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What Does an Increasingly Diverse Student Body Mean for Higher Ed?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

A January report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, Knocking at the College Door, indicates that minority enrollment in higher education will increase dramatically between now and 2025. It is clear that the shifting demographics of college students will require some changes in the structure and priorities of institutions of higher learning. What will higher education need to do to accommodate this shift and how will education evolve with the changing demographics? What are the long-term implications for the future of higher education?



The Report in a Nutshell

The most important fact laid out in the report is that the overall number of U.S. high school graduates has been in decline starting in 2012, and the rate will continue to decline until 2018 when we will begin to see small increases. The level of graduates will remain below the 2011 peak of 3.4 million until 2025 when they will reach a new high. Unfortunately, that new level will only be 100,000 more graduates than the recent peak in 2011. Since 2011 the number of graduates has seen a significant decline that matches the current trend in a recession prompted decrease in birth rate that began in 2007 (Knocking at the College Door, Chapter 2: Projections of High School Graduates).

Contributing to the shifting demographics of higher education by the end of the projections laid out in the report is the fact that minorities will be steadily increasing as a percentage of high school graduates during the time period in question (p.31).

The racial/ethnic portion of the report looks specifically only at public school enrollment, but reveals that starting in the 2009-2010 school year the percentage of white non-Hispanics is steadily decreasing, dropping from 56% in eighth grade, to 53% in first grade. Essentially, each year, fewer and fewer whites enroll in public schools.

The effect of this shift in enrollment will be that, by 2025 we will, for the first time, have no single majority graduating from public high schools. Historically whites have made up the majority of graduates. The shifting demographics of the country will give a true plurality by the end of the projections. With that change, colleges and universities will need to be prepared to embrace a largely new audience or face declining enrollments. Here are some of the things that higher education institutions must begin doing now in order to be ready for the day when their current primary audience has been largely supplanted by a new one.

How Changing Demographics Will Affect Higher Ed
The shift is coming, current enrollment trends for students who will be entering college a decade from now are already facts as the chart below indicates.

The college students of tomorrow are already in the pipeline and they represent a remarkable shift in terms of who those students will be and what their background is. Colleges and universities need to be prepared for the shift and adjust their enrollment strategies, expectations, and services accordingly.

Competition for Qualified Applicants
One major change that the report indicates is an overall birth rate decrease for states in the northeastern U.S. At the Pennsylvania liberal arts institution I worked at previously, the admissions office had already begun targeting students outside of its historic applicant pool of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New York, and New England. They were making a concerted effort to attract students from the South, Southwest, and West, particularly in areas where this report confirms populations are likely to grow in the next decade.

Such a change is a challenge for many institutions, particularly those with regional rather than national appeal. The effort requires a significant financial investment in addition to the time and people to make the connections and promote the institution in new areas. Returns on that time investment at my institution were slow, but increasing. Starting this strategy as early as possible is critical to institutions being able to develop a new prospective pool before it is too late. As local high school graduation rates decrease over the next ten years, competition for those graduates will become fierce and those without alternative candidates may be left with decreasing enrollments – and possible institutional failure.

Cultural Differences
The impending plurality of high school graduates and consequently of prospective college students means that institutions will no longer be able to cater their recruiting, admissions, curriculum, dining options, financial aid, athletic programs, and support services to a narrowly defined group of students.

The college recruiting process is largely a practice of catering the on campus college experience to the needs and expectations of a particular group of students and their families. In the near future there will simply be too much diversity in the applicant pool and on campuses to focus services on any one group. This is going to necessitate a drastic change in course offerings, staffing, admissions requirements, and many of the support services that may be neglected in the current system. For example, support for first generation students will be more greatly needed.

Supporting 1st Generation Students
In addition to the culture shift that is inevitable as college populations switch from a majority of white students to a plurality, there is a reasonable expectation that a significant portion of the people in this expanding demographic will be new to higher education in general (Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 24 Jan., 2013). As a first generation college student myself, I understand the reality of the lack of support available for 1st Gen students at many U.S. institutions, particularly those elite eastern schools that cater to an almost exclusively white audience with college educated parents.

While I am not a member of the plurality, I do have the experience of attending an elite college coming from a working class background, and there certainly are issues concerning the integration of diverse populations into the college community and supporting them in staying in the community. These are issues that were still apparent fifteen years after my graduation when I returned to work at the same institution. These issues include financial support, cultural acceptance, relationship to authority, feelings of guilt, and many other issues unique to 1st Gen students. The University of Illinois has an excellent resource page dedicated to explaining the entire list of issues and how to support students in addressing them. This page makes an excellent starting point for any institution looking to put structures in place to support incoming 1st Gen students.

Long-Term Outlook
What do all of these impending changes really mean for the future of higher education? All education, including higher education, is in a state of turmoil right now spurred on by the financial crisis and lingering recession. Most colleges and universities are being challenged to keep their enrollment up. In addition to this, people are questioning the true value of a college education and whether it is even a necessity any longer. One way for colleges to address these issues is to embrace the diverse new pool of prospective students that will be graduating from high school in the next 10-15 years.

If the economy and attitudes toward higher education do not improve dramatically, institutions that cannot or do not capture a slice of the new demographic pie are likely to wither and die or at least be forced to dramatically downsize and reduce offerings. This is not only about embracing diversity on our college campuses; it is about survival of the higher education system as we know it. Now is the time for institutions to act.

Are you a member of the emerging plurality in higher education? What support and services do you think colleges and universities will need to develop to meet your needs? Share your thoughts below or on Twitter or Google+.