Demographic Challenges

At College Board annual meeting, educators seek ways to reach new groups of potential students -- and realize it's not easy.
October 31, 2005

As the College Board's annual meeting got started Saturday in New York City, enrollment managers and admissions officers in one meeting room heard projections about how their existing sources of students may be drying up, and how they will need to go after new groups of students -- especially Latino students -- to fill their classrooms. But for a number of reasons, the college officials were told, Latino students might be reluctant to enroll and might not have the money to pay their bills if they wanted to attend.

At the same time, on the other side of the mammoth elevator bank at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, a smaller group was talking about how to educate Latino students when they enroll. And while these educators said that there are in fact promising strategies for helping Latino students succeed, they said it wasn't easy.

All in all, sessions about demographics this weekend portrayed colleges -- especially those that have remained overwhelmingly white -- as facing some tough demographic challenges in the years ahead.

Andre Bell, vice president for enrollment services at the College Board, said that 2009 will probably be the last year in a string of 20 in a row in which the number of new high school graduates increases. While colleges have experienced dips before, Bell said that there would be a "fundamental difference" in this one.

In previous dips, he said, all ethnic and racial groups dipped in roughly the same proportion. That won't be the case this time, as members of minority groups -- and especially Latinos -- increase while white students decrease. The growing Latino presence in higher education will play out differently from college to college and state to state. But whether states are seeing enrollment go up or down, and whether they are already diverse or overwhelmingly white, the numbers are going to be dramatic in the next decade.

To illustrate the point, the College Board released a report in which it compared projections for Arizona and Vermont over the next decade. In Arizona, the number of new high school graduates is projected to increase by 30 percent, and the proportion of Latino students is expected to reach 41 percent, up from 29 percent today. (The white share is projected to drop to 45 percent, from 57 percent). In Vermont, the number of new high school graduates is expected to drop by 17 percent over the next decade. While Vermont is -- and will remain -- largely white, the percentage of high school graduates who are Latino is expected to increase to 9 percent, from 1 percent today.

From an educational standpoint, the prospect of having more minority students appeals to just about everyone at the conference. The problems people are worrying about are more practical. Latino students are less likely than white students to enroll in college, to enroll in four-year institutions, and to be able to afford more expensive institutions. If you are, say, an admissions director at a private college in the Northeast, this presents all kinds of problems.

These issues are not new, but data released by Bell shows that they are going to get worse. Projecting college costs and family incomes into the future, Bell said that the proportion of their median income that black and Hispanic heads of households would be required to pay for tuition and fees at a private college would reach an average of 96.8 percent by 2014-5. That's up from an already daunting 84 percent today.

Becky Brodigan, director of institutional research at Middlebury College, said that the challenge for colleges in New England is particularly intense because of some characteristics of states that aren't changing: In New England, it has always been the case that many students leave home for college. In the South and West, there is an opposite tradition. So while 57 percent of Vermont high school graduates will leave their home state, only 11 percent of Texans will do so.

This means that Northeastern colleges can't just assume that they will solve their demographic challenges by increased recruiting in the South, she said.

Audience members pointed out that some of the Southern states that are experiencing population growth are not known for their educational investments, and that public elementary and secondary schools may become even worse with all of the growth. The audience member wanted to know whether these states were going to improve their educational quality such that their graduates could perform well anywhere. When someone suggested that No Child Left Behind was supposed to accomplish that, looks and a few snickers in the room suggested that many did not suddenly feel relief.

And in the meeting's keynote address Sunday, educators were told of another demographic challenge that could affect the ability of all states to support higher education. Graham B. Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, warned that at about the same time that high school graduates will start to decrease, Baby Boomers will start to retire in large numbers. This "gerontological drift" will result in many states where the dominant political group -- and one known for voting in large numbers -- will be made up of retirees. Spanier said it was an open question whether these people will vote for legislators who want to put more money into education.

So if colleges need more Latino students and to find a way to help them afford college, and can't count on an influx of state funds, what happens once they are there?

Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, described one of her group's  projects, which examines how colleges that are effective at educating Latino students do so. Santiago stressed the importance of "intentionality" -- of knowing the situation facing Latino students at your institution and knowing how successful your college has been. As an example, she described a meeting where she asked a room full of college leaders if they knew the graduation rate for Latino students at their institutions, and hardly any did. If that kind of knowledge base isn't there, colleges can't develop policies that will work.

At the same time, she said it was important to have the right measures of success -- and those measures may not be the measures that government officials normally use. For example, she said that the theory behind six-year graduation rates is that most students, if they haven't graduated within six years, won't graduate at all. Santiago noted, however, that Latino students are more likely to attend college part time, and are more likely to "stop out" and have semesters in which family or other obligations prevent them from enrolling. So while the 10-year rate of an elite, predominantly white university may look the same as its six-year rate, that shouldn't be the case for an institution with many part-time Latino students.

Of course, just because Latino students tend to take longer to graduate doesn't mean that's a good thing. Richard P. Alvarez, university director of admission at the City University of New York, agreed that Hispanic students take longer to graduate because so many of them are enrolled part time. But applying Santiago's comments about "intentionality," he said that CUNY officials had noted that those students who enroll full time are much more likely to graduate. Alvarez said that scheduling issues were the main obstacle for many students to enroll full time, and he urged colleges to look at their schedules to find ways to make changes that would encourage more full time enrollments.

One challenge that was clear came from audience questions about what kinds of measures for minority students remain legal in California, where state voters have barred affirmative action. Some questioners clearly thought colleges could not design programs with the idea of helping minority students. Santiago noted that public colleges still can and do collect data on minority students and analyze whether programs are helping them. She stressed that the kinds of efforts she was talking about  were in no way exclusionary, and that colleges needn't fear developing services because of the needs of minority students.

While many institutions are still grappling with the changing demographics, a joke from Santiago illustrated why colleges need to get on top of these issues. She said that if the motto of the black civil rights movement was "we shall overcome," the motto of the Latino movement today could be based on its swelling numbers: "we shall overwhelm."


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