Recent Projections Suggest the Number of High School Graduates Will Soon Decline. What Does This Mean for Enrollment Management and Transfer Students?

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Interstate Passport Briefing
This is one of 7 articles in the March 2021 newsletter.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education has recently released the 10th edition of Knocking at the College Door: Projections of U.S. High School Graduate Numbers Through 2037. Interstate Passport’s Sarah Leibrandt, program manager, interviewed two of the report’s authors, Colleen Falkenstern and Peace Bransberger, to learn more about the findings in the recent publication of Knocking at the College Door and what the implications of the projections mean for college enrollment and the importance of recruiting and supporting transfer students.

Sarah Leibrandt: Thank you very much for joining me today. I’d like to start by asking you, what is ‘Knocking at the College Door’?

Colleen Falkenstern: Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates has been published every four years for nearly 40 years by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).This report provides detailed projections on high school graduate populations for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and selected U.S. territories and outlying areas, and includes details about the race/ethnicity of public-school graduates, and the number of private school graduates. Data was collected and analyzed from each individual state. The most recent edition includes actual high school graduate counts through the class of 2019 and then projections through the class of 2037.

These projections are used widely across a wide range of education stakeholders from policymakers to enrollment managers at the institutional level for short- and long-term planning in terms of capacity building and understanding who their future high school graduates are on college campuses.

Sarah Leibrandt: What trends can be found in the December 2020 edition of ‘Knocking at the College Door’?

Peace Bransberger: From the national perspective, the class of 2019 includes 3.8 million high school graduates. If recent patterns persist, the number of high school graduates could peak at 4 million by 2025. After 2025, the predictions suggest a decrease in the number of high school graduates (because of the decrease of one percent of babies born every year since the great recession). So, by the class of 2037, there could be 3.5 million high school graduates (or 11 percent fewer).

Colleen Falkenstern: There are variations across and within the regions in the U.S. For example, the Midwest and Northeast will both see declines in high school graduates. These regions are less diverse as it is; while they will see increases in high school graduates from nonwhite backgrounds, that will not be enough to offset the decline in white high school graduates. The trends look strikingly different here than in the south or west.

Peace Bransberger: The South is a growth region, and with several large states, is driving the national trend. The trend in the West, which contributes 24 percent of nation’s high school graduates, roughly mirrors the national trend but it varies by state. For example, two-thirds of the western states are expected to have 5-12 percent more graduates by peak and then rapidly lose graduates by as much as 22 percent fewer in New Mexico and 3 percent fewer in Colorado. Yet, other states in the West are on a trend to have more high school graduates than the national peak in 2025.

Knocking at the College Door allows us to look at the changing demographics in high school graduates through 2037. For example, there is a significant, new pattern emerging in the West in terms of demographics: there is an increasing number of Black public high school graduates (Washington, Arizona, and Nevada will see an increase of 42 percent or more). The Western states could also see a 24 percent increase in the number of Hispanic high school graduates in the next five years than they do now.

Sarah Leibrandt: What implications might these projections and changing demographics have for college enrollment?

Colleen Falkenstern: All colleges should consider the changing demographics of high school graduates. There are differences in the overall number of projected high school graduates across the country and there will be some institutions that will see significant drops in the number of students they have historically recruited for enrollment.

Peace Bransberger: Right, it is important for institutions to rethink where their “traditional” high school students are going to be available. While some states will not experience a decline in high school graduates, there will be a decreasing number of traditional-aged college students after 2025. But this does not mean students won’t be available. It is just that they might not be the ones your institution looked at before or served before, but there are large pockets of growth in each high school graduating class.  

Sarah: Given this information, how might institutions (re)consider a focus on recruiting transfer students to increase enrollment?

Colleen Falkenstern: There is a lot of data in Knocking at the College Door. And it is easy to talk about the changing numbers and trendlines in the report from a clinical perspective. One of the values of Knocking is that it can help institutions think about what student services are needed now and in five years and in ten years, to ensure that the changing demographic of college students are well served. Behind all of these projections and trend lines are students with educational goals, and if transfer is part of their pathway to their career, it is important that institutions’ services are equipped to serve this changing population of high school graduates. It’s important that institutions are meeting the needs of their students.

Peace Bransberger: As regards to transfer, some populations of students, particularly students of color, are more likely to enroll in a two-year institution first. As I mentioned earlier, some regions will see an increase among high school graduates of color and a decrease among white students. Based on historic patterns of where students have enrolled, it is likely community colleges will see an increase in enrollment, particularly among students of color.

Transfer shouldn’t be seen as a way to increase enrollment numbers but rather as way to serve students. It’s important for institutions to make sure they are serving students who might arrive on campus via transfer. Interstate Passport is a great pathway for students looking to transfer between institutions because it makes it easy for students to transfer with their general education requirements out of the way.

Sarah Leibrandt: Thank both so much for your time! For those interested in learning more, the website for Knocking at the College Door includes data dashboards, state and region profiles, and reports.

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