Although the most dire predictions may not come to pass, it is certain that demographic changes will have an impact on the higher education landscape. How institutions influence and adapt to changes in immigration laws, restrictions on international students, access to federal student aid, and lower birth rates may determine their ability to thrive in the coming years.
Immigrants and International Students
Immigrants have played key roles in higher education as students, faculty, and administrators. Immigrants seek out higher education on levels that are on par with or exceed the general population. They are a key source of doctoral candidates and have been an integral part of higher education. The United States has the largest population of college-educated immigrants in the world.
However in recent years anti-immigration sentiment has resulted in travel bans, restrictions, and lawsuits. From 2017 to 2018 immigration fell by 70 percent. Although the US remains the top destination for foreign students, the percentage of new foreign student enrollments also declined.
Two items now before the courts could result in further declines: a challenge to the legality of the Optional Practical Training Program (OPT) and a challenge to the shutdown of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).
Under the OPT, foreign students may use their student visa to stay and work in the US for up to three years after they graduate. This type of program is commonly used as a recruitment tool. Even if the program survives the court challenge, it may be curtailed by rulemaking slated for August 2020.
Nicknamed after failed legislation, Dreamers are undocumented students brought to the US as minors. They are protected from deportation by DACA. Thanks to DACA many Dreamers hold renewable work permits and enroll in colleges and universities.
When the Trump administration announced it was phasing out the DACA program in September 2017, lawsuits were filed to block the move. Three such challenges worked their way up to the Supreme Court, where they were consolidated. If the court sides with the administration, not only will the Dreamers lose, but the campuses and jobs where they studied and worked will also suffer.
Many HBCUs have diverse student bodies with hispanics, immigrants and foreign students, well represented. It may be difficult to expand enrollment for those groups if the laws become more restrictive.
A Ripple Effect
K-12 school districts around the country have begun closing schools and consolidating districts in response to a gradual but persistent decline in the number of school-aged children in their localities. Reverberations from those closing doors are predicted to reach higher education, where recruiting competition is already high.
While the decline in white births has been politicized, the decrease in the number of births has been greatest among black people. The percentage of black students in grades 9-12 has fallen from 16.3 percent in 2010 to a projected 14.4 percent in 2020.
In addition to the lower birthrate, blacks have the highest infant mortality and maternal mortality rates in the nation. Considering many institutions have diversity initiatives, as the number of black candidates decreases, the competition to recruit them is likely to increase.
That competition will take place on a different playing field now that the National Association for College Admissions Counseling has adopted a new code of ethics. The code permits institutions to make offers to students who have already accepted another school’s offer.
If the pool of high school graduates declines as predicted, the importance of nontraditional students will increase. There are several groups of nontraditional students, each unique in composition and needs.
One such group consists of older students, who either delayed enrolling or failed to complete a degree. These students usually have many external obligations and financial burdens. They may be ineligible for Pell Grants due to its time limits and academic progress requirements.
Their needs can be complicated and encompass flexible programming, financial aid counseling, academic planning, and academic support. An industry has sprung up to support efforts to engage these students.
Middle-aged students seeking to retool their skillset and change or advance their careers are another nontraditional group. During the recent recession, enrollment for this group shot up. However, once the economy recovered, enrollment returned to its previous size and has continued to shrink. Some suggest that offering on-demand credential-based programs, rather than or in addition to, degree programs may help keep this demographic engaged.
Some institutions are actively recruiting retired or retiring seniors to live on or near their campuses. These are mostly real estate deals with academic bonuses allowing affluent retirees to experience college life without the stress.
Incarcerated students are another nontraditional group. Unfortunately, the United States has one of the largest prison populations in the world. Prior to 1994, incarcerated students were eligible to participate in the Pell Grant program.
A crime bill passed in 1994 ended that eligibility and sharply reduced the number of educational opportunities available inside prisons. The federal government has been slow to backtrack that error.
Second Chance Pell, a limited experimental federal program that awards Pell Grants to incarcerated students, was extended last year. It is likely that all incarcerated students will be eligible to apply for Pell Grants in the near future. Institutions can prepare for that eventuality by studying existing online and onsite programs and examining opportunities to partner with employers.
Maintaining healthy enrollment numbers is critical to all institutions. It is important to analyze changes in demographics and in the political landscape that helps to shape them.