The news media has focused of late on several areas within higher education, emphasizing the admissions scandals at top universities; the devastating impact of student debt that now greatly exceeds credit card debt; and whether the expense of college is “worth it.” While these are serious issues affecting U.S. institutions, not much has been said about demographics, a key force changing both the structure and the size of higher education in America.
How many people know that, nationwide, 2.9 million fewer college students were enrolled in higher education last year than in 2011? And that U.S. college enrollment has decreased for the eighth consecutive year—by nearly 300,000 students—according to data recently released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a non-profit research organization? And that in California, enrollment declined in 2018 by about 45,000 students, or 1.9 percent?
In Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, a book published last year, author Nathan Grawe argues that we are “facing a looming demographic storm as child-bearing has plummeted in response to the Great Recession.” He predicts that in 2026, the “supply” of college-age students will have decreased nationwide by about 15 percent.
How about the “demand” side of the equation? Some 70 million Americans—nearly 50 percent of those ages 25-29—now hold college degrees. But according to a study from the prestigious Lumina Foundation and cited in The Promise of Higher Education, a report from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) of universities and colleges, workers with college credentials may still fall 16 million short of what the nation will need by 2025.
As the president of a small, private, four-year non-profit university in Southern California that is very sensitive to student enrollment patterns, it is this demographic variable that keeps me up at night. Fortunately, the projected growth in students is positive for California in the longer term. Grawe predicts that student growth will decline in the Northeast and Midwest by 20-25 percent through the mid- 2020s, while the Pacific region will grow at about 1 percent.
If the decline in the birth rate continues, the U.S. could face a critical shortage of information science skills.
These U.S. demographic trends also have global ramifications. For example, as the number of U.S. students has declined in this decade, the number of international students grew to partly fill the void: international enrollment expanded by 51 percent from 2009/2010 to a peak of about 1.1 million in 2015/16, but has since declined by about 10 percent.
Two countries account for a large proportion of these international students: China, at about 30 percent, and India, at about 19 percent. But with the U.S. now making it harder to obtain student visas, English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia are becoming more attractive destinations for international students.
So the size of the higher education “industry” in the U.S. is declining, in terms of both domestic and international students. This one-two punch is having a drastic impact on university budgets. Colleges are now fighting for market share in a declining sector. This precipitous decline has already led to the closure or merger of several universities in the Northeast and Midwest.
To further complicate projections around the future demand for higher education, estimates are sensitive to the type of institution involved: two-year programs vs. four-year programs; elite universities vs. regional universities; and private vs. public vs. for-profit.
Another longer-term concern of this trend is the impact on U.S. leadership of the global economy. A survey last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, entitled, ”What Will They Learn?” found that 42 percent of students can graduate without taking a college-level mathematics course.
This and similar studies confirm another hard reality: in general, our colleges and universities are struggling to provide the basic skills required to succeed in today’s technology-centric economy. For example, Hanover Research recently conducted a proprietary study for us, concluding that computer, data and information science occupations within California will grow at double digit rates between 2016 and 2026. Will we in higher education successfully respond to this huge demand, given the demographic realities?
In short, if the decline in the birth rate continues, the California and the broader U.S. could face a critical shortage of information science skills. This trend could severely impact Southern California, given its leadership position in the digital creative arts.
Importantly, as a Hispanic Serving Institution, our university is keenly aware of the need to further increase Hispanic participation in STEM programs and to launch new programs, building on our existing portfolio including our Applied Computer Science in Media Arts major. The good news: we see the coming demographic changes, we are planning for them, and we are adapting consistently with a “can-do” American spirit.
As we face the challenges that lie ahead, it is instructive to remember the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, especially after the recent 75th anniversary of D-Day:
“Our real problem, then, is not our strength today; it is rather the necessity of action today to ensure the strength tomorrow.”
David M. Steele-Figueredo is president of Woodbury University in Burbank, California.