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Student engagement in the UK and US: 5 key stats you should care about right now

We recently held the first in a new series of GeckoTalks webinars. Here, we take a deeper dive into some of the key stats we dropped - and why they should matter to you...

You may have tuned in for our recent GeckoTalks webinar on raising the bar on student engagement. If you didn’t, you can watch it on-demand for our take on the higher education landscape in the UK and the US, the challenges they face, and the tools and tactics you need to deliver great student engagement.

The pressure points on the two regions are very different. In the US, declining birth rates are leading to a decline of available applicants. In the UK, there’s a projected rise of 18-year-olds on the way, with a jump of 27% set to take place over the next decade. But despite the demographic disparity, one thing is clear.

Taking your eye off the ball when it comes to great student engagement simply isn’t an option. The needs and demands of the current and upcoming customer base in higher ed are only going to increase over time. Good enough won’t cut it anymore, and so it’s crucial for institutions to be agile, adaptive, and to deliver on great student engagement if they want to stand out. If you’re not, you can be sure that the competition will be.

Let’s unpack some of the key HE stats you should care about…

1) There’s an admissions crisis coming in the US

The most pressing concern in the United States is the looming higher ed admissions crisis. Experts in the higher education sector warn that the number of students going to university in the US will drop significantly by 2025, as a result of declining birth rates.

Todd Tribble, SVP at Gecko, explains, “The number of high school graduates is going to drop considerably over the next few years. The volume of prospective students is predicted to fall off a cliff, which means schools will be competing for a much smaller pool of students. If you’re a private school rather than a state-funded institution, where you’re only funded by the students who show up on campus, that’s a pressure point that’s really going to hurt.”

2) College enrollments show the largest decline in a decade

College enrollments are down in the US and they’re down in a big way. As reported in Forbes, “Overall college enrollment fell to 16.9 million students this spring, down more than 600,000 students from a year ago. That one-year decline of 3.5% is the largest spring semester enrollment decrease since 2011, according to the final spring report by the NSCRC (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center)…”

It doesn’t stop there – community colleges are amongst the worst affected. According to Forbes, they’ve taken the biggest hit in the enrollment decline, dropping 9.5%, which equates to 476,000 fewer students. With a much smaller pool of students to recruit from, that means fiercer competition, more pressure to hit recruitment targets, and even more need to demonstrate the value of your institution compared to the rest.

3) There’s a huge demand for university education in the UK - but some institutions are outperforming others

It’s a very different picture in the UK. In broad strokes, it all looks good, with record numbers of UK students heading to university this year. According to UCAS, 435,430 students in the UK had accepted a place at university this year, which is a 5% increase year on year.

However, once you start diving into the detail it’s not quite so rosy – at least not for everyone. The Telegraph report that record numbers of students have been accepted to study at Russell Group universities this year, with 163,100 students accepting places this year – 14% up on last year. However, medium tariff universities have seen a much smaller increase, at 2%, while the number of accepted places for lower tariff universities is down by 2% year on year. So despite the overall surge in demand, there’s still work to do.

4) The UK is losing market share in key international markets

The UK’s “attractiveness” to international students is under threat as a result of high costs, visa difficulties, and limited marketing in the face of rising competition from other countries, according to a report in the Financial Times. University Business corroborated this position, reporting that the UK has lost market share in seven key regions. It’s not time to panic – the UK is still second behind the US – but it’s also not the time to be complacent.

Added to this is the fact that the number of Chinese students coming to the UK to study is predicted to peak in 2022, and from there on will gradually decline. Times Higher Ed writes, “While China will remain the most important student recruitment market for at least a decade to come, weak growth will create a much more competitive environment going forward, with all but top-ranked universities fighting harder to meet their targets.”

5) Texting is the tool of choice for Gen Z

Leaving the HE landscape aside, nothing will have any impact if you don’t understand your customer. If you want your comms strategy to land you need to meet your audience where they are, on the platforms they’re using. Because while Gen Z are digital natives, they’ve also grown up around a lot of digital ‘noise’. And what that means is that anything that doesn’t speak to them in a way that feels personalised or specific to them – they’re simply going to tune out. So how should you be communicating with Gen Z?

Well, texting is the medium of choice, with about 73% of Americans and 74% of young people in the UK preferring texting over talking. And why not – text messaging is direct, concise, and much more likely to be read. In fact, it’s reported that 90% of texts are read within 15 mins of being sent. So while email, call campaigns, and social media messaging should absolutely be a part of your comms strategy, texting is very much a crucial component of that.

Nick Cole, Managing Director for the UK at Gecko adds, “If you’re not texting, you’re missing a trick. If you’re not using WhatsApp, you’re missing a trick. That’s where these young people are. But it’s not about using just this or just that, it’s about choice, and using platforms appropriate to the situation.”