Demographic Challenges

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 31

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.

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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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