College demographics shift will test readiness for diversity, institutional savvy.
As Dickinson College saw its annual applicant pool nearly double from 3,000 to almost 6,000 over the past decade, the student profile at the private liberal arts college not only grew academically stronger but more geographically, racially and ethnically diverse. “We significantly diversified our student body, both internationally and nationally. The academic quality has increased,” says Dr. Robert J. Massa, the vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College, located in Carlisle, Pa.
At Dickinson and hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities, this recent growth in the college-age population, a demographic trend beginning in the mid-1990s known as the “baby boom echo,” heightened the exposure and popularity of academic institutions. Many schools, such as Dickinson, saw expanded recruitment efforts meeting success because of the increased competition among students seeking college admission. Dickinson officials, however, say that while the baby boom echo years proved beneficial to the institution, they have prepared for the next era in U.S. higher education demographics.
This past March, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), with support from the ACT and the College Board organizations, spelled out in the report, “Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates by State and Race/Ethnicity, 1992 to 2022,” the ending of the college-age population growth years made possible by the baby boom echo. Declines in the U.S. college-age cohort will follow 14 consecutive years of growth in high school graduates starting in the 2008-09 academic year. From 2008-09, projections reveal decreasing numbers of high school graduates with the trend bottoming out around the 2013-14 academic year and then gradually rising. The report also projects that racial minorities will become a significantly larger share of the college- age population.
“In the next decade, our nation will grapple with dramatic population changes. Many states in the West and South will struggle with explosive growth in both school enrollments and graduate numbers, while in the Northeast and Midwest, a high number of states will see declines as their populations age or move away,” says Dr. David Longanecker, the president of WICHE.
“The face of our graduating classes is also changing,” adds Longanecker. “Today, White non-Hispanics make up a shrinking proportion of public school enrollments and graduates, while students from other groups — including some who have not been served well historically by our school systems or our colleges and universities, particularly Hispanics — are seeing their numbers rise,” he says.
Officials, such as Dickinson’s Massa, say the demographic projections documented in the WICHE report should already be known to college administrators. The question for colleges and universities, particularly those located in Northeastern and Midwestern states, is how well have they planned for the coming demographic shifts to remain competitive.
“U.S. Department of Education statistics through the National Center for Education Statistics have been predicting this for several years now. The WICHE report did a very nice and thorough job of contextualizing the shifting demographics and pinpointing it a little better than NCES has in the past. But the trends are not a surprise at all. We’ve been moving in this direction for the last several years now,” Massa says.
Meeting the Challenges
There’s little doubt that institutions expected to thrive in the next several years are the ones in regions where the population is growing, and the ones that are the richest, including large public research universities that enjoy flagship status in their states. Institutions that cater to working adults as well as ones that offer specialized job-training curricula, such as for-profit schools, stand to do well, according to observers.
Dr. Mitchell Chang, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California, Los Angeles, says studies, including UCLA’s well-known annual freshman survey, have documented that fewer and fewer students identify reasons of seeking a college education for personal growth and intellectual development.
“Between 1975 and 2005, the percentage of entering freshmen reporting that to get a better job and to make more money” are the reasons for college has been increasing, he notes.
“We’re going to have a larger proportion of incoming college students who are more career-oriented in their pursuit of higher education. In other words, they’ll see obtaining a degree primarily for the priority of getting a good job as opposed to (fulfilling) aspirations of developing their intellectual capacity, philosophy of life and getting the chance to become a more educated individual,” Chang says.
One Midwest liberal arts institution whose transformation in the 1970s and 1980s anticipated current changes in the higher education landscape and student interests is the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul and Minneapolis. In 1979, the private, liberal arts women’s college launched a weekend college for adult working women. In 1983, the college launched both graduate and associate degree programs to serve working adults in the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area.
While retaining its founding mission as a liberal arts women’s college, the College of St. Catherine has seen overall enrollment increase from 4,000 in 1997 to 5,238 in 2007-08, and the traditional women’s college population jump from 1,700 in 1997 to 2,000 in 2007-08.
“I believe we’ve been a step ahead of many institutions. We saw the need to better serve the people of this region while staying true to our original mission,” says Greg Steenson, the director of nontraditional admission at the College of St. Catherine.
Steenson adds that the College of St.Catherine has grown considerably diverse in a way that has paralleled the influx of non- White immigrants and immigrant refugees to the Twin Cities. He says that the associate degree program has a 40 percent non-White enrollment while the traditional bachelor’s degree program has a 22.2 percent non- White enrollment.
Institutions like the College of St. Catherine and Dickinson have acknowledged what many in higher education believe will become common: the building of ties between two-year and four-year institutions. While the College of St. Catherine created its own two-year division, which channels some of its female students into its residential fouryear programs while allowing men to transfer to local colleges, Dickinson is in the process of developing partnerships with community colleges.
“It’s clear to me that, even more so than today, community colleges are going to play a major role in college access. We’re looking to enroll some 50 to 60 additional transfer students a year. Right now, we only enroll 35 transfer students. I’m talking about doubling the number of transfer students we enroll at Dickinson College,” Massa says. He says that half of the 10 to 12 community colleges with whom they establish partnerships will be in the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. The others will be in the South, the West and the Southwest as part of the school’s plan to recruit outside the Virginia-to-Maine corridor. Dickinson College has an enrollment of 2,342 students.
“The 10 fastest growing states represent 4 percent of our enrollment. If we want to gain a higher percentage from those areas, we need to pay more attention to recruiting students from those areas, places such as Florida and Texas and Colorado and places like that. These are very fast growing areas and they represent very small percentages of our enrollment,” Massa says.
The Cost of Diversity
The prospect of increased racial and ethnic diversity at the nation’s colleges and universities has spurred urgent discussions and debate about college access for the economically disadvantaged. Who will pay the college costs of a more diverse yet more financially challenged cohort of future college students is the question college administrators, scholars and policymakers are asking.
“If colleges must attract a larger percentage of a smaller group of potential students in the future, someone will have to pitch in dollars, especially if (institutions) need to attract a larger proportion of minority students who have historically had more financial challenges,” says UCLA’s Chang.
Kati Haycock, the director of The Education Trust advocacy organization in Washington, has criticized public flagship and other research-driven public universities, for creating “serious inequities in higher education and exacerbating disturbing trends in financial aid policy at the state and federal levels.”
The Education Trust has documented how public flagships and other favored public universities “have reallocated financial aid resources away from the low-income students who need help to go to college — mostly to compete for high-income students that would enroll in college regardless of the amount of aid they receive.” These schools spend too much on merit-based aid when they could instead devote more resources to need-based financial aid, critics charge. “These universities are spending a ton of money bringing in a lot of rich kids. There are more than enough financial aid resources to help those with the need if they stopped buying off the students with high SAT scores,” Haycock says. Chang adds that scholars have begun to take a hard look at financial aid policies practiced by both private and public institutions. “I think these studies about how best to distribute aid to increase the largest number of students will continue to be very important.”
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