The number of high school graduates in the United States has been on the decline since 2012. With the exception of a few blips along the way, that population isn't expected to rebound. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects that by 2025, the next "peak year," there will only be about 100,000 more high school graduates than in 2011. After that, the number of high school graduates will consistently decline, reflecting the decrease in births after the 2007 recession.
Colleges and universities "will face greater competition for fewer recent high school students," the commission said in a report released earlier this year. That problem will be compounded by the demographic shifts of the high school graduates, where "a steep decline in the proportion of White non-Hispanic graduates will be almost completely offset by growth in the number of Hispanic graduates, while declines in the number of Black non-Hispanics will be made up for by increases in the number of Asians/Pacific Islanders."
In other words, colleges are going to have entirely new populations to recruit and enroll. How are they going to adapt? Colleges are already having trouble catering to minority populations. We know that blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics are lagging woefully behind in terms of college graduations.
These are some of the questions being posed at an education journalism conference to be held this week in Boston by the Education Writer's Association. "Pretty much everything we know about how colleges and universities work...is governed by [the availability of] students," said EWA's project director Kenneth Terrell. "They could be picky about who they let in. Now, their numbers are dropping and it's harder to keep the kids you already have enrolled."
Terrell says he's most interested in hearing how Obama administration and the universities will deal with the president's proposed new ranking system for schools, which will give them points for admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The only trouble, of course, is that the best way for a school to succeed on every other measure is by selecting the most talented students from the start.
How will higher education adapt to this new reality, particularly in light of the projected increase in Hispanics, who now have the lowest level of college participation? And how will the Obama administration deal with this tougher business reality for colleges while still holding their feet to the fire in terms of inviting disadvantaged students onto their campuses? What are the biggest challenges for funding higher education with these demographic shifts? For admissions? For ensuring graduation? What is the most provocative headline that could, or should, come out of a conference like this?
(Personally, I think the title of the conference says it all: "Guess Who's Coming to Campus?")