Getting Real About Population Decline, Part 2

A few weeks ago we posted an insight about the projections for high school graduation population decline inspired by Nathan Grawe’s book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. By the way, Nathan, thanks for the work you did on that tome. It’s been helpful and terrifying, and we’re grateful for the thoughtful analysis you’ve provided for the higher ed community.

Here are some thoughts in the form of a Part 2 to that initial post. Another way to answer the question “Will the next 15 years be as bad as they say?” is yes—and maybe much worse—for some institutions. We’re already seeing the influence of decline, but it’s not the fault of fewer available high school grads. Actually, until 2025, you should make the most of a little growth in the high school population.

Still, we’re watching campuses close for dozens of other reasons; oversaturation in the market, indistinct offerings, poor positioning, weak fiscal management, and unimaginative vision are but a few. The threat ahead isn’t about whether you will close (of course that’s a possibility) but how well you are poised for the market pressure of a decline. If you’re prepared to weather a bigger storm, you’ll still be here in 2036.

Halfway down in that posting I wrote “all things being equal…” The ugly truth is, they’re not. And likely won’t be. I’ve had a few conversations with folks in various regions of the country since we posted the “Will the next 15” who posed good questions about their particular circumstance. Some noted that their state’s projections didn’t mirror the national decline and wondered if they were unlikely to be affected. Others asked if they’d done enough to stave off the doom. I love it when posts generate discussion (hint: feel free to email or call me after you read this).

Let me suggest four considerations that can inform your campus discussions with colleagues and perhaps offer clues about how best to prepare for the road ahead.

First, not all states share the same projection. North Carolina for example remains fairly stable in terms of high school  grads as opposed to Massachusetts where the drop off is more dramatic. That news may seem comforting if your students come from within your state, but even if your population is flat, it doesn’t imply that life for you will remain the same. Keep reading.

Second, even in zero growth states, the demographics will change. You may see a greater per centage of first-generation students. I almost guarantee you will experience ethnic and racial population shifts, as well as socio-economic changes. You will not be recruiting the same students you have been in the past few years.

Third, competition will change. If you’re located in a growth area, be prepared for an onslaught of new competition as colleges in high decline areas seek new opportunities and poach the students who have been your bread and butter. Don’t get toasted. Of course, if you live in a region of decline, you’ll be targeting areas of the country that may be new for you and you’ll start finding new competitors everywhere.

Fourth, future program needs will be different. We’re all aware of the shifts in academic program interests. The population decline may influence some of that. I’m speaking more to your enrollment programs. You may need to reconsider visit and travel programs. If you have to fish farther from home, you’ll need to find meaningful ways to connect prospective students at a distance to your campus. How will your road show change? You’ll have to figure out the value of a campus visit. You’ll need to think through orientation and first year strategies if more students are unable to head home on weekends.

Fifth, your financial aid strategies will need to shift. Families will need to find ways to finance tuition and travel if you’re working on developing a more national profile. You can find ways to be creative with awards to help cover those additional expenses. We encourage you to help your campus value net tuition revenue more than they fret about discount rates.

And finally, a shift in your institution’s demographic profile will have broad and long-term implications. Think about how a more geographically diverse student population will demand a broader career guidance and placement office. Consider how your alumni population may look in 2050. Discuss these shifts with your friends in student development; what success systems will be required?

Those six topics should keep your campus coffee conversations lively for the next year or so. But don’t sip too long. You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you to be ready for some serious shifts.

For Part 1 in the series, click here.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.