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Where have all the applicants gone?

Applicant numbers are down. How do we convince and demonstrate that a few years invested in school will pay off greater than a few years earning money? How do we bring the idea and feeling of security back to a degree?


Minna-Maari Harmaala

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 11.05.2022

They say spring is a time for new beginnings. Spring is also time for our biggest intake and application festival of the year! However, something happened this year. Application numbers dropped overall and also with us at Haaga-Helia.

Fewer applicants and more study places

According to the Ministry of Education, there were 137,980 applicants this spring 2022 to open places in universities and universities of applied sciences. This number was almost 20,000 less than a year earlier amidst the worst pandemic and equally well below the 151,700 applicants in 2020, the year in which we just learnt the word pandemic.

At the same time, we have 2.000 more study places to offer compared to last year. The variation in the size of the age cohorts now graduating from secondary education is minimal, i.e. roughly those born between 2000-2004. According to Tilastokeskus the number of children born in those years differs between a low of 55,555 and a high of 56,742; a non-significant difference of roughly 1000 diaper consumers. Somehow the math is not adding up, is it?

We seem to follow very closely the roughly 7 % decline witnessed in US college enrollments, where over 1 million fewer students enrolled in college now than before the pandemic. Of course, there is a difference between enrollment and application but the tale told by the numbers is the same and utterly relevant.

For Haaga-Helia this meant 9904 individual overall applicants, of which 3906 primary applicants against our 674 starting places. Our most popular tracks are our bachelor of business administration and our IT track. Combined they receive the lion’s share of applications.

If we compare the change in our applicant numbers with that of 2020, which represents a more “normal” year, we have seen applicant numbers fluctuate with a very minor growth in IT to a whopping drop of almost half in our hospitality programs. Wait a minute. There was once a time when “everyone” wanted to be in hospitality!

Is everyone just off on a gap year earning money?

What’s even more odd is, that this pattern goes against earlier patterns of how students-to-be approach going to school. Traditionally when the economy is doing less well and people may be having a hard time getting or keeping a job, enrollments go up. Likewise in an economic upturn, the workforce allures people away from schools. Or does all just mean that the pandemic has hit different industries very differently?

I recently heard that the current post-pandemic salaries of good professionals in hospitality are exorbitant, which must be alluring some to just keep on working. I just spoke to my own in-house secondary school graduate who has juggled on-line learning solutions, lock-downs and cancellations of all things remotely fun for 2/3 of the high-school career. She mentioned that “half of my friends have no energy to even think of school after this pandemic so-called school; they don’t want to apply anywhere or be anywhere near school for a while”.

However, it seems gap years are not explanation. A study in the US found that of the high school graduates in 2020, who chose not to enroll in college after graduation, only 2 % ended up enrolling a year later.

Insecurities in an industry affect application

Certain industries are facing acute labour shortages. In Finland, according to the Employment and Economic Development Office, the list of 15 professions with biggest labor shortage includes, as expected, health care professionals such as doctors and nurses. However, on the list is hospitality, which we at Haaga-Helia train for. Still, our applicant numbers in hospitality are down by over 45 %. What is going on?

The pandemic shut-down places as part of lock down measures. Some industries such as hospitality and events were hit perhaps harder than others, as restrictions were in place for the longest – partially ad-hoc and at times totally at odds and in conflict with common sense. This created insecurities within entrepreneurs in the industry but almost certainly with potential applicants, too.

Who wishes to be a professional in a field where business and thus, livelihood may be forced to shut down at a moments notice?

The value of a degree needs to be strengthened

Many studies still show the benefits of earning a degree in the long run. Somehow we would need to attract back to school those youngsters who have instead chosen to reap the benefits and short term gains of higher wages. We need to convince them that we have something better to show in the long term.

The thousand dollar question is, how do we convince and demonstrate that a few years spent in school will pay off greater than those few years earning money. How do we bring the idea and feeling of security back to a degree?

If we don’t solve these challenges, there may be severe implications for the economy, for economic and social security and well-being as well as for personal socioeconomic mobility. Our societal boat has been rocked enough in the past few years. It is now time to stabilize it!

Minna-Maari Harmaala is a senior lecturer also representing the Board of Haaga-Helia. In her blog texts, she shares insights on central issues of higher education.