Executive summary: Student access and success plan
NAU’s New Scenario shifts the university from reliance on traditional Flagstaff Campus undergraduate students to drive university enrollment growth to a more balanced approach that places greater emphasis on online instruction (both traditional and personalized), adult learners and graduate students. This shift is in recognition of the dramatic changes taking place in higher education, notably a flattening of the number of high school graduates (leading up to a steep reduction in 2025), and the challenges posed by a dynamically changing workforce that is leading many adult learners to seek mastery of new skills in an effort to shift to alternative careers (a trend recently exacerbated by COVID-19). The scenario continues to stress retention of undergraduates, which both drives our institutional reputation as well as places less burden on new student acquisition to meet ABOR metrics.
The New Scenario:
- Stabilizes TOTAL ENROLLMENT over the next 10 years, aligning with ABOR metrics.
- Increases GRADUATE ENROLLMENT from 12.9% in 2018-19 to 16% in 2024-25.
- Stabilizes UNDERGRADUATE ENROLLMENT over the next 10 years, aligning with ABOR metrics.
- Steadily increases ONLINE & PL ENROLLMENT from 17.7% in 2018-19 to 28.4% in 2024-25.
- Stabilizes FLAGSTAFF CAMPUS ENROLLMENT over the next decade, aligning with ABOR metrics.
- Increases the freshman retention rate from 75.8% in 2017-18 to 80% in 2024-25, or new ABOR metric.
Distribution of enrollment
The following graphs show how the New Scenario would put greater emphasis on online enrollment, while decreasing reliance on undergraduate and Flagstaff Campus enrollment by 2024-25.
Distribution of enrollment by level
Distribution of online/on-ground enrollment
Key realities as we move through the early 2020s
The Institution cannot solely rely on traditional freshmen for enrollment growth – NAU has relied heavily on traditional freshmen, specifically on the Flagstaff Campus, as a driver of enrollment growth for much of its history. From fall 2010 to fall 2017, the university experienced undergraduate enrollment growth significantly higher than the national average. In fall 2018 NAU experienced its first decrease in undergraduate enrollment, due to a flattening of new student enrollment, coupled with a decline in retention.
Changes in national, regional and state demographics underscore the need to look to other market segments in order to grow enrollment. The number of traditionally aged high school graduates is falling nationally, while Arizona and surrounding state graduation rates are still growing slightly, making these markets highly attractive to out-of-state institutions looking to expand their market presence to mitigate national trends. Conversely, there is an opportunity for NAU to expand its own presence in out-of-state markets, both for in-person and online students.
Moving forward, instead of relying as heavily on enrollment of new undergraduate students, the university will renew its focus on retention and persistence of undergraduates while pivoting to other higher education student segments for growth.
Undergraduate transfer and international students are not growth drivers – Review of recruitment and enrollment trends shows that these populations cannot be relied upon for significant growth moving forward:
- Community colleges have seen large decreases in enrollment in Arizona, reducing the pool of potential transfer students. In addition, The State of California has redoubled efforts to retain its community college students in the California higher education pipeline, reducing a potential feeder population for NAU. As well, a positive economic outlook in Arizona relative to other states may be diverting students into the job market rather than their looking to complete a bachelor’s degree. Again, COVID has affected the job market in the near-term, but even those students who might want to continue their education may be facing financial pressures that preclude this possibility.
- Total international student enrollment at the national level has been leveling out, with new international enrollment falling over the last two years, a trend that has accelerated in the wake of the pandemic.
Increase on-ground graduate enrollment – The graduate student enrollment outlook is modestly positive. While its base numbers are relatively low as compared to the undergraduate population, it is expected to be a small, but viable source of enrollment increases, which should offset a portion of the growth historically derived from the undergraduate level.
Shift to online focus needed – Online enrollment growth at the national level, while not as explosive as ten years ago, has been steadily positive over recent years, with four-year undergraduate public online enrollment growing 8.1% from fall 2016 to fall 2017. While NAU was a strong early entrant into online education in Arizona, it has more recently seen Arizona State University (ASU) become a national leader in online education, while the University of Arizona (UA) has overcome a late entrance into the market by tripling its online enrollment percentage from 3% to 10% of total enrollment in only four years.
The combination of enrollment trends (away from traditional undergraduates toward online enrollment), and the need for increased numbers of college graduates to support the growth of the Arizona economy, requires the university to look to increased online enrollment as its main growth driver. The key to driving online growth is to leverage those current programs that have the greatest short-term potential while creating new programs—including alternative credentials like certificates and badges—in those areas that map to the greatest employment and career opportunities for adult learners. The shift in focus to adult learners also opens the door to enhanced relationships with businesses and corporations looking to invest in their employees’ career and skills development.
Executing this shift in strategy and focus will require a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort that aligns our enrollment management effort with student retention strategies being pursued and implemented by Student Affairs, technology enhancements that provides the university with greater flexibility for delivering instruction through multiple channels, marketing initiatives that leverage data-driven insights about different market segments while creating a strong value proposition and positioning for both our in-person and online program options, and alignment of financial aid and pricing strategies with all of the above.