Facing Enrollment Challenges Head-On

It’s a challenging time in higher ed. The dreaded enrollment cliff—the sharp demographic decline in traditional college-aged students—has already hit the Midwest. And the pandemic and inflation threw more curveballs into the mix. We checked in with Matt Beatty ’03, director of admissions, to learn more about the enrollment challenges Luther faces and why we have reason to hope.

Matt Beatty

What were you doing in life before joining the admissions team at Luther? Why did you decide to return? 

Working in higher ed is very fulfilling to me. The chance to return to Luther was appealing both personally and professionally. My wife, Molly (Vanderstoep) Beatty ’03, and I are both Luther graduates, as are many of our extended family members. We cherish our memories as Luther students and are excited about the quality of life that Decorah offers us and our twin boys. Most recently before Luther, I served as director of international admissions and global learning at Concordia College–Moorhead.

Can you give us a snapshot of higher ed enrollment over the past few years?

Nationally, college enrollment has been sliding downward for the past decade. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the population of high school graduates will peak at just over 3.9 million in 2025. After that, projections start to fall every year for at least a dozen years. Data indicates a 10 percent drop in the high-school-to-college pipeline by 2035.

And the plot thickens. Most colleges and universities already face financial stressors, increasing student support needs, the rapid use of artificial intelligence, and questions about whether a bachelor’s degree is still worth it.* These factors are creating, arguably, the most pressing time in history for these institutions to meet their enrollment and revenue goals.

*Financially, it is. In March, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that in 2023, recent college grads age 22–27 working full-time earned $24,000 more per year than 22–27-year-olds with only a high school degree.
What are the challenges specific to colleges like Luther?

Serving as an admissions counselor is a very rewarding career. You get to work on a college campus, counsel college-ready students, and connect with families in a really positive way. Unfortunately, declining demographics coupled with unanticipated outcomes from the pandemic have been really challenging for enrollment managers here. The constant state of uncertainty, increase in competition, and limited student interactions resulted in a high level of burnout, especially post-pandemic. Since 2021, Luther’s Office of Admissions has experienced a 90 percent staff turnover. But, just like the demographic changes in prospective students, Luther isn’t alone. That turnover is happening nationwide in admissions offices.

What strategies and initiatives is Luther implementing to recruit students?

I like this question. High school students today are watching colleges’ videos on Instagram, Tik Tok, Niche.com, and other emerging platforms while going through the college-search process. So we’re becoming even more active on social media and in other spaces. We’re also helping to streamline processes with respect to applying to Luther and transferring credits.

Internally, we’re leaning more heavily on institutional data, research, and new technologies to enhance our recruitment practices. We’re reaching out to students earlier in their high school years, streamlining admissions dashboards, and deploying more personalized messages.

But in the end, Luther students are our best recruiters—so we still want prospective students to visit campus. To really get a feel for Luther, new students should walk around the Library Lawn, sit in on a class, enjoy lunch in the Caf, and picture themselves here. A campus visit can make all the difference.

What’s going on this year with the FAFSA, and how does it affect enrollment?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, has long been due for an update. In December 2023, a new version of the form was released by the US Department of Education. Information from these new forms recently became available to higher ed institutions. The delay, however, has created additional setbacks and pressure for those working in the sector.

You’ve worked at other institutions in similar roles. What makes Luther special?

What makes Luther truly special are the people, from our faculty and staff to students and alumni. Year after year, their unwavering care for this institution is palpable in every aspect of campus life. I get to witness these incredible interactions every day—the mentorship between professors and students, the support networks that thrive between Luther and Decorah, and the genuine pride exhibited by alumni long after they’ve graduated. Luther has a gorgeous campus, but what’s even more beautiful—and more compelling—are the people who make this place happen.
What are you hopeful about regarding enrollment at Luther?

There’s a lot that gives me hope, but I’ll mention just three areas. First, the college’s strategic road map, which includes an ambitious yet realistic and sustainable five-year enrollment plan that aims to bring the college to a thriving community of 1,800 students. Next, we have an exceptional admissions team. Under the leadership of our vice president, Karen Hunt, we’ve assembled an outstanding team. We’re dedicated to reaching critical enrollment goals, trying new recruitment tactics, and engaging with prospective students who can thrive at Luther. And finally, it’s the overwhelming support from our campus leaders and the Decorah community. As President Ward likes to say, “Luther is Decorah’s college, and Decorah is Luther’s town.”

How can alumni, parents, and friends of the college support enrollment at Luther?

Luther alumni, parents, and friends play a vital role in supporting enrollment. One of the most impactful ways they can contribute is by proactively sharing their own Luther story (#LutherCollege). Comment on and share our Luther features and news to others in your social media. Talk to high school students about your J-Term program, faculty mentors, and lifelong friends. Recommend high school students through our Future Norse Referral Program so we can reach out to students who might thrive here. By sharing the transformative experiences you’ve had here, you’ll inspire more prospective students to consider Luther as their home away from home.