Demographics · Disruption · Higher Education

Demographics = Destiny?

The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE) recently released its latest report detailing high school graduate projections through 2032, and for many colleges and universities the news is troubling.  After a long era of year-to-year increases in the high school graduate pool, the report predicts “the U.S. is moving into a period of stagnation,” wherein growth will no longer be the norm.   Two important caveats:  1) the impact on colleges and universities will not be evenly felt as WICHE projects more growth in the South and West with a continuing drop in the Midwest and Northeast, and 2) the racial/ethnic mix of U.S. high school graduates will shift significantly in favor of more Hispanics.


Source: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) report, “Knocking at the College Door, Projections of High School Graduates,” December 2016

This news is hardly surprising to seasoned higher education admissions deans, many of whom have been contending with a shrinking pool for a few years now.  According to The National Student Clearinghouse, the leading U.S. provider of educational enrollment and degree attainment data, college enrollments have declined across nearly every sector for seven consecutive terms through Fall 2016.  Those experiencing the steepest decline include four-year, for-profit and two-year, public institutions with four-year, private nonprofits (and especially those enrolling fewer than 3,000 students) trending downward more recently and at a slower pace.  Indeed, within the past several months, three once successful private nonprofit colleges have closed their doors, the most recent happening just this week when St. Joseph’s College of Indiana suspended operations.

To what extent do these demographic trends define the future for today’s colleges and universities? For some institutions, not at all.   A number of schools  are thinking hard these days about how to adapt, typically through a combination of strategies including improving student retention and graduation, expanding student recruitment outreach to new regions and markets, honing institutional distinctiveness and DNA, and diversifying the program portfolio mix with new academic and co-curricular offerings.

Interestingly, these findings are consistent with the results from my doctoral dissertation research conducted nearly twenty years ago with 100 small, tuition dependent colleges. In studying the financial performance and management approach of these schools over a ten-year period, I found that the most resilient colleges employed several strategies that when taken together helped explain their success.  Most significantly, each of these schools exhibited an innovative institutional mindset, something that has been touted recently by prominent higher education thinkers as a critical prerequisite for thriving in these disruptive times.  In fact, my research suggests that at the end of the day institutional resiliency depends more on mindset than any particular skill set.  Having been in the trenches for more than thirty years, I also know that this is not easy, especially for academic institutions.  As legendary management consultant Peter Drucker concludes in his classic article “The Discipline of Innovation: “In innovation, there is talent, there is ingenuity, and there is knowledge. But when it is said and done, what innovation requires is hard, focused, purposeful work.”

I had the privilege in January to serve on the faculty team for an Academic Impressions sponsored institute—Strategies for Developing New Academic Programs—and I was heartened by the number of attendees from institutions across the country with this mindset.  As participants shared their bold plans for creative adaptation of their program mix, I was left with the sense that the days ahead for American higher education are anything but troubling. For those schools who have the courage to take off the blinders and work hard to achieve a driving and distinguishing vision that differentiates them from peers and competitors, the future may indeed be very bright.

I will be sharing some of what I learned at this gathering along with the strategies used at Bay Path University to diversify and grow our academic program portfolio at an upcoming free webinar on February 23.  Click here to register.



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