Demographics and the future of education: lessons from a new study

As a futurist I love demographics.  Unlike, say, technology, pop culture, or policy, demographics change verrrrrrrry slowly.  Once a population is born, it’s easier to trace its outlines and project them forward than it is to extrapolate from nearly any other trend.  Many population tendencies are just baked in and remain for decades, unless an extraordinary event occurs.  My viewers, listeners, and readers know I emphasize demographics when looking at the future of education, and how useful that is.

A Politico research project just published results, looking ahead to 2020-2060, and I’d like to identify key aspects for the future of education.  There aren’t many shocking surprises, but the data is very useful and updated.

NB: this isn’t about Americans’ quantity, as the makeup of that population.

That nation will have gone through two big shifts: It will likely be browner and more polyglot than the America of 2016, and it will also be much older.

First, on the age distribution: America is getting older, generally speaking.

the growth in the population over 85, those most likely to be ill or disabled, will be especially stark. Currently, there are approximately 33 working adults for each American 85 and up; by 2050, that ratio will fall to 13 workers per American over 85.

(The latter point can be mitigated to a degree by increasing worker productivity.  Alas, that doesn’t mean increasing wages.)

The over-65 population isn’t a statistical majority, nor will it be, but it is growing faster than any other segment:


The Politico report identifies some political dimensions of this change:

Wherever they are, their health care needs will be acute. The demand for nurses and home health aides will continue to grow. Those jobs are often filled by immigrants, generally women. A key question will be whether services for the elderly, such as Medicare and Social Security, crowd out the federal budget so that there will be little money left to fund education from early childhood through college—the tools that could allow the daughter of a home health aide to transcend her origins.

For education the latter point is more salient at the state level, unless the federal government decides to follow a Bernie Sanders-style higher ed plan (unlikely in the age of Trump).  But notice the health care needs aspect.  As I’ve said before, when a population ages education is likely to respond with more health care programs and more students taking them.

Second, let’s turn to the racial makeup of America is changing, as we know.  Consider the changing prevalence of people from various races:


Notice that the Hispanic population becomes the second-largest, far ahead of the others.  We already saw signs of that in the 2016 election, between Trump’s anti-Hispanic fulminations and the high profile presence of several Latino candidates (Cruz, Rubio).  Hispanics far outpace other minorities in absolute terms and in growth.

Note that Asian-Americans (nearly invisible in this election) grow to outnumber blacks.  (The former population’s numbers are interestingly significant in another, changing way: “while 52 percent of all foreign-born residents hail from Latin America, among the newest arrivals, South and East Asians outnumber Latinos.”)

Indeed, the Politico report really sidelines the black American population, mentioning that they demographically “remain steady” – i.e., not growing significantly, not declining like the white population.  Except for this bitter note about the small but growing trend towards a multiracial grouping:

While black-white intermarriage is also becoming more common, historically, the category of whiteness has not expanded to include the children of one white and one black parent. The durability of the white-black hierarchy in terms of income, wealth, education and access to safe neighborhoods is one of the enduring features of American life, and one that will likely remain a fault line in our politics.

Overall, this report suggests that when we discuss a post-white America, demographically the most important race is Latino, followed by Asians, then blacks.

If this turns out to be accurate, then we should expect education to focus accordingly.  Imagine greater attention paid to hispanic-serving institutions, for example.  We should expect a rise in controversies about Asian students, such as the possibility of their exclusion from elite institutions.

These numbers and their implications play out geographically in some important ways.  Here’s Politico’s analysis by state:


The southwest is the leading edge of American racial transformation, followed gradually by parts of the south(east), Chicago, New York, and the central Atlantic seaboard.  Painting with the broadest brush, it’s almost a north-south divide.

For education, we might expect those states to become the leaders in innovation and reform aimed at addressing a racially transformed student (then faculty and staff) population.  Of course, the states *not* being so deeply changed (the Rust Belt, the upper plains states, Oregon, the rest of the south(east), most of New England) could follow suit to attract students… or head the other, Trump-oriented way, and offer a historically conservative milieu to attract some white students, to put it starkly.

Combining these age and race trends drives some powerful political and cultural possibilities.  For example, looking at North Carolina:

“The aging of rural America is a two-sided blade,” said Tienda, of Princeton. “On the one hand, in many declining towns, the growth of the Latino population has revitalized and re-energized a community and restarted the local economy. But if there are communities that have experienced population decline for a long time and have consolidated schools, the Latinos put strain on local resources to revamp those school systems. That’s where the rubber hits the road” in terms of anti-immigrant sentiment.

So we could see America – and not just white  Americans – divide on Latino immigration based on perceived economic impact, among other things.  We should expert pro-immigration voices to be raised in some areas marked by age, as opposed to anti-immigrant arguments.  As the report notes on the former, “the fact that the senior population is becoming less white may mean that in the America of 2050, the elderly population is more widely dispersed and also more tolerant.”

The report actually ends by addressing education in terms of social divides.  It offers a positive note –

greater access to quality education—from early child care to affordable college to vocational training—is another promising path toward a less-divided society in 2050, demographers said.

…but also adds a darker warning: “’What we’re watching is a growing gap between rich and poor predicated above all else on access to education,’ said Klineberg, the Houston sociologist.”  That’s a subject I and others have been addressing for several years.

Taken together, these demographic forces offer a set of pressures on the current academic system.  They may force educational institutions to compete even more fiercely for scarce resources, depending on how the politics of aging play out.  We have to transform ourselves to welcome an increasingly nonwhite (especially Hispanic and Asian) population as students, then as faculty and staff.  A new political geography may change the national structure of higher education.  And that’s just for starters.


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2 Responses to Demographics and the future of education: lessons from a new study

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