Any discussion of projections of future enrollment declines in higher education bears some historical consideration, according to a researcher with the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
“One example I think about … at the beginning of the 1980s, a lot of enrollment managers were really worried about a pending college enrollment crisis. My own generation, Generation X, was smaller than some previous generations. But that didn’t materialize," said Jason Dewitt, the center's research manager.
The reason the crisis didn’t happen is women began to make up a higher percentage of college students, he said.
“It is just a good example of how colleges face enrollment pressures. Historically, they have been able to reach new people, new groups of students, it is kind of interesting to think about what that means today,” DeWitt said. “Colleges have always had cycles of pressure on enrollments, and one way they have been able to adapt to that is to be able to reach new groups of students.”
The current cycle is presenting universities with a challenge in the form of a drop in birth rates exacerbated by the financial strains of the recession, DeWitt said.
Nationally, the number of graduates coming out of high school is declining because the generation moving through schools now is smaller. As University of Alabama officials have discussed enrollment challenges, they have often pointed to projections that Alabama high school graduates will decline in the future.
The trend has been more acute in the Midwest and Northeast, while the Southeast and West have fared better because of population gains, DeWitt said.
“It is not that they don’t want to go, it is just that there is going to be less of them, especially from 2025 on,” DeWitt said.
U.S. birthrates in 2017 dipped to a 30-year low, Dewitt noted, citing reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in the spring.
“We are no longer talking millennials. For lack of a better title, Generation Z is just a smaller generation than millennials,” DeWitt said. “The number of graduates is projected to decline after 2025. That seems to be where most of the projections say it will drop off.”
But there are bright spots. DeWitt noted enrollment among graduate and professional students has continued to grow nationally.
“Grad students, in particular, have been one source of growth ever since the peak of the recession,” he said.
International student enrollment stopped growing last year, but DeWitt predicted in the long-term institutions are still going to be very “interested in international students.”
First-generation students will also become more important to enrollment strategies, DeWitt predicted.
“One thing at institutions that people are thinking about is the changing demographics of high schools students. Because the number is decreasing and becoming more diverse, colleges are going to be more dependent on first generation students,” he said.
It’s a strategy that will likely also mean making more resources available for students who may come with unique needs as universities also try to maximize retention rates.