Benchmark This!

Latest Trends Impacting Marketing and Higher Education
from Director of UPCEA's Center for Research and Strategy, Jim Fong

Innovating Off the Degree Backbone

The National Student Clearinghouse continues to report sobering statistics on higher education enrollments[i].  Their Spring 2022 report shows that undergraduate enrollment fell by 662,698, as compared to the prior year.  In addition, spring graduate enrollments were relatively flat, but still falling by 22,337.  With the predicted demographic cliff looming nearby, a decade of tuition increases and a recent pandemic stifling the economy and the personal finances of the nation, this comes as no surprise.  In fact, since the beginning of the pandemic, the National Student Clearinghouse reports a total decline of 1.4 million students.


Early during the pandemic, women made up 59.5% of college enrollments, with 40.5% being men according to the National Student Clearinghouse.  During this time, higher education enrollments were significantly impacted by the pandemic and were off by 1.5 million compared to the previous year[ii].  UPCEA research suggested that the value of education vastly differed by gender and age and as a result, young men were also more likely to cease or pause their college experience (and reconsider their debt burdens) in favor of higher paying retail jobs.  However, in the most recent National Student Clearinghouse data, compared to the previous year, 462,000 less women enrolled in the spring of 2022, most likely as a result of less remote working opportunities, the need to care for family and financial burdens. 

As a result, we are also seeing the highest numbers of Americans with some college and no degree.  Prior the pandemic, this number was 36 million.  In spring of 2022, that number stands at 39 million[iii].  Consumers have abandoned college, mostly for financial reasons, but just underneath the surface, there lies a value equation that has now become out of balance.  With tuition rates at all-time high level, consumers of higher education have rethought their decisions.  This, coupled with the financial pressures of the pandemic, has caused a higher-than-expected exodus.  UPCEA and StraighterLine research also shows that the reasons why they leave and the reasons why they might continue their education at a later date are very different[iv].

So, how can higher education survive and potentially thrive in a new economy?  Doing the same thing over and over again is the definition of “insanity.”  Colleges and universities are going to need to change and innovate.  It is unlikely that they can thrive, let alone survive, by doing the same thing but in a slightly different way.  Some considerations on what to do and what not to do could include:

  • Offering the same degree-based product at the same price point hoping and expecting the enrollments to return to normal levels. It is likely that the approaching demographic cliff and increased competition on the horizon will eliminate a recovery back to normal times.

  • Depending on online enrollments to offset losses to traditional enrollments as its sole survival strategy. While this seems to be an obvious solution to many institutions and potentially new and cutting edge for some, it isn’t.  Fully online degrees have become a commodity in higher education and an expectation of future learners.

  • Re-engineering the degree to be more modular and stackable. While the degree is the bedrock of higher education and our systems are steeped in this tradition and do not easily allow for a full re-design, there may be profitability in compromise via stackable and nondegree credentials.  Degrees and stackable credentials can co-exist.  Stackable credentials, while some argue may cannibalize future enrollments, have a greater potential to create more affordable and valuable on-ramps to degrees.  Of course, some stackable credentials will become terminal credentials for some and thus cannibalize.  However, the new enrollment potential created by greater affordability and added value to the part-time learner seeking upward job mobility or stability is immense.  In addition to students that would enter into college part-time and have no credits, 39 million are in the category of having some credits but are not enrolled in college.  A soon-to-be-released UPCEA and StraighterLine report shows that this learner has an average of 28 credits from a prior experience.  These value seeking students will seek modular or stackable pathways to turn their existing credits into credentials such as certificates, while others will use it towards a degree.

  • Create more affordability for the degree by recognizing previously acquired learning, as opposed to forcing students to retake courses. The standards have been set that typically 120 credits equate to a bachelor’s degree and 30 or 36 credits often equates to a master’s degree.  Credits have traditionally been used as the “currency” of higher education.  However, similar to currency exchanges in many airports, higher education needs to create more venues for conversions and exchanges based on prior learning.  The only hurdles to doing so are our own systems, creating evaluative processes to convert noncredit learning, the role of accreditors and an arrogance that noncredit learning can be converted into fractional credits.  All of these hurdles can be overcome or addressed.  Ultimately, noncredit conversion to credit will evolve and will be a competitive advantage for those institutions who early adopt or innovate around a process that welcomes the noncredit experience.

  • Create noncredit programs to feed into degree or stackable credit pathways. As conditions for fully online and campus-based degrees become more competitive (coupled with a shrinking market due to demographics) we need to establish better entry points and create more early relationships.  Noncredit programs that offer badges or certificates can serve that purpose for both degree-completers (such as alumni) and those without any degree.  Today’s student is savvier and often has to find creative ways to fund their education.  They also have access to more information and resources in their choice of education, especially for a degree.  The savvy student will seek to transfer credit if they have it, but also to negotiate prior learning or noncredit experiences into credit.  A recent UPCEA snap poll showed that just four-in-ten institutions have prior learning assessment processes in place.  This too will be a future battleground for institutions as they seek to acquire the student of the future.  Those who are able to develop efficient processes that can do this in scale will gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.


Higher education in the future will change.  Our economy has changed, and the learner has changed.  The learner has more choices, but less money and thus values higher education differently.  As a result, consumer power has shifted more to the future learner and colleges and universities need to acknowledge this and build around them.  It is time to rethink the degree, build around it, build within it and build to pathways to it and off it. 



[i] Current Term Enrollment Estimates, National Student Clearinghouse, May 26, 2022

[ii] Belkin, D., “A Generation of American men Give Up on College:  I Just Feel Lost,” The Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2021

[iii] Sedmak, T., “More Than 39 million Americans Have Some College, No Credential, According to New Research,” National Student Clearinghouse, May 10, 2022.

[iv] Fong, J. and Smith, A., “Today’s Disengaged Learner is Tomorrow’s Adult Learner,” Website:, December 2021.

Jim Fong, UPCEA

Lead consultant Jim Fong, the founding director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy, has extensive background in marketing at Penn State, as well as experience in private industry. Jim brings a rich understanding of the dynamics driving today’s higher education leaders, providing research-driven strategy and positioning. Jim often presents at UPCEA’s regional and national conferences, sharing vital information with attendees.

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