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Completion Promises and Enrollment Health

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Colleges and universities face an urgent need to quickly—but thoughtfully—rethink their offerings to not only meet demand in a sustainable way, but to ensure they can make good on their “completion promises.” This article leverages enrollment health to fulfill those promises. 

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In the decade since the Great Recession, enrollment has been a growing challenge in higher education. Demographic change and the shifting needs of employers left many institutions with declines in recent years. Now, in the face of the continuing pandemic, higher education faces a markedly different reality than it did just months ago. Challenges with fall enrollments and questions about whether campuses can and should stay open are only exacerbating stressors institutions were already experiencing as they tried to sustain a wide array of program options amid shifting student demand. The surge in adult enrollments that typically occurs in a recession has failed to materialize thus far, with enrollments among older students seeing a significant decline this summer.

Early indications from the fall show that enrollments are generally down at community colleges and mixed at four-year institutions, with lower-income and Black students experiencing particularly noticeable declines. While the full picture is still murky, one thing is clear: the impact across colleges and universities will be uneven, as will the demand for programs within individual institutions. Capacity will be strained in some areas, while costly oversupply remains in others. This presents an existential crisis for institutions with fragile finances and challenges for even the most financially sound—especially public institutions that can expect to see cuts to their operating budgets as state revenue drops. Colleges and universities face an urgent need to quickly—but thoughtfully—rethink their offerings to not only meet demand in a sustainable way, but to ensure they can make good on their “completion promises.” The situation is urgent not only because of the present reality, but more broadly because of the longer-term trends that led us here.

Trends and COVID-19 Impact

Most, if not all, institutions of higher education are, to varying degrees, tuition-dependent. This dependency creates pressure to attract new students with an array of credentials offered in various ways (modality, time, and location). Successfully recruited first-year students typically have a goal of completing a specific major within that array of offerings and believe that they will graduate before running out of money. Over 80% also believe that they will get a better job as a result—and the current economic situation will only magnify the focus on quality employment.

However, for too many students, their goals aren’t met in the end results. Despite the significant focus on student success in recent years, 35% of those who start at a four-year public institution will not complete a degree, and over 60% of those at two-year institutions will not finish their credential. For those who do graduate, the underemployment rate for recent college graduates was over 40%, even before COVID-19.

Recessions often exacerbate challenges around both completion and job outcomes, as students experience greater need, hiring drops off, and institutions have fewer resources to respond. In the last recession, over 2 million additional students found their way to institutions of higher education. Still, outcomes suffered as institutions struggled to serve them amid widespread state budget cuts, endowment drops, and other financial challenges. As more students entered in 2008 and 2009, the completion rates for four-year institutions dipped to 53%, a three percentage point decrease.

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While it’s unclear exactly how this recession will impact enrollments, there’s no reason to believe that institutions will be working with more resources this time around. And it’s abundantly clear that potential students won’t simply be looking for an education, but for training and a credential that will lead to a good job. This will require institutions to demonstrate that they will provide the support students need to help them graduate and launch a career.

There are several reasons for low completion and job placement rates, but a primary one is that institutions—facing constrained budgets— often struggle to adequately meet demand for clear pathways that lead to jobs. They manage the schedule like a loose array of courses instead of an integrated system designed to allow students a defined path to on-time completion of majors.

Perhaps the solution, in part, requires institutions to be more thoughtful about delivering on the “Completion Promises” we’re making during the admissions process – either directly or implicitly.


Asset 12@3xCompletion Promises and Institutional Health

Completion promises provide a useful lens for understanding the way institutions support students in completing credentials. Leveraging data to converge on the explicit completion promises that the institution can stand behind creates clarity for students and academic departments struggling to create student-aligned schedules.

To unpack that claim, suppose a college offers 100 credentials, has three campuses, and students attend classes during the day, night, and online. Let’s also suppose that this college has materially harmonized its general education requirements across most of those credentials. In this example, a student could start almost any pathway for any credential in up to seven ways – day or night at any of the three campuses or online.

This flexibility is very appealing, especially for the rapidly growing population of students that must work and/or support family members at home. The problem comes when students discover that these implicit promises (e.g., finish this degree at night on the campus closest to your house) can’t be kept. Frequently, this is discovered at registration when degree requirements are not offered in the same array as the core requirements. That’s because they can’t be. It’s not sustainable for this hypothetical college to offer seven fully supported completion tracks for all 100 credentials.

This can be especially problematic for at-risk students (first-generation, Pell-eligible, etc.). When these students find out weeks – or even days – before a term starts that they must rearrange their lives to respond to courses being offered at different times and/or locations, they may decide that college isn’t for them. If we are really committed to improving outcomes by closing equity gaps, we can’t allow that to happen.

We have learned that managing this critical and complex dilemma requires a greatly heightened awareness of what we call “Enrollment Health,” or how your student populations become divided. As is often the case, benchmarking is a great place to start.

Most institutions know how many students are intending to complete their various credentials. Enrollment Health analysis goes a level deeper, examining fragmentation among those broader student populations based on the modality, location, time, and pace of their course taking. The result is a proxy for student populations in any given term/stage of progress of each credential cohort. Generally, if an institution has fewer than 10 students in any stage of progress of any credential cohort—what we call an Enrollment Health—that indicates a sustainability issue. An Enrollment Health of less than 10 means that required courses offered each term would typically have an enrollment of less than 10, which our work with hundreds of institutions has shown cannot be financially maintained over the long haul.

After benchmarking Enrollment Health, most institutions will discover that fragmentation has created many “unhealthy” or unsustainable student populations. Creating a plan to address unsustainable populations mitigates lose–lose decisions over subsidizing or teaching out certain credentials. The resulting plan also creates clarity for students, advisors, and department chairs.


Course Fragmentation Example

Recommended Resource: Course Scheduling Infrastructure Diagnostic 

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Such a plan should include pathway analysis and design, completion promises, and a communication plan of those completion promises for each credential. Finally, annual schedule building can greatly enhance completion-focused planning for academic departments and students.

Asset 4-1Analyze and Manage Pathways Design

Pathways are the interface through which students interact with credentials. In other words, a student-aligned course schedule is, by definition, a schedule that allows students to make unimpeded pathway progress. Pathways, depending on their design, can also either improve or further diminish Enrollment Health.

Course sharing between pathways can significantly improve the health of lower enrollment credentials. This can occur by harmonizing curriculum within the general education core and across program requirements in lower enrollment majors. Major-specific requirements should be minimized as much as possible.

Meta Majors, designed to give students the flexibility to start in a more general credential area and make pathway progress in multiple credentials, are also a great way to harmonize curriculum. Meta majors typically share a general education core and early degree requirements, greatly increasing Enrollment Health in the first part of the pathway.


Pathway Health Example

If the upper-level requirements for a low enrollment major can’t be shared with other majors, two more scheduling tactics can help– course cross-listing and rotating. Cross-listing makes sense when very similar, low enrollment courses need to be offered. Rotating the terms when courses are offered (e.g., every spring term) is another option that can bolster enrollments. However, this approach must be regularly communicated to students and advisors to avoid surprises that could delay completions.

Course choice is the most obvious way that pathway design can diminish Enrollment Health. Without data-driven pathway analysis, course choice can devolve into a contentious theoretical discussion around how “guided” pathways should operate. With data, the discussion can be much more productive and focused on targeted pathway refinement of choice to ensure sustainability of low-enrollment majors.

Ultimately, the result of a thorough pathway analysis for each credential is an “expected enrollment” for each pathway course. A simple example of this is a credential with an Enrollment Health of 10 (see above). Assuming that there was an upper-level requirement with two choices and that those two courses only meet requirements for this credential, the expected enrollment for each course is 5. A more sophisticated analysis would add enrollment patterns from historical schedules, weighting the expected enrollment values for each course accordingly.

Recommended Resource: Pathways Design Analysis 

Asset 5Data-Informed Completion Promises

The number of completion promises that a college or university can make, and keep, becomes clearer by understanding the Enrollment Health of each credential and analyzing their pathways.

Since many institutions tend to cancel classes with enrollments below 10, this can be as simple as highlighting credentials with required courses that have expected enrollments of less than 10. Ensuring the sustainability of those credentials can often come down to a tradeoff between course choice and modality/campus/time choice (completion promises) for many of their credentials. For example, it may be possible to offer a major on two campuses and maintain sustainable class sizes if the pathway only includes one choice for upper-level requirements.

A final consideration is faculty availability. While most institutions start here because it’s much less complex, we recommend landing on the ideal completion paths for students first. The good news is that faculty availability is probably already shaping course offering patterns within the credential. The challenge that will need to be  addressed is that, for some credentials, faculty availability doesn’t align. In those cases, outliers should try to align their schedules or teach other courses that fit other credentials’ completion paths. Part-time instruction and targeted virtual offerings give departments additional ways to flex their resources to align with student-centered offerings.

Asset 6Formal Communication of the Completion Promises to Students and Advisors
Once Completion Promises are established for each credential, they must be broadly publicized. Students and their advisors should be regularly reminded of the supported completion paths for their majors. Ideally, pathways and student planning software should be configured to reinforce completion paths.

This level of visibility is especially important for students as they select or consider changing their majors. Paired with the job market data now shared with students on many campuses, students can now be armed with the information they need to make the right decisions.

Asset 7Cohesive, Annual Schedules

A final component of completion-optimized planning is an annual academic schedule. The annual scheduling approach is gaining momentum because it allows students and faculty to plan their lives months into the future. Annual schedules are especially effective in student and academic department planning for low-enrollment requirements that are offered only once a year.

More advanced planning options supported by longer-term scheduling are student and faculty modeling. Algorithms can test annual or even multi-year schedules to verify that they can support anticipated student populations efficiently. Models can target where sections should be added or removed and where time changes are needed to ensure conflict-free access to required courses. This type of planning is the best way to confirm that academic schedules efficiently allocate faculty and support on-time graduation.

Sophisticated modeling is also the best way to plan for the faculty capacity needed to support completion-optimized schedules. Models can serve as a data-informed faculty hiring and allocation rubric to enable effective management of finite faculty resources to meet students’ completion needs.

Recommended Resource: Align with Predict; Tools to Give You a Comprehensive View into Your Course Scheduling Needs

Case Studies

Innovative institutions of all types are starting to see the fruit of this form of analysis and planning.

For example:

John Tyler Community College

John Tyler Community College (VA) is evaluating the Enrollment Health of each credential with the goals of increasing completion and efficiency. In addition to eliminating chronically low-enrolled courses and curricula, they plan to develop and market completion plans for each program. These plans will define the modality, location, semester, and times that courses in each program will be offered for the next several semesters. The delineation of clear and consistent completion pathways for students is expected to increase completion of degrees and certificates as well as to more-quickly produce workers in high-demand fields such as health care, information technology, and manufacturing.

Sacramento State University

Sacramento State University is focusing on Momentum Year progress by ensuring full, productive schedules for all freshmen in Fall 2020. To do this, they are leveraging pathway and course demand analytics for each credential to offer block schedules. This follows an extremely successful pilot in Fall 2019 by the College of Arts and Letters in which 235 incoming students were surveyed and pre-enrolled in block schedules based on a variety of vectors including their availability and interests. Students were willing to accept the schedules given to them, with only 5% of students completely optioning out and only 20% of students asking for a change of their course. The result--students get the courses they need, in the sequence they need them, meaning fewer bottlenecks and they are positioned to continue on a path to on-time graduation in an efficient manner.


Several SUNY institutions have invested innovation funds from the system office to analyze the Enrollment Health of their academic programs. This analysis will lead to a “roll-out” plan for various programs that balance student access to completion pathways with financial sustainability. These plans will inform how, when, and where courses are offered as well as pathway refinements to support Enrollment Health.


As COVID-19 continues to disrupt enrollments and exacerbates the financial pressures on institutions and students, a more sophisticated and data-informed approach will become increasingly more essential. We simply can’t afford to invest instructional resources in low-demand offerings while our most vulnerable students are not given a clear path to degree completion.

This work isn’t easy, but it can play an essential role in helping our colleges and universities keep more of the promises that we make to our nation’s students.


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