America’s colleges and universities are facing a pivotal demographic change in the nation’s population – one that will deeply impact the way that these institutions serve a changing student body. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, college enrollments have nearly doubled over the past 10 years, but the growth trend will decline demonstrably in the coming years.
According to the Labor data, the U.S. college-aged population was 18% of the whole in 1950. In 2050, it will account for only 15%. The annual growth rate of 1.4% for this population will decline by more than half, to a mere .6%, with the greatest decrease in growth rate projected to be .3% for the next decade.
Where will U.S. colleges and universities see the most change in their enrollments? The most significant enrollment decline will be among white college-aged men, while growth will be largely attributable to underrepresented minority and foreign-born students. Indeed, the non-white Hispanic, college-aged population is expected to more than double to 23% between 2000 and 2050, the black rate to grow to 15%, and the Asian rate to 10%. During the same period, the white college-aged population is projected to decline by 20 percentage points.
The result will be substantially increased competition for a smaller pool of “traditional” students, making diversity enrollment critical to tuition-driven institutions. To close the coming enrollment gap, colleges and universities will have to develop new levers of distinction to draw a proportional share of underrepresented minority students. Further – they will need to create and implement diversity strategic action plans that enable them to respond effectively to the needs of this changing student body. The vitality of these institutions is tied, inextricably, to the success of these students.
An effective diversity strategic action plan is holistic: incorporating racial, ethnic and gender diversity as well as diversity in religion, creed, ability, sexual orientation, and socio-economic background. It must take into account the unique needs of the institution, and strategically complement the institution’s existing strengths. For a diversity strategic action plan to be successful, all campus constituents must be represented and heard.
Social science research makes clear that it takes years of persistent effort to hone institutional diversity profiles. In an unsettling national trend, few colleges and universities have prepared adequately for the demographic changes to come. Notwithstanding the many social and intellectual benefits of diversity, diversity enrollment will be vital to the economic sustainability of American higher education. Diversity should, therefore, be among the highest of institutional priorities.
By Dr. John Fitzgerald Gates