Board of Trustees launches task force examining declining nationwide enrollment

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Nelson Carbonell, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, said a new enrollment task force will analyze national trends.

The Board of Trustees is taking a stab at an issue universities across the nation are facing: declining enrollment.

The board created a new strategic enrollment task force over the summer to examine national enrollment trends, including a declining number of 18- to 24-year-old students and changing demographics, the board’s chairman said. Higher education experts said the committee will help officials identify how to deal with a changing group of potential applicants and plan ahead in case colleges need to compete to enroll students.

“The Strategic Enrollment Committee is charged with addressing these issues and diving deeply into the opportunities and challenges for GW,” Nelson Carbonell, the board’s chairman, said.

The number of students attending college has consistently declined for the past six years, according to a May report by National Student Clearinghouse, an education data consultant group. The number of traditional-aged college students – those between 18 and 24 years old – enrolled in higher education institutions has also decreased over the past few years, dropping by 8 percent in four-year private nonprofit institutions between spring 2017 and spring 2018, according to National Student Clearinghouse.

GW bucked the declining enrollment trend this year by enrolling the largest freshman class since at least 2008 this fall. The University has been increasing the size of its freshman class steadily since 2011, with the average class size hovering around 2,500 students.

Higher education experts said the new committee could help the University plan ahead and pinpoint how changes in demographics nationwide may affect enrollment in the near future.

Jason Dewitt, a research manager at National Student Clearinghouse, said enrollment is expected to decline at most schools because the number of births in the United States has also been declining over the past few decades. The number of U.S. births reached a 30-year-low in 2017, according to a Center for Disease Control report in May.

“Now is the time for institutions to be planning for the future, and most of them are,” he said.

Jay Dee, a professor of higher education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said new committees and other changes in the structure of the board are usually representative of the board’s changing priorities. Even if the enrollment is actually growing at GW, retention may be an issue that the board will look at, he said.

“Boards will tend to get more involved in areas where they think performance could be improved,” Dee said. “It’s sort of a useful barometer or litmus test.”

Paul Seegert, the director of admissions at the University of Washington, said it is “wise” for universities to consider how national, long-term trends may impact them. If fewer students enroll in colleges nationwide, colleges will have to compete to fill their classes, he said.

“It’s definitely something all universities should be thinking about,” he said.

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