Letter: Higher ed faces declining student pool

Beth Ingram. David Samson / The Forum

While most of us think about November and December as the holiday season, for families that include a high school senior, it’s also college application season. As has been the case for over 50 years, those applications, turned in this winter, herald the arrival, next fall, of thousands of eager, bright and anxious 18-year-olds to college campus campuses across the nation.

They say goodbye to friends and family and embark on a new adventure that, with the right support, will lead to a college diploma. In many ways, this is the image that most of us have of college campuses; for some of us, it is how we experienced college. For over 50 years, new high school graduates have been the primary source of new students for public universities.

That is about to change. In fact, the change started about 10 years ago.

During and after the 2008 recession, the U.S. fertility rate (the number of births per 1,000 women aged 15 – 44) dropped, as it often does during economic downturns. Instead of recovering with the economy, the fertility rate has continued its decline.

Fewer births, of course, means fewer high school graduates. Beginning in around 2026, this birth dearth will hit colleges with its secondary implications -- smaller entering classes and more competition for students. In “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” economist Nathan Grawe estimates that the number of college-aged students will drop almost 15 percent in just five years.

In our geographical area (the Plains), a slight increase in enrollment from 2006 to 2009 was followed by seven years of steady enrollment decline. The net result was a 16 percent decrease in enrollment from 2009 to 2016. The only geographical area that declined more steeply over these years was the Great Lakes region (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin).

North Dakota is one of the lucky states that boasts a higher-than-average fertility rate. However, North Dakota is a sparsely-populated state, which is not a surprise to anyone reading this article. As a result, we also produce a small number of high school graduates and a small number of college-going high school graduates.

Since 2006, the number of high school graduates attending college in North Dakota has increased – by 326 students. North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming comprise four of the seven states that produce the fewest number of college-going high school graduates among the 50 states.

This analysis leads to an important question for North Dakotans: Can North Dakota colleges and universities survive on first-time, first-year enrollment? Bluntly, the data says “no.”

With certainty, North Dakota institutions won’t be able to sustain, much less increase, overall enrollment by serving more North Dakota high school graduates. The graduates aren’t there. In 2016, just over 6,300 newly-minted North Dakota high school graduates chose to attend college.

Most – about 82 percent – did stay in North Dakota. Dividing this group up between the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University and the rest of the North Dakota University System institutions based on current enrollment yields about 1,700 students for UND and 1,700 students for NDSU.

Traditionally, a significant number of students from contiguous states have chosen to enroll in North Dakota. In 2016, about 8,850 high school graduates started college in North Dakota; 42 percent of those students hailed from a state outside of North Dakota.

Those students are an essential source of enrollment for colleges in North Dakota. However, years of declining numbers in states like Minnesota have lead policy makers in those states to focus on keeping home state students at home. In fact, Minnesota ranks No. 1 among all 50 states in having the largest percentage decline in students since 2006 (a drop of 17.9%). And institutions in states like Iowa and Wisconsin have, over the past few years, become more aggressive recruiters of Minnesota high school students.

If nothing had changed, enrollment of North Dakota high school graduates in North Dakota will, at best, remain steady. Enrollment of Minnesota students in North Dakota is likely to decline due to reduced numbers and stronger competition.

In other words, enrollment stability is not achievable through a hope and a prayer that high school graduates will magically appear over the next 10 years. So what’s a college to do?

A college can become more aggressive in recruiting students and try to get a bigger piece of a fixed pie. Many colleges do this by lowering their price, offering more scholarships, sending information to high school students earlier, spending more on admissions and recruitment activity, or other such activities. Once all colleges go down this path, however, the effectiveness of these strategies diminishes.

Other institutions will close as they lose enrollment and the tuition revenue associated with that revenue.

Successful institutions will need to seek innovative ways to keep and graduate the students they have, deliver programs that meet the local needs of adult learners and expand their reach through online delivery to place-bound students. What won’t they be able to do? Sit back and hope that increasing numbers of students will continue to arrive in the fall. As the saying goes, hope is not a strategy.