U.S. Colleges Are Facing a Demographic and Existential Crisis

by | Jun 26, 2017 | Founder’s Blog

At colleges and universities across the country, students and faculty are preparing for the new fall term. But behind the scenes, administrators are dealing with a harsh reality. Many of them have failed to meet their enrollment targets for the entering class and many years like this are on the horizon. In fact, more than two thirds of private colleges and over 50% of public colleges failed to meet their enrollment or net tuition revenue targets for 2016.

This is a serious existential crisis facing colleges in the U.S. Over the next ten years, according to recent report from The Chronicle of Higher Education 2017 The Future of College Enrollment, U.S. colleges are expected to see a steady decline in their enrollments and this could threaten their continued existence.

And, it’s all about facing up to simple demographics. The nationwide number of high school graduates is declining and will continue to decline in both public and private schools through the 2029-2030 school year. The decline will be seen in all regions with the exception of the South and will affect the Mid-west and Northeast, with their high concentrations of colleges, the most heavily.

We are already seeing a steady decline in overall college enrollment. Between 2011 and 2016, nationwide, the total number of enrolled college students fell every fall from 2011 to 2016, dropping to 19 million from 20.6 million. In Massachusetts, the decline among all categories of colleges has been between 1.3 -1.7% from one year to the next from 2013 through 2016, with the steepest declines seen in 2-year public and 4-year for-profit institutions. Only 4-year public institutions have seen an increase but that has been by less than 1%.

Among 4-year non-profit colleges, small colleges, those with a student body of 3,000 or less students, are likely to be affected most by the enrollment decline. And, they will see the decline greatest among student applicants older than 24, leaving them to increasingly depend most upon the high school graduate population.

Colleges and universities without large endowments rely on enrollment numbers and tuition to stay afloat, and the amount they pay out in student aid determines their bottom line. For many, the numbers do not look good.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that while the number of graduates will continue to decline, the rate of high school graduation is increasing, reaching 82.3% in 2016. This is the result, in large part, on a commitment in the Bush and Obama years, of targeted federal support of K-12 education.

The downturn in the number of high-school graduates is almost exclusively the result of a decline among white students. They are expected to decrease by 14% by 2030. At the same time, we will see an increase of 12% in minority, particularly Hispanic students. There will also be increase in the percentage of African-American/Black students, as well as students from low-income households.

How colleges adjust to these changes in the demographics of the prospective college enrolment pool will determine whether they survive, thrive, or fall by the wayside.

As the population and the percentage of high school graduates increasingly includes Hispanic/Latino, Black, low-income, and first-to-college groups, vulnerable colleges will need to address the impediments to attracting, enrolling, and graduating them.

Among these are the rising costs of a college education, the increasing skepticism that the return on investment of a college education is worth the cost, the relatively low rates of timely degree completion in both 4-year and 2-year colleges, the reluctance of many to travel far from home and to bear the cost of that travel, the reluctance to take on the burden of long-term debt, the perception of a relative lack of minority and low-income student social and academic support on campuses, and the feeling that there are too few people who share their culture, values, experiences, and interests.

In addition, colleges and universities must begin to clearly demonstrate a positive effect on social and economic mobility. A handful of them are already doing that but many more must do so to survive. The cost of a college education must clearly lead to this mobility. And it needs to be significant on a population level as much as for individual students. It needs to get attention in the media and needs to be true to be believed by families that are counting every dollar.

Given the evolving demographic changes, these are significant speed bumps if not actual roadblocks to colleges looking to meet their enrollment goals.

Stay tuned for my next blog: “What are colleges to do in face of declining enrollment and changes in demographics?



Share our story!

Help us spread the word about the important work we’re doing.