Student demographics: Big changes are forcing reinvention on campus

'Instead of getting college-ready students, we have to think about what it means to be a student-ready college,' says president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

A lot of higher ed trends have been upended over the last few years, but gradually changing college student demographics is not one of them.

Unlike in past economic slowdowns, financial turmoil and spikes in unemployment during the early months of the pandemic did not send large numbers of students fleeing the job market into higher education. “People had needs at home and they had health concerns,” says Thomas L. Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “There were a variety of reasons that the changes in enrollment did not look like a typical recession. Still, on a broader level, we’re certainly likely to see changes in demographics over the next few years.”

Most higher ed leaders are all too aware that some of the shifts—such as a decline in students entering college right after high school—are already underway and hitting hardest in the Northeast, the Midwest and in rural areas. Less selective private schools and regional public institutions are likely to face the stiffest challenges, Harnisch explains.

The pipeline of traditional-age students will tighten further midway through this decade because of the drop in births during the Great Recession of 2008, forcing college leaders to compete more aggressively for fewer students. “We’ve seen mergers and consolidations, and other plans to try to address a decline in the number of students coming to campus,” he adds. “Other parts of the country will be hit.”

Equity is essential as college student demographics change

Declines during the pandemic have been steepest among community college students and African American and Latinx males, Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, points out. African American and Latinx males also have the highest dropout rates, meaning they are also more likely to leave college with debt but without a degree.

“We need to go beyond providing access to higher ed and ensure that all students are given the support necessary to complete education and have opportunities to engage in high-impact practices that we know are going to lead to success in life,” Pasquerella says.

Further clouding the demographic outlook is the chance that the Supreme Court will soon end affirmative action. This, along with a student body that’s growing more and more diverse, should increase pressure on research universities in particular to take an equity-minded toward increasing access, retention and student success. Some of the proven strategies include:

  • Undergraduate research opportunities
  • Internships and study abroad programs
  • First-year college success seminars
  • Opportunities to connect curricular and co-curricular activities that allow students to apply skills in real-world settings
  • Fostering a sense of belonging in students, including by having faculty spend time with students outside the classroom.

“We’ll see the impact of economic segregation if a student is working and can’t afford to spend time after class with professors and prefers,” Pasquerella notes. “They’ll be at a disadvantage in terms of what we know helps students succeed and thrive.”

More from UB: How merging can help colleges avoid failure in troubled times 

Campus leaders and educators, if they haven’t already, will also have to abandon the “deficit approach” when assessing a student’s readiness for college. “Instead of getting college-ready students, we have to think about what it means to be a student-ready college,” she says. On other hand, changing demographics also mean colleges cannot abandon the liberal arts in favor of career preparation. “A liberal education still prepares students for adaptability in the face of rapid change and the other challenges of the future, of which COVID is emblematic,” she concludes.

Enriching the college experience

These changing demographics—particularly the growing number of adult students—are also challenging colleges to find new ways to demonstrate their value to ever more cost-conscious consumers. Leaders will also have to make sure their campuses are “pre-positioned” to build welcoming and inclusive environments that provide services and employ faculty that reflect diversity on each campus.

“The value proposition is going to be important as far as showing how programs and degrees from their particular institutions lead to meaningful opportunities in the workforce,” Harnisch adds. “These demographic changes also bring extraordinary opportunities to extend access to populations that have been historically disadvantaged in higher ed and bring views into the classrooms that enrich the college experience.”

By 2025, demographics will be a greater force in the likelihood of colleges closing, particularly for private four-year institutions below the elite level, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “They don’t have prestige to sell and they don’t sell job training,” Carnevale points out. “And they’re very expensive and likely to get more so because of inflation.”

While public colleges and universities are less likely to close, budget-constrained leaders in that sector could begin consolidating and reorganizing programs and shifting them online. “Why do we have 20 places in a public system where you can get an English degree?” Carnevale concludes. “Why don’t we have just three and students who want to take English literature can take it online?”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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