Getting Real About Population Decline

You’ve likely read Nathan Grawe’s Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). If you’re an RHB client and part of the RHB book club, you should have read your copy by now. You perhaps have lost a few nights’ sleep over the data he presents. For some, the reality of declining birth rate can be overcome by strong positioning, i.e., the rich get richer. For others, the future doesn’t seem so bright. We are seeing more institutions do the math, looking reality square in the eyes and declaring “enough.”

That horrifying chart on page 15 of Grawe’s book summarizes the number of high school graduates until 2035. The way the chart is drawn suggests that beginning in 2025–26, the world of enrolling 17-year-olds sort of comes to an end. Drawing on the same WICHE data, you can come to terms with that chart as it relates to your institution, and relieve some of the sting of those data.

Start by asking: “What’s your share of the high school graduate market?” You can find that percentage easily by dividing your incoming class number by the total number of high school graduates. Mind you, this number is not necessarily the college-bound market; about 70 percent enroll in colleges. In the following chart, we’ve calculated that for you.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.