Demographic Change and Emerging Student-Talent Pools
Dean for Enrollment Management
“Knowledge to foresee in order to be able”
— Auguste Comte
As a science, demography has long been used to understand and address social issues. Auguste Comte, the 19th-century French philosopher and mathematician, argued that human progress could be achieved through the study of underlying population trends. Comte coined the statement, “demographics is destiny,” in the sense that knowledge would allow us to forecast trends and harness that knowledge for the progress of society.
The facts over the first 15 years of this century are well known. High school graduates in 2014-15 will grow modestly in number yet will change dramatically in composition, with one-third more Asian Americans and double the number of Hispanics. Many states over this period will see dramatic losses of more than 10 percent while others will see explosive growth of more than 20 percent. Immigration has accelerated these shifts by bringing millions of students from families, disproportionately in southern states, most of whom have little experience with postsecondary education. We know that, traditionally, students from less affluent families and from larger geographic concentrations of students attending poorly resourced high schools are more likely to drop out of high school or end their education with high school graduation. Many K–12 educational systems with large populations of students from such families will struggle to graduate students, many of whom may be minimally prepared for college-level work.
But wait a minute! There is a flip side to the place of demographics of America. The diversity of this country’s immigrant populations has been the source of our greatest strengths. Demographic changes need not be seen just as serving up dire warnings (as a great Malthusian dread) or as an ineluctable threat of what may now seem inevitable. What we may need in our profession is Comte’s optimistic spirit about the power of knowledge, and we may need to commit ourselves to work diligently at our institutions to shape educational opportunities for these coming generations of college-going students.
What is it that our profession brings to the table that others may not? Keep in mind that admission and enrollment practitioners are at the leading edge of institutional educational missions. Institutions may indeed seek enrollment numbers to be viable, yet they most importantly require access to talent pools to achieve their educational aspirations.
The notion that we are merely gatekeepers for our institutions has thankfully faded in the minds of current leaders in higher education. For many, however, “gatekeeper” has been replaced by a simplistic notion of “marketer.” In the greater scheme of things that we may envision for our institutions and our nation, what should be our claim to expertise? Or, said differently, what knowledge base do we employ to anchor our professional positions at the front lines in charting our institutional futures?
While general demographic trends are well known, and the current composition of prospect and applicant pools may be well mapped, the structural elements that will affect changing talent pools for various types of colleges within geographic markets are not. How should your institution better plan to take advantage of bourgeoning student talent?
With the growth of both Hispanic and Asian American populations affecting many colleges, new opportunities at every range of academic talent will also be expanding, often quite dramatically. Well-led institutions will position themselves to recruit these students and reap the benefits of an increase in both academic potential and diversity.
In the same way, the distribution of family incomes will change over time within our traditional categories of gender, race, ethnicity and national origin. We must rethink the ways that these new patterns of family income, geography and population shifts will affect our institutions.
Seen in this light, a deeper understanding of available opportunities presented by demographic change will be an enduring source of admission leadership at successful institutions. As long as our focus is on our educational mission of identifying and shepherding growing talent pools, our colleges will make a critical contribution to a broader national agenda for elevated educational attainment.
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the scholarly former senator from New York, used demographics as a call to action for social reforms throughout his career. He urged policymakers to analyze demographic trends and heed the warnings. He famously said, alluding to demographic research on social security, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
We may need to seek the good offices of enrollment and institutional researchers to improve the usefulness of our historical databases on demographic change. Our objective should be to go beyond general national and state-level forecasts and make demographic analysis meaningful to our recruitment planning. A step in the right direction might be the study of contrasting trends within institutional sectors — public versus private, four-year versus two-year, selective versus open enrollment, research university versus liberal arts college versus career, among others — detailed to display regional differences.
We also owe new admission and enrollment professionals the chance to explore and understand their own institutional opportunities in developing emerging talent pools within their sectors of higher education. Our hope is that we will be able to use the framework of our Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century planning to make training and supporting resources available.
Furthermore, we may engender a collaborative and opportunistic spirit in identifying the challenges that our full range of institutions face and share in common. By collaborating in this professional work, we would be able to explain the dislocations that almost all colleges will experience and thus provide a context for local, state and national responses.
The lesson of demographic change is that our institutions, in looking toward the long view, must engage wider social dynamics through historical analysis in order to be successful. We may have a great deal to do to prepare our profession, and the work may progress by small steps. However, as Senator Moynihan cautioned, reflecting upon his many years of experience in academia and in politics, “If you don’t have 30 years to devote to social policy, don’t get involved.”
Admissions Insights is a series brought to you by the College Board Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century. The opinions, interpretations and conclusions of the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the College Board. Nothing contained herein should be assumed to represent an official position of the College Board or any of its members.