three-quarters of private colleges surveyed by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) in 2018 reported recruitment strategies that prioritize increasing the net revenue. Declining demographics and the need for more cashflow contradict the strategies college leaders have often relied on to increase enrollment. Data from the same NACUBO study show that increases in tuition discounts, regardless of whether they contribute to headcount goals, often result in net revenue shortfalls even as tuition rates climb.

That same chapter also makes one of the most compelling cases I've read to date for income-share agreements and their use as an enrollment strategy. While I can't say I'm won over, Grawe dispels some presumptions about perceived unfairness to students who are offered less-attractive terms because their field of study might lead to lower starting salaries.

I'm waiting for someone to write a book on tuition resets, or the practice of reducing the sticker price and simultaneously decreasing tuition discounting. It's an idea that is starting to creep into strategies at some schools. Grawe points to a 2017 survey from The Chronicle of Higher Education showing 1 in 5 schools would consider it, in addition to those that have already taken the plunge. Results have been mixed, as are theories as to what it accomplishes; for example, does it perpetuate price wars? What would this look like on your campus and to your financial aid strategies? Is this something you can model and present to your president?

Of course, as a financial aid professional, you must be responsive to changes outside your office. You can't change the number of applicants, or the number of college-bound people in your area. The author examines potential reinvention blueprints, such as developing new degree or certificate programs, course offerings in remote locations or hybrid formats, and granting credits for prior learning or competency-based assessments. It's not the job of the financial aid office to initiate those. But you need to be aware of demographic shifts and possible changes in approaches to learning at your school that necessitate innovation in the financial aid office; that's a key part of being an enrollment management leader.

Grawe titled the final chapter of the book, "Something Between Chicken Little and Pollyanna." In it, he discusses being a "possiblist" instead of an unrealistic optimist. Schools will have to make hard decisions and decide which is more advantageous when both have downsides: the change, or the status quo. He urges us to be aware of what we can't prevent, but to look at what we can do. There is no one strategy, but creativity, flexibility, and the willingness to address other issues (retention inevitably being one) might help schools attain enrollment goals. Higher education is more agile than it often gets credit for, and Grawe makes that point in this book, which he wrote in 2019, before the pandemic. We have arguably seen more innovation and adaptability since early 2020 than most of us thought our schools were capable of. If nothing else comes out of the challenges of COVID, we should all realize that we truly can do things differently and be perhaps even more effective than we were before.

"The Agile College – How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes" by Nathan D. Grawe,  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019, pp. 264. 

*****

David Sheridan is the director of financial aid at Columbia University's School of International Public Affairs. Throughout the course of his career, he has worked with both undergraduate and graduate students and in both the private and public sections. He has served as a member of NASFAA's Higher Education Committee of 50, chair of NASFAA's Federal Issues Committee, chair of NASFAA's Graduate and Professional Loan Limits Task Force, NJASFAA president, NJASFAA chair of federal relations, EASFAA training chair, EASFAA federal relations chair, EASFAA conference chair, and EASFAA conference chair. Most recently, David was the 2020 recipient of the Allan W. Purdy Distinguished Service Award, one of the highest awards NASFAA bestows.

 

Publication Date: 1/28/2022


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