Changing Student Demographics in Higher Ed:

The Changing Face of Higher Ed Part 10

Table of Contents

Higher Ed Part 10: Changing Student Demographics

Changing Student Demographics is the top for our 10th post in The Changing Face of Higher Ed series. Despite the focus of many on research and publications, institutions of higher education wouldn’t be what they are without students. Yet in this current world, the traditional student that many higher education institutions have come to depend on is no longer in sight, and finding new bodies to fill the chairs – or online classrooms – takes some creative measures.

This blog – the last of the series – looks at the future of the student population and the changing student demographics for higher education.

The Changing Student Demographics

Not surprisingly, seismic generational and demographic swells are rippling through higher education. A 2017 AASCU presentation entitled, “Higher Education 2032: Changing Demographics and How Presidents of State and Universities Can Respond,” (which now seems to be missing from their website) projected major shifts in who will be in the student body. For example, most of the top 10 states that have the majority of U.S. high school graduates will experience a drop in graduates by 2025.

The only states still seeing an increase are Texas (19 percent), New York (1 percent), Florida (10 percent), and North Carolina (9 percent). However, by 2032, every one of these states is projected to see declines (ranging from 2 percent to 13 percent) in graduation rates.

Furthermore, Nathan Grawe, a professor of social sciences at Carleton College and author of the Higher Education Demand Index (HEDI), projects that demographic changes caused by the economic downturn in 2008 could mean a 15-percent decline in the number of typical students attending college by 2026. Additionally, the population that is increasing will be less likely to attend college.

These changes will have differing effects on the various institutions. For example, HEDI projects that there will be a 13 percent increase in demand for elite institutions until the end of the 2020s. “If elite schools are expected to see greater demand due to rising parent education and other demographic changes, this only means that reductions in demand for less selective institutions will be just that much greater,” Grawe stated.

Grawe’s analysis also points to population shifts toward the South and West. Therefore, institutional leaders may want to think seriously about developing recruitment strategies in order to entice these students to enroll.

Aging Student Body

University faculty now are dealing with multiple generations in their classrooms changing student demographics on a larger scale. Currently, the population of learners who are at least 25 years of age (and older) is increasing at a more rapid rate than traditional college-age students. Thus, faculty members must learn to be adept at teaching different generations in each class.

One big issue that differs among each generation is technology use. EdTech quotes a finding in Los Rios Community College District Associate Vice-Chancellor Victoria Rosario’s dissertation on the generational differences in technology adoption: “The perception of what a technological innovation is to a boomer is not an innovation to a millennial or Gen Xer.” Therefore, faculty members who are from the Boomer generation may struggle with adopting technology tweaks, much less full-blown breakthroughs.

Generations also use technology differently, which can be a challenge in the classroom. For instance, Boomers tend to use technology as a productivity tool whereas Millennials use it for connectivity.

The Economics of Attending College

Today’s students came through the economic trials of the economic downturn a decade ago. Not surprisingly, this colors their reaction about many areas – whether they want to take on student loan debt, whether they want to work throughout college, and whether a degree or certificate is even worth it. A new report from Public Agenda looked at what adults without degrees feel about returning to college. The findings were:

  • Most adult prospective students’ primary motivation is to improve their career prospects. However, approximately 50 percent are not convinced that pursuing a degree or certificate is a wise investment.
  • These adult prospective students are concerned about taking on debt and also balancing studies with work and family.
  • These students believe that daily expenses will become more difficult to afford when they are in college as few expect to receive help with college costs from family, friends, or employers.  


Higher education leaders shouldn’t be surprised by these changing student demographics. A July 2018 U.S. Department of Education report found that during the 2011-12 school year, 60 percent of public two-year students were independent while 32 percent had dependents. Furthermore, 34 percent first enrolled for more than a year after graduating from high school. Thus, many of these students are as concerned – if not more so – with making a living as compared with earning a degree or certification.

(In contrast, 36 percent of students in public four-year colleges were independent while 15 percent had dependents. Seventeen percent of this group first enrolled a year after graduating from high school.) Additionally, about 44 percent of students at public community colleges worked while enrolled during their first year in higher education; in fact, 18 percent worked more than 35 hours a week.

Therefore, it’s going to be important for institutions to think creatively about recruiting students and finding “perks” for enrolling. For example, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is waiving tuition for many in-state students (freshmen and transfer students younger than 24 years of age) whose family income is at or below the state median.

Innovative partnerships with businesses also may be in the offing. Walt Disney Co. is offering Disney Aspire, a new program that will give the company’s hourly workers access to a college education. The company is covering 100 percent of tuition while also working with Guild Education to navigate the process of completing different career paths. Fed Ex announced a similar incentive for one of its hubs. Therefore, an institution of higher education should reach out to companies to see if they can work together to develop educational opportunities for workers.

In addition, institutions need to think about reaching out to untapped markets of potential college students. A good example is the University of New Hampshire, which has become the first U.S. state university to accept the results of the Gaokao, the Chinese university entrance exam, in its effort to attract more Chinese students. Currently, 377,000 Chinese students are enrolled in U.S. institutions. However, that’s a drop in the bucket. An estimated 10 million students took the Gaokao in June 2018.

Admittedly, with the Trump Administration’s current stance on immigration, this strategy may take a while to bear fruit; however, eventually, policies will change and institutions can benefit from taking this type of bold step.

The Changing Student Demographics – Coming Prepared – or Not

Another question related to the changing student demographics is their preparedness for college. A 2017 study found that the vast majority of public two- and four-year colleges in 44 states are enrolling students who aren’t ready academically for college – 96 percent of schools enrolled students who required some form of remediation. Therefore, it still remains important for higher education leaders to reach out to their counterparts in K-12 education to help raise the quality of instruction at the lower levels.

Many students are coming out of dual credit programs that involve earning college credit while they are still in high school.  A new study out of the University of Texas found that:

  • A lack of centralized guidelines and rules results in inconsistencies in programmatic quality.
  • Students who have taken part in dual credit are two times more likely to graduate in four years than students who enter college without dual credit coursework.
  • Dual credit students who graduate in four years, on average, finish one semester earlier than their classmates who have no prior college credit.
  • Students believe that dual credit offered beneficial early exposure to college.
  • Dual credit doesn’t significantly reduce student loan debt.


Students may not realize that they are not really as well prepared as they thought. For example, a new report by Primary Research Group found that only two-thirds of college students have written a paper that’s 10 pages or longer.  And many students didn’t feel that they needed additional writing instruction or assistance with spelling or grammar. In fact, a slight majority of respondents said they didn’t need additional instruction while slightly more than a third said that they needed a little help but could handle it themselves.

Students also are under mental stress, creating another challenge for institutions. A recent report found that up to 36 percent of college students are dealing with some form of serious psychological distress. However, only about one in three of these students receive counseling or other services. Therefore, institutions need to think deeply about how to create an environment that supports students in their learning.

Some students also are under stress because of having to choose between food and paying for college course materials. A 2018 study suggests that 43 percent of current and former students have skipped meals in order to afford textbooks and other course materials.

Wrapping Up

The changing face of college students and the changing student demographics will continue to offer new challenges for higher education leaders. Demographic trends, identifying new recruitment options, and working with K-12 education to enhance academic offerings at the lower levels all will need innovative thinking, collaborative decision-making, and inter-organizational partnering.  

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