Demographic Boom and Bust

The national growth in high school graduates ends now, a new report says. Some regions should brace for declines -- even as others prepare for continued expansion.
March 20, 2008

Hear that? It’s the echo of a boom ending.

A new national report projecting the size of high school graduating classes through 2022 finds that the rapid, sustained growth of graduates that began in the early 1990s ends this year, in 2007-8. A long-anticipated period of moderate declines in the number of graduates -- and traditional-aged college applicants -- is soon set to begin, which could increase competition among colleges and intensify financial pressures on tuition-dependent institutions.

“The second baby boom, if you will, it has come to an end this year,” said David A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), which on Wednesday released its seventh edition of Knocking at the College Door.

But the report also projects enrollment patterns that are distinctly regional and, in some cases, state-specific (individual state profiles are available online). Generally speaking, the report projects expansion in the numbers of high school graduates in the South and West, drops in the Northeast and Midwest, and, nationally, explosive growth among non-white graduates, especially Hispanics, as the number of white youth falls.

“It really ups the ante for states on two fronts, because for some states they’re going to face a declining high school graduate population which means that if they’re going to have a more educated population, they’re going to have to reach out to adult learners much more than they have," said Travis Reindl, program director for Jobs for the Future. "And then for other states, they’re going to see serious growth. They have to increase their K-12 capacity, and figure out how they can accommodate [students] when they get to college."

"And for all the states, you’re seeing growth in the groups, particularly students of color, that historically we haven’t done a very good job of serving,” Reindl added.

"Any way you cut it, the states have their work cut out for them.”

On a national level, the number of public high school graduates is projected to peak this year at just over 3 million before beginning a gradual decline through 2013-14 -- when numbers are expected to begin climbing back to peak levels by 2017-18. The anticipated average annual rate of decline from 2007-8 through 2013-14 is about 0.7 percent.

"After 2007-08 overall production of high school graduates will become much more stable for the foreseeable future than it was during the expansion period," the report states, "when it was growing by leaps and bounds."

The Northeast and Midwest will be bracing for substantial declines. Under the projections, the Northeast will experience declines from this year's peak through the end of the projected period, in 2021-22, with 1 percent average drops per year. The total percentage declines in high school graduates by 2021-22 range from 2.6 percent in Maine to 22.7 percent in Vermont.

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, the number of high school graduates is expected to fall by about 8 percent -- 60,000 students -- by 2014-15. (“Thereafter,” the report states, “the number of graduates is projected to fluctuate.”) Michigan will see the most precipitous declines, at 13.2 percent among public school graduates by 2015.

In contrast, in the South, robust and rapid growth is expected. From 2004-5 to 2021-22, the number of high school graduates is projected to increase by 210,000 -- about a 20 percent increase. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas account for most of the projected expansion, with the percentage of public high school graduates expected to rise by 35.5 percent in Florida, 40.9 percent in Georgia, 30.7 percent in North Carolina and 40.1 percent in Texas. Unlike in the rest of the country, it's unclear, the report says, whether those four states will peak at a certain point: "[R]ather, they may undergo a consistent expansion in high school graduate numbers, with a single year or two during which the growth pattern is momentarily disrupted."

And numbers of high school graduates in the West, after peaking next year, in 2008-9, will slowly decline by 2 percent by 2014-15 before rising.

Two Western states in particular -- Arizona and Nevada -- are expected to see the size of their high school graduation classes almost double between 2004-5 and 2021-22. Other rapidly growing Western states include Colorado (29.3 percent), Idaho (39.1 percent) and Utah (42.4 percent).

Much of the expansion is fueled by growth in minority students, due largely to varying birth rates among different racial groups as well as immigration. Between 2004-5 and 2014-15, the number of Hispanic public high school graduates is expected to rise by 54 percent, Asians by 32 percent, American Indians by 7 percent, and blacks by 3 percent (WICHE's Longanecker explained that the African-American population, which increased through this year, will now start to decline).

Under the projections, the number of white graduates would fall by 11 percent. The West is projected to have its first “majority-minority” graduating class in 2010, and the South in 2017.

Panelists at an event marking the release of the report in Washington Wednesday focused on a wide range of questions necessitated by different fortunes facing different regions of the country. In the Northeast and Midwest, for instance, “How do you keep a critical mass in a school as populations are declining?” Longanecker asked. (He added that higher education has historically reached out to non-traditional students in times of population declines.) On the other hand, how can states like Arizona and Nevada, faced with dramatic expected expansion, cope with the demand?

But the common challenge addressed was the need to better serve minority students. One can honestly say that two- and four-year colleges have made progress on access in terms of admitting more students from diverse backgrounds, said Janis Somerville, director of the National Association of System Heads.

“The problem is most of us have been reporting more -- 'We admitted 40 more African-Americans this year,' " she said, offering a typical example.

“The problem is if you’re in any number of states you can be admitting 40 more and still be losing ground.”


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