What’s the impact of declining birthrates on future college enrollments?

And, how should colleges brace for the changes?

According to Nathan Grawe, a professor of social sciences at Minnesota’s Carleton College …

A declining birthrate means the currently typical college-going population could decline by more than 15 percent starting about 2026.

The impact: schools will need to tightened their cost belts, aggressively recruit students and do a better job retaining and graduating their enrollees … or close down.


Let’s unpack Grawe’s argument…


First, according to the CDC:

The U.S. general fertility rate (births per 1,000 females aged 15–44) declined 3% between 2016 and 2017.

That’s a trend that started the economic downturn that started around 2008 when the financial crisis prompted many people to delay (or permanently forego) starting families.

Grawe concludes that since:

  • 70 percent of all high school grads already attend some college
  • female students are now a majority of matriculating students
  • 1/4 of students are adults over 26

“Major swings in the population will inevitably drive major changes” in the macro demand for college. in this broadest measure of attendance.

There are a couple of upsides:

  • An increasing proportion of enrollees are students whose parents attended college.
  • The number of Asian-Americans has been increasing in the population mix.

“Asian-Americans and students with college-educated parents are significantly more likely to attend college themselves.”

Again, though, Grawe concludes that these birthrate and demographic shifts will result in a 15% drop in demand for college … assuming that the population mix of enrollees stays the same and that student retention and graduation ration rates stay the same.

Of course, those are big “ifs”.

And, Grawe notes that the impact is not even across all types of colleges.

  • Highly selective schools may be forced to go deeper into their applicant pools to fill slots
  • Less selective (or non-selective) schools in shrinking regional markets will be severely pressured.
  • So, what are schools to do?

The basic formula:

  • Restructure costs to align with the potentially shrinking enrollments … i.e. tighten cost belts
  • Recruit more broadly … e.g. for regional schools, attract more out of market applicants
  • Revise curriculums to make them more economically beneficial to students … e.g. offer more certificates & degrees with high employment prospects.
  • Increase the proportion of students that complete their degrees … i.e. decrease the drop-out rate

To that last point:

According to College Atlas:

  • 70 % of Americans will study at a four-year college but less than two-thirds will graduate with a degree.
  • 30% of college freshmen drop out after their first year of school.

To me, the drop out rate looks like a bigger problem than the declining birthrate!


Are Prospective Students About to Disappear?

Colleges Set to Fight for Fewer Students


Thanks to BD for feeding the lead


Follow on Twitter @KenHoma

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One Response to “What’s the impact of declining birthrates on future college enrollments?”

  1. Last week on the HomaFiles | The Homa Files Says:

    […] What’s the impact of declining birthrates on future college enrollments? Schools will need to adjust their business model … or close their doors. […]

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