Enrollment challenges ahead for colleges, report predicts

Population of prospective college students also grows more diverse

Experts say colleges and universities need to evolve—or be left behind—as demographic trends present new challenges for recruiting and enrolling students.

High school graduation rates are projected to stagnate over the coming years, coinciding with a drastic change in student demographics, according to a new report from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).

The report, which details projections of high school graduates through 2031-2032, predicts that the number of graduates will average about 3.4 million up to 2023 and plateau at 3.56 million before 2026. Next year will see the greatest decline, with nearly 81,000 fewer students graduating from high school.

According to report co-author Demaree Michelau, the projected enrollment declines can be attributed to overall drops in birth rates and K-12 student enrollment.

The racial makeup of high school graduates is expected to look quite different over the next few decades, with non-white public high school graduates expected to outpace their white counterparts. The number of white public school graduates is projected to decline by 14% from 2013 to 2030. Over the same time period, white students are projected to make up a smaller share of all public high school graduates, falling by six percentage points.  

The class of 2025 is shaping up to be the most diverse one yet

Breaking down the data by race:

  • The number of Hispanic high school graduates is projected to increase by at least 50% from 2014, peaking at about 920,000 graduates around 2025;
  • The number of Asian/Pacific Islander public high school graduates is expected increase up to 30% (about 58,000 more students) by the early 2030s;
  • The number of Black non-Hispanic public high school graduates is expected to gradually decline about 6% by the early 2030s, falling from a high of nearly 480,000 from 2010 to 2012; and
  • The number of American Indian/Alaska Native public high school graduates is expected to decline annually, falling to 23,000 by the early 2030s. 

Be authentic when recruiting Latino students

The report also projects wide variation in high school graduation rates by region of the country:

  • The South will produce about 45% of high school graduates in the United States through the end of the projection;
  • The West will produce about 30% of high school graduates in the United States through the end of the projection;
  • The Midwest will produce 19% of high school graduates in the United States by 2030, marking a decline of 12 percentage points compared with 2013; and
  • The Northeast will produce about 16% of high school graduates in the United Statesby the early 2030s, marking a decline of 11 percentage points compared with 2013.

In addition, the number of high school students from private religious and nonsectarian schools is projected to drop.

With student demographics shifting, colleges and universities must establish pathways for underserved student groups, experts say. 

What does it really mean to have a diverse institution?

"It's imperative upon our institutions of higher ed to increase the college-going rates of all students, but in particular the students who are low income, first generation and students of color," says El Paso Community College President William Serrata. "This is really a road map for us in higher education to really change our strategies to focus on increasing college-going rates amongst those populations and then facilitate their success once we have them."

Others point out that there is no need to panic. Rather, the challenge will be to embrace student groups that have historically been underrepresented in postsecondary education.  

The enrollment landscape is changing. Are you prepared?

Higher education leaders "should not come away with the sense that this is hopeless, that institutions are going to close, and that we're not going to meet our workforce needs," says WICHE President Joseph A. Garcia. However, "If institutions continue to do the things they've always done, but with a different population, they're going to have worse results, lower enrollment, and they're going lose them to other institutions that are more forward-looking and more progressive" (Zinshteyn, Hechinger Report, 12/6; Seltzer, Inside Higher Ed, 12/6; Bransberger/Michelau, WICHE report, December 2016; Hoover/ Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/6). 

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