An update on American demographics

The Census Bureau just released new data on America’s population and how it has changed over the past few years.  It’s vital material for the future, especially for what’s next with education.

In the report you can see evidence of major trends continuing to work.  Populations continue to flow towards the west and parts of the south, while the midwest and northeast fall behind or shrink.  Total population grows, but much more slowly, and buoyed by immigration.

Here’s the breakdown by state.  Lighter states are losing population or have stabilized, while darker ones are gaining:

Certain states are people magnets:

Nevada and Idaho topped the list with a growth of about 2.1 percent each in the last year alone. They were followed by Utah (1.9 percent), Arizona (1.7 percent), Florida and Washington (1.5 percent each)… Texas had the largest numeric growth, adding 379,128 people. The state grew both from more births than deaths and from net gain in movers from within and outside the United States. Florida had the highest level of net domestic migration at 132,602.

Meanwhile, some states are flat out losing population:

Population declined in nine states and Puerto Rico. The nine states were: New York (down 48,510), Illinois (45,116), West Virginia (11,216), Louisiana (10,840), Hawaii (3,712), Mississippi (3,133), Alaska (2,348), Connecticut (1,215) and Wyoming (1,197).

Puerto Rico has also lost population, both due to the horrendous storms as well as continued out-migration.

As for total population, it grew, but barely.  The Wall Street Journal observes:

The numbers, which cover the year ended July 1, show the country’s population rose by 0.6% to 327.2 million people. That was the lowest rate since 1937 in data going back to 1901, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Immigration looms large:

As birthrates have dropped and death rates risen, immigration’s role in the nation’s continuing population growth has expanded. Last year, it accounted for 48% of the country’s growth, up from 35% in 2011. Accounting for arrivals and departures, the Census Bureau estimated that the country gained 979,000 people from abroad last year, close to the annual average of 1 million in recent years. The figure accounts for both legal and unauthorized immigration, as well as the movement of Americans moving abroad and back.

I expect some readers will object with shrugs and yawns, because none of these developments are strange.  The shift of people away from the midwest and northeast has been going on for decades.  The slowing of population growth has been apparent since the 1970s.  As a kid growing up in New York (1967-1979) I heard many times the desire of older people to leave for Florida.  Put another way, the sun belt is still warm, the north country is still cold, and the rust belt remains rusty.

Don’t let this report’s lack of eye-opening surprise dissuade you.  This is what a trend looks like in mid-course, or from the inside.  This data is a reminder that the population shifts between American states are continuing.  Without colorful anecdotes or shocking headlines we can lose track of their reality.

So what does this report mean for education?  Several things.

First, it reminds us of America’s following the developed world’s trajectory of lowering birthrates.  Which immediately impacts primary schools, then secondary schools, then colleges and universities that serve traditional-age undergraduates, then all of post-secondary education.

Second, the Census reminds us of one role played by immigration, keeping America’s population rising.  The report gives us a glimpse into one future.  If immigration drops (because of Trump, because of violence, because of political chaos, etc.) then we see our total population growth drop even further.  Imagine an America with a stable population, or one where the numbers start to recede.

Third, commonly discussed notions of population based on party politics don’t apply too well to the Census reality.  If we think of Republicans as the party of declining rural states and Democrats as representing urban boom areas, that doesn’t help us understand the leading growth states: Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Washington.  That’s a grab bag of politics, with red, blue, and even purple.  Ditto for the states most rapidly losing people.  We have to approach these demographic trends by going beyond red versus blue.

Fourth, the geography of population shifts matters very much to the majority of American higher education.  The clear majority of colleges and universities draw students regionally or locally.  Those institutions located in the low or no growth areas are facing the end of business models predicated on growing numbers.  Those experiencing declines – Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, West Virginia, Wyoming – are getting hit even harder.  Campuses in growth areas may get to enjoy growth spurts of their own.  Institutions with national reach or ambitions will have to market themselves increasingly to the growth areas, or court decline.

These population trends could well change in the medium and especially long term.  Fears of climate change may dissuade people from moving to parts of the sun belt, such as those close to desertification or flooding, while the frozen north might seem a bit less daunting.  The rust belt’s plummeting real estate prices may lure in people willing to risk subzero nights for manageable mortgages and rents.  There is also the possibility of a cultural drive to get Americans making more babies, as I’ve noted.

Otherwise, keep watching these demographic trends.  They are deep, powerful, and very well documented.

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2 Responses to An update on American demographics

  1. Lisa Stephens says:

    New York & the NE is often a political punching bag, but the region offers solid, even outstanding public and private education options. Interestingly, the Great Lakes region is predicted to have substantial appeal as climate change continues. Yes, it gets cold for a few months, but when weighed against the damage of hurricanes, floods and fires, and (for now) affordable housing and good education…we’ll see.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      The Great Lakes region also maintains a substantial amount of fresh water, which should prove an economic boon in years to come.

      NE higher education does face challenges of economic sustainability. I fear we’re in for more shrinkage as the market corrects for reduced demand.

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