New Data Predict Major Shifts in Student Population, Requiring Colleges to Change Strategies
Chronicle of Higher Education
March 20, 2008



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Colleges and universities know that the composition of the nation's student body is headed for a major change. They've been seeing the evidence for years. And an analysis of population data released on Wednesday confirms that major shifts are under way.

"The reality is that the change has hit," said Nancy Davis Griffin, dean of admissions at Saint Anselm College, in Manchester, N.H.

After this year's high-school seniors receive their diplomas, the number of graduates nationwide will begin a slow decline until 2015, according to the new analysis, by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. At the same time, the number of minority graduates is expected to grow rapidly as Hispanic and Asian students replace white ones. (State-by-state, regional, and national data from the analysis are available here.)

Ms. Griffin said she was already seeing the shift in the high-school sophomores and juniors who visit her college.

In the Northeast, from where Saint Anselm draws most of its students, the number of Hispanic and Asian high-school students is already growing, and significant increases are expected over the next decade. At the same time, white and black enrollment are each projected to see double-digit-percentage drops, causing an overall decline in the number of graduates.

Nationwide, the number of high-school graduates is expected to peak this year—a year earlier than previously thought—at 3.34-million, according to the commission. The number of graduates is expected to start growing again in 2015, it says, when the rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian populations will begin pushing that number to new highs.

By 2022, almost half of all public high-school graduates will be members of minority groups, according to the commission. If those graduates go on to college, many of them will also be the first in their families to do so.

In short, a growing number of would-be college students will be exactly those that colleges have historically struggled to serve.

"This really isn't new," said Sarita E. Brown, president of Excelencia in Education, a Washington-based group that works to improve educational outcomes for Hispanic students. "But it's going to be a much greater proportion of students than we've seen before, and the downsides of not addressing these issues will be felt much more keenly."

A 'Very Different' Look

The commission, a 15-state coalition commonly known as Wiche, issues its projections every four or five years to help colleges plan. Its estimates are based on birth rates, migration patterns, and elementary- and secondary-school enrollments.

Even more than the national figures, the new state-by-state data from Wiche show pronounced shifts. Several Midwestern and Northeastern states will see the total number of high-school graduates they produce drop by 10 percent or more by 2015. And as Americans continue to migrate to the Sun Belt, a handful of states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Texas, and Utah—will see phenomenal growth across all racial groups, but particularly among Hispanic students.

"There are states that are going to look very different," said Brian Prescott, senior research analyst for Wiche. "It's already happening, and it's happening rapidly."

Education officials in most affected states are already worried about how they will remain economically competitive.

"The fact that the part of the population that is growing the fastest is the least well educated has created a sense of urgency around here," said Raymund A. Paredes, the Texas commissioner of higher education.

Pushing College Participation

In late 2000, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board began a concerted push to raise the state's college-going rate and to close the participation and achievement gaps between white and minority students.

In the seven years since its inception, "Closing the Gaps 2015" has yielded mixed results. The percentage of the population enrolled in higher education rose to 5.3 percent in 2006, up from 5 percent in 2000, according to the most recent data available. And the gap between white and African-American participation in higher education all but closed during that period.

Hispanic enrollment increased as well, but the participation rate for the Hispanic population only inched up, to 3.9 percent in 2006—well shy of the 5.7-percent goal for 2015.

"The challenge in Texas, as in many states, is we're making progress, but we're not making progress commensurate with the growth in the population," Mr. Paredes said.

To continue making gains, Mr. Paredes said, the public-school and higher-education systems are going to have to work more closely to make sure students are ready for college.

One such effort is under way at El Paso Community College, which has begun working with the local school system to administer college-placement tests to high-school students in their sophomore and junior years. That way, students who need remedial work will have time to do it before they show up at the college door.

Starting with the high-school class that will graduate this year, the state has also made its college-preparatory curriculum the default curriculum, a step that Mr. Paredes said would put more minority students on track to head straight to a four-year institution.

Questions of Capacity

Still, in Texas, as in other Western states, community colleges will be expected to absorb many of the new high-school graduates.

In Arizona, Roy Flores, chancellor of Pima County Community College, in Tucson, said his institution had the capacity. With six campuses and a seventh in the works, Mr. Flores said he isn't worried about classroom space. He is concerned, however, about the quality of education students will receive in the public-school system, which is struggling to find enough qualified teachers and suitable classroom space.

"Our students are adults," Mr. Flores said. "We can ask them to hop in a car and drive across town. It's different when you're dealing with 7- and 8-year-olds."

Other states can't take those elementary- and secondary-school students off Arizona's hands, but colleges in slow-growth states are interested in enrolling its high-school graduates.

Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pa., has traditionally drawn most of its students from the Northeast, but plans to increase its recruiting in the South and Southwest.

J. Leon Washington, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lehigh, plans to hire two new staff members to focus on states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Mr. Washington would like to land students straight out of high school, but he's also particularly interested in community-college transplants from those states and California.

"We think the time is really right to be looking at transfer students," he said.

Lehigh received a record 13,000 applications this year for 1,160 spots in its freshman class for next fall. Mr. Washington is confident that the university can keep the number and quality of its applicants up with aggressive recruiting in other regions of the country. A new financial-aid policy, which eliminates loans for students from families making less than $50,000 a year and reduces loans for others, will also make it easier for low-income and middle-income students to afford Lehigh, Mr. Washington said.

Dartmouth College, too, is hoping to leverage increased financial aid to diversify its student body, as the pool of high-school graduates fills with minority and first-generation students.

Dartmouth's new aid policy waives tuition for students from families with annual incomes below $75,000 and eliminates loans for other aid recipients.

With low-income and first-generation students, "cost is a huge deterrent when they think of private education," said Maria Laskaris, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth. "I do think we'll see an impact in the kind of students applying to Dartmouth."

Getting in, however, probably won't get easier. Even as the number of high-school graduates nationwide dips in the next few years, Ms. Laskaris said she expects applications to hold steady.