Trends facing Higher Ed: Changing Demographics

The college environment today is much different than when I attended college over a decade ago. There wasn’t a single person from my high school who didn’t apply, enroll and attend college within the first year of earning their diploma. No one asked you what your plans after graduation were, everyone asked where you were going to school in the fall. Everyone had aspirations, some more specific than others, and we shared a common goal: to graduate in four years and get a job.

Today, however, the number of high school graduates is shrinking. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of high school graduates peaked in 2008-09 and will decline through 2014-15, still not recovering its peak through 2020-21. While the number of graduates is declining, our nation’s high school graduating classes are becoming more diverse. According to the Lawlor Group, one of the nation’s leading higher education marketing firms,

The country’s changing demographics, combined with a widening gap between the nation’s rich and poor, is producing more first-generation students and students from socioeconomic backgrounds that not only make paying for college a challenge, but also leave them underprepared for college-level study.

As a result, many college students are forced to leave because of the cost to attend or academic performance. Some of these students are able to transfer and others choose not to go to school until later in life. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports 33% of all college students who began in 2006 transferred at least once within five years. So how can colleges and universities address changing demographics and improve retention?

  1. Identify at-risk students faster. How do you currently identify students who are at-risk for dropping a class or all their classes? Declining grades? Poor attendance rates? Set up triggers within your student database to automatically notify advisors, deans, coaches, etc… when a student nears your at-risk criteria. While an advisor receives an email notifying them of the change in the student’s status, the student should also receive a communication offering a meeting with a tutor or peer advisor and notifying them of other resources available to them.
  2. Build student engagement. Engagement builds relationships. It’s harder to leave a college or drop a class when you feel valued and connected to the university, professor, community, etc… Consider implementing regular communications to students from the academic dean or president throughout the freshman year. In addition, offer students the opportunity to get involved on campus and get to know administrators while still keeping academics first. Methods can be as simple as a holiday party at the president’s house or a peer group meeting on a hot campus topic.
  3. Develop programs to address main areas of concern. If a group of students is especially concerned about topics such as student financial aid, adult learners, expatriating to the United States, building solid study habits, etc… why not gather them and introduce them to each other? This is an excellent opportunity to introduce potentially at-risk students to influencers such as:
    • Mentors/Peer Advisors
    • Academic/Career Advisors
    • Think tanks and other student/peer groups