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From Boom to Bust?: The Changing Landscape of Student Enrollment in Higher Education

Student Success Enrollment Management
October 4, 2018 Daryl Healea Boston University

In the early 1990s, the number of U.S. high school graduates began to increase.  The upward tick was both consistent and striking.  5 years of increases…then 10 years of increases…15 years…20+ years of increases!  The ever-growing numbers of high school graduates translated into a real boon for higher education.  The number of colleges and universities across the nation increased from approximately 3,500 institutions to 4,700 institutions.  These institutions then made sizeable investments in a number of areas including campus amenities such as residence halls, fitness centers, and—of course—the proverbial lazy rivers.  We in student affairs also benefited, albeit to the consternation of some of my faculty colleagues.  In fact, the number of student affairs professionals and other non-academic administrators more than doubled while instructional budgets saw only modest increases.

To quote Bob Dylan, however, “the times, they are a changin’.”  The bull market in higher education appears to be over.  In fact, the number of high school graduates has already plateaued across the nation, and those who study this topic anticipate that it will decline substantially by the early 2030s (Figure 1).  The dropping numbers are particularly steep in the New England states that comprise much of NASPA Region 1.  As you might imagine, many of our colleagues in enrollment management are a bit nervous. 

Figure 1: Slowdown in U.S. High School Graduates (source: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education [WICHE])

Since the Carter administration in the 1970s, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) has conducted research on the numbers of high school graduates, and their research has become a gold standard in the industry.  WICHE publishes their findings every four years and their most recent report, aptly titled “Knocking at the College Door,” came out in December 2016.  WICHE’s website features this report as well as a wealth of data sets and webinars for those of you who like to keep score at home.

Put simply, WICHE examines data from the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics.  Data about public schools comes from the Common Core of Data (CCD), and data about private schools comes from the Private School Universe Survey (PSS).  At the same time, WICHE seems to be ever-mindful of an additional data set—birth rates.  Reliable birth rate data comes to us from the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP).  WICHE has found that if you observe the progression of individuals from birth to first grade (some six years later), and on through the grades each year, then you can eventually track their high school graduations and make fairly reliable predictions about future high school graduations.  WICHE disaggregates their data by region, state, and race/ethnicity, and they maintain high confidence in the first four years of their projections.

One might wonder why the number of high school graduates are declining in the first place.  To get at this, it’s helpful to recall a phrase with which many of us are familiar—“baby boom.”  A baby boom refers to a period marked by significant increase in a region’s birth rate.  One of the most notable U.S. baby booms occurred after World War II.  The converse of this could be what one calls a “baby bust,” or a period of significant decrease in birth rates.  As it so happened, and whether it be due directly to economic woes or to more nuanced cultural factors, U.S. birth rates dropped around the time of the Great Recession of 2008.  In fact, the CDCP recently announced that the number of births in the U.S. was down yet again this past year, hitting a historic low.  The declining numbers of high school graduates that we’re now witnessing is due in large part to our current American baby bust.

WICHE is careful to point out that the high school graduation numbers can vary widely by region.  Generally speaking, WICHE shows that we’ll see growth in the number of high school graduates in the South and West, but we’ll largely only witness steady declines in the number of graduates in the Midwest and Northeast (see Figure 2).  The South, in particular, is the only region that is predicted to experience an increase in graduates for every year of WICHE’s projections through 2025.  After that, the number contracts, but the South will still represent nearly half of the country’s high school graduates.  By contrast, the Northeast will see some fairly significant declines, leading it to comprise only 16 percent of the nation’s graduates by the early 2030s.

Figure 2: U.S. High School Graduates by Region (source: WICHE)

Within the boundaries of NASPA Region 1, in particular, the numbers might look pretty grim.  By the early 2030s, Massachusetts is projected to see a 13% decrease in high school graduates.  Rhode Island will see a 21% decline; Connecticut a 26% decrease, Maine a 27% decrease, New Hampshire a 29% decline, and Vermont a 33% decline.

Interestingly, WICHE also disaggregates their data by race/ethnicity, and in doing so provides a glimpse of how downstream student profiles might become increasingly diverse (see Figure 3).  In the decades ahead, for instance, we’ll witness robust growth in the number of Hispanic graduates and in the number of Asian/Pacific Islanders.  This growth will serve as a counter-balance, in part, to the substantial declines in the number of White graduates and, to a lesser extent, to the declines in the number of Black graduates. 

Figure 3: U.S. High School Graduates by Race/Ethnicity (source: WICHE)

The WICHE data is widely used by many stakeholders, but there are some limitations.  First, the WICHE data exclusively addresses the number of high school graduates.  It doesn’t necessarily translate into the numbers of students who will then go on to attend college.  In fact, we have to remember that while the enrollment of traditional-aged college students (ages 18-24) has grown over the years (from 35% in 2000 to 41% in 2016), the fact remains that most high school students (nearly 60% according to the U.S. Department of Education) are not going on immediately to attend college.  So, we need to acknowledge that there’s a big gap between the number of high school graduates (actual or reported) and the number of students who will really go on to attend college.

Second, the WICHE data focuses exclusively on U.S. high school graduates.  Consequently, it doesn’t address other groups (or subgroups) of potential students who may change the profile of higher education.  For example, we may need to note that students entering higher education are likely to come more often from lower-income and first-generation families.  We also need to remain mindful of adult learners (ages 25+) who now make up approximately 40% of the number of students in U.S. higher education.  And, we’ll certainly need to consider international students.  According to “Open Doors” publications from the Institute of International Education, we have seen 6 decades of increases in the numbers of international students in U.S. institutions of higher education, and their numbers now stand at 1 million annually.  Recently, however, Open Doors has shown that the enrollment of new international students has declined.  Depending on how you slice the data, we haven’t seen a drop in these numbers for well over a decade.  The drop in new international students may be due to rising costs in the U.S. or to cutbacks in selected countries’ scholarship programs.  It might also be due to perceived xenophobia in the current political climate.  Either way, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to rely upon a steady stream of international students as we have in decades’ past.

In summary, the pool of traditional-aged college students across the nation is plateauing and, in many places, receding due in large part to the baby bust.  So how are colleges responding?  Well, as supply decreases, there’s a good chance that demand will increase.  Selective institutions, especially those with well-funded admissions operations, may fair just fine.  Second-tier institutions, however, are likely to face steep competition.  For instance, my alma mater in Birmingham, Alabama, can no longer depend on surrounding stages for a surefire supply of students, particularly when other colleges will now be fishing in their backyard.  As a result, they’re now recruiting students year-round in states like California and Texas. 

Some institutions are developing new incentives in hopes of stimulating their recruitment: iPads, tuition discounts, and need-based scholarships.  Other institutions are renovating their curricula.  Faced with declining enrollments, some of these schools have cut programs that lie at the heart of a liberal arts education—Art, English, History, Music, Philosophy, and languages.  In the wake of these cuts, new programs have been mounted in computer science, data analytics, and the health sciences. 

All institutions, however, seem to be coming to terms with the fact that we simply cannot recruit our way out of a baby bust.  Student affairs professionals could do their part to help the cause by focusing more efforts on retention than ever before.  After all, colleges and universities, on average, are losing 30% of their first-years students each year, thus it may be best to first devote our attention to the people, programs, and policies that keep students in place when American higher education goes from boom to bust. 

For Further Reading:

  • Bransberger, P., and Michelau D.K., (2016). Knocking at the college door. Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.  Available from: https://knocking.wiche.edu/
  • Grawe, N. (2017). Demographics and the demand for higher education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Hoover, E. (2013). Minority applicants to colleges will rise significantly by 2020. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Krantz, L. (2018). New England colleges have one big worry: 2025. The Boston Globe.
  • Institute of International Education, Open doors.  Available from: https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors
  • Tinto, V. (2006). Research and practice of student retention: What next? Journal of CollegeStudent Retention: Research, Theory & Practice