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A professor stands in front of a classroom of students with some of the chairs unfilled.

Campus leaders are preparing for a decline in the number of would-be students. The creators of a new digital tool hope to help them get ready.

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A new digital tool aims to help campus leaders prepare for an impending demographic cliff, a steep drop in the traditional college-age population in certain parts of the country starting in 2025. The interactive data visualization tool shows enrollment and population trends by state and institution type and projects future demographic trends out to 2030, disaggregated by race and gender.

The Student Trends and Enrollment Projections Dashboard, or STEP, was recently launched by the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, which seeks to help organizations maximize their impact through strategic investments, and which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The dashboard draws on data from the College Scorecard, the U.S. Census and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS. It also tracks trends in distance learning and student migration, the number of students who attend college outside their home state, and where they go. The data are broken down by state and by institution type.

Megan Brewster, director of impact strategy at the Sorenson Impact Center, said the goal of the new tool is to help campus leaders better “understand who have their students been historically and who might they be in the future.” They can also see which populations are growing in their states but aren’t enrolling at the same rate in order to launch more targeted recruitment efforts, she added.

The new tool was in the works prior to the pandemic, but it’s being introduced at a time when higher ed leaders are hyperfocused on enrollment in the wake of precipitous declines amid COVID-19. Colleges and universities lost roughly a million students between 2020 and 2022, with particularly steep drops at community colleges, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The downward trend, however, preceded the pandemic, with enrollment peaking in 2010 and falling 16.7 percent between then and now, a loss of more than three million students, a news release from the Sorenson Impact Center noted. Demographic shifts have loomed ominously in the background in the meantime.

Brewster said enrollment at community colleges seems to be slowly recovering, which is “encouraging,” but that doesn’t mean the work of recruiting and retaining students is over.

“I hope this tool will help leaders think about who students are and what matters to them and what the reality of their complex lives are, as well, to be able to create offerings and programs and supports that really speak to those students in a better way,” she said.

Brewster noted that the tool is especially intended to help administrators at community colleges and other underresourced colleges and universities, because they’re less likely to have funding to conduct their own rigorous data analyses. The financial disparity can hamper their ability to plan for the future.

“What we maybe would call selective or elite schools have a lot of access to tools and resources,” she said. “And a lot of the schools that we’re most interested in, maybe some of our smaller community colleges, rural institutions … often don’t have the same access to the same kind of consulting knowledge or data science tools that can help them understand what’s going on with their own data as well as the national trends.”

The new dashboard is the latest data tool produced by the Model, Analyze, Prototype and Share Project, or MAPS, an initiative to provide high-quality data to college administrators to help them solve challenges in higher education. Project leaders previously released a dashboard that tracks student outcomes data at colleges and universities so campus leaders can identify equity gaps, and a dashboard with data on the financial health of more than 3,000 colleges and universities.

Brewster said she hopes the projections dashboard will be used alongside the other tools.

For example, a community college president in Colorado could see from the dashboard that the number of Hispanic men in the state is projected to rise from 77,172 in 2019 to 104,013 in 2030, but their enrollments aren’t increasing at the same rate. The president could then use the equity outcomes dashboard to see how successful the college has been at enrolling, retaining and graduating Hispanic men and develop initiatives that might improve those numbers.

Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy at New America, a policy think tank in Washington, D.C., noted that U.S. fertility rates have been declining since the Great Recession and only bottomed out during the pandemic; the aftereffects are coming swiftly. (New America's higher education team receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation but was not involved in the creation of the dashboard.)

“The enrollment cliff is now close enough that it’s within sight of most of the people who are currently running colleges and universities,” said Carey, who’s written extensively about enrollment and demographic trends. “This is not a problem for the next generation of administrators and trustees. It’s a problem for the current generation.”

He noted that the expected declines in traditional college-age students will also depend on immigration rates, students’ moving patterns between states and the ascendance of distance learning, which was hastened by the pandemic. Demographic cliffs are also expected to vary drastically by region and across racial groups, and enrollments will be further affected by the college-going rates of different student populations.

As campuses prepare for the demographic cliff, their “playbook” might include developing new online programs or looking outside the traditional age range to recruit adult learners, among other strategies, he said. But “they can’t all go after the same market. If they do, it won’t work for all of them.”

Nate Johnson, founder and principal consultant at Postsecondary Analytics, a firm that advises states, foundations and businesses on education and workforce policy, said there are other factors bound to affect enrollment trends that are harder to project, such as changes in federal immigration policy and fluctuations in the economy.

“Just looking at the number of 7-year-olds or 15-year-olds is one factor,” Johnson said. But campus leaders also need to think about “what kinds of jobs are going to be out there that will be pulling students or potential students in one way or another? If there are a lot of jobs that require a postsecondary education to make a living wage, then that’ll be a pull. If there are a lot of jobs that pay a living wage without requiring postsecondary education, that’ll be a drag on enrollments.”

He said college administrators can’t assume current enrollment trends will hold steady, and every one should be doing “some kind of scenario planning, where they imagine three or four radically different futures based on things that they don’t have any control over and stress test their institutions against those.” For example, “how would they do in the context of a United States with a liberal immigration policy and low unemployment?”

Carey believes that colleges and universities need to devise strategic plans for 10 to 20 years into the future to stave off impending declines in potential students.

“The demographic numbers don’t lie,” he said. “The problem is just going to continue in terms of the baseline population—there’s no way to change that—so these solutions have to be long-term solutions.”

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