Population Shift Sends Universities Scrambling

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008

Colleges and universities are anxiously taking steps to address a projected drop in the number of high school graduates in much of the nation starting next year and a dramatic change in the racial and ethnic makeup of the student population, a phenomenon expected to transform the country's higher education landscape, educators and analysts said.

After years of being overwhelmed with applicants, higher education institutions will over the next decade recruit from a pool of public high school graduates that will experience:

- A projected national decline of roughly 10 percent or more in non-Hispanic white students, the population that traditionally is most likely to attend four-year colleges.

- A double-digit rise in the proportion of minority students -- especially Hispanics -- who traditionally are less likely to attend college and to obtain loans to fund education.

Despite those obstacles, minority enrollment at undergraduate schools is expected to rise steadily, from 30 percent in 2004 to about 37 percent in 2015, some analysts project.

"The majority will become the minority," said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University. "There will be more Hispanics, more African Americans, more Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Koreans. I anticipate that the most common last name in the freshman class will be Kim."

The demographic changes will be profound for individual students: Some will probably see their chances of getting into selective schools improve, and others will see opportunities to enroll at the most selective schools decline. And for colleges, the demographic changes will mean new ways of recruiting and educating students.

"One challenge will be looking at the interface between high schools and college and the issue of college readiness, and the other will be the whole issue of the cost of college," said David Ward, president of the nonprofit American Council on Education.

The efforts come as the nonprofit Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education plans to release a report this month that will show a decline in high school graduation next year in most areas of the country, except the West, senior research analyst Brian Prescott said. That is at least a year earlier than in some past projections.

Schools likely to thrive through the changes will be those in popular areas, endowed well enough to continue upgrading facilities and programs, and public flagship universities that offer lower tuition than private colleges, admissions experts say. So will schools with strong workforce programs amid a surge of adult students, said Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire.

Schools in more remote areas, with fewer resources and no particular academic focus, could struggle, said Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant and admissions strategist. That is why the 700-student Northland College in Wisconsin uses its location on Lake Superior to promote it as "the environmental liberal arts college."

"To use the obvious ecological metaphor, we must specialize in our niche, because we can't compete with dramatically better-resourced generalists," Provost Rich Fairbanks said.

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