By Steven Bell
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Demographics matter to all of higher education, and are vital to tuition-dependent institutions. The rate of population growth—0.7 percent in 2013—has not been this low since the 1930s. After many years of a growing or stable population of traditional age college students, the numbers are shifting and the tide is turning against those institutions whose fates depend on maintaining a constant or growing enrollment. Nationally, in spring 2013 college enrollment was down nearly 1 percent, continuing a 2.3 percent decline over the previous year. (Mangan, 2014). Demographers are predicting with great certainty that the number of graduating high school students will decline in the Midwestern and Northeastern states and will remain so for at least the next ten to fifteen years. For every 100 18-year-olds nationally, there are only 95 4-year-olds. Every indicator suggests that colleges and universities will face a shrinking pool of applicants.(Lipka, 2014).
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Not only will there be fewer potential students for colleges to battle over, but the pool itself will go through some considerable change. Looking at high school graduates, there will be fewer Black and White students and more Hispanic and Asian-American students. Many of the next generation students will be the first in their families to attend college and will more likely be from a low-income household. In addition to population shifts, as the economy recovers from the 2008 recession, more adults return to the workforce further depleting enrollment at community colleges and for-profit institutions. The colleges and universities that stay healthy are those that will learn to adapt to these changing demographics and the new population of students it will bring. They will need to find a way to attract students from beyond their own regions. They will need to accept classes with greater numbers of at-risk students. They will need to recruit international students more aggressively. (Hoover, 2014).
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Sebastian Thrun’s prediction exaggerates the demise of most colleges and universities, but there may be some merit to it given a few recent closings. While it has been quite rare to hear of a college or university laying off faculty, merging with another institution or closing entirely, in 2014 and beyond this news will become more commonplace. For small to medium-sized tuition-driven colleges and universities, even a slight decline in expected enrollment can be disastrous. Depending on its size, a loss of just 15 to 20 students can have a major financial impact on the institution. Enrollment at Pennsylvania’s 14 state schools of higher education is down 6 percent in the last three years resulting in the closure of academic programs, faculty layoffs and talk of possible reorganization of the system. The title of a news report from Bloomberg spoke volumes about the seriousness of the situation. Titled “Small U.S. Colleges Battle Death Spiral as Enrollment Drops” it profiled Dowling College as an example of the typical struggling institution. (McDonald, 2014). Dowling is just one institution reeling from demographic change. But it’s not just small institutions that are at risk. Quinnipiac University, in spring 2014, laid off 16 faculty owing to lost revenue from declining enrollment.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Changing demographics and employment patterns will lead to greater competition among regional institutions. For example, Widener University, a private, tuition-driven institution located in a suburb of Philadelphia, reported being 70 students short of its enrollment target for the incoming class of fall 2014. In attempting to better understand the forces behind the significant decline from the previous fall, the enrollment manager discovered that other private colleges and universities were also falling short of targets, and it resulted in a ratcheting up of the merit offers being made to prospective students. In other words, to fill the fall class the institutions were trying to outbid each other’s offers in a shared enrollment pool. Students with GPAs under 3.0 and with SATs below 1,000 were being offered discounts up to 80 percent on the tuition sticker price. It’s as if these non-elite institutions are behaving like competing car brands, each fighting for the consumers by cutting the price or increasing the incentives. This story provides a glimpse into the future of higher education where efforts to poach students with offers too good to refuse may become more commonplace. (Rivard, 2014).
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Make a Difference. There may be little academic librarians can do to combat the change in demographics, but changes in their roles might help their own institutions to be more competitive in a troublesome demographic future. Academic librarians are experienced at working in consortia to share resources. This role may need additional emphasis when enrollment declines, and additional efficiencies are needed to sustain the library and institution. It may require an intensified level of resource sharing, and negotiating better licenses that are more hospitable to the sharing of electronic resources.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 With fewer students enrolling, retaining existing students – each both an investment made by the institution and a revenue source – will be more critical. Academic librarians can expand on their approaches to engaging with students in ways that will keep them from dropping out. That’s why today’s research and program experimentation into the role of the academic library for improved student retention and persistence to graduation will be critical on the road ahead. Existing research demonstrates that when institutions identify their at-risk students early on and then provide point-of-need support, it makes a significant difference in keeping them retained and academically successful. Academic librarians can develop new roles that will allow them to participate in these efforts by being early responders to provide students with research support. Opportunistic academic library administrators will capitalize on opportunities to get librarians integrated into every campus strategy for enrolling and retaining students in a world where there are both fewer students and they are no long defined by traditional age, race, gender and ethnicity factors.