The most important book about American higher education in 2018

Over the past two weeks I’ve read a book about the future of American higher ed, and want to recommend it very highly.  It might be the most important book on the subject published this year.

Grawe Demographics coverThe title is Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, and the author is Nathan D. Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College.  The subject is what it says on the label: how changing demographics are changing post-secondary education’s student population.

tl;dr version: Grawe argues that the American traditional-age undergraduate population is plateauing for now, but will plummet in about a decade with serious results for higher education.

Let me break this down.

The center of the book is a model called the Higher Education Demand Index, or HEDI.   HEDI data and materials are available on the web.  Most of the book consists of Grawe feeding different data into HEDI and exploring the results (see 27ff for the main explanation).

The crucial demographic takeaway here is the unfolding birth dearth, a decline over time in the overall number of children per couple (3).  Grawe works this out carefully, showing it to have multiple causes, including the Great Recession, which “eliminated” births (6), the shape of migration into the United States, and the movement of populations between states (9-11).  The dearth will unfold unevenly across the United States.  The midwest and northeast will continue to lose numbers of younger people, while “nearly all of the anticipated growth [such as it is] will be found west of the Mississippi River” (3).    “[T]he country’s population is tilting toward the Southwest in general and the Hispanic Southwest in particular.” (6)

Grawe_Forecasted growth in high school graduates 2012 to 2032

Figure 1.5 Forecasted growth in high school graduates, 2012 to 2032

In the figure about note what the book refers to as “a corridor running just west of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Texas [that] anticipates widespread, expansive growth.” (78) . Expect admissions offices to aggressively recruit there!

However, that regional and ethnic growth is too small to offset declines elsewhere (16-17).  Overall, the population of 18 years olds will dwindle, as “beginning in the mid-2020s many colleges will enter an extended period of shrinking recruitment pools.” (14)  “Total numbers of students are headed toward a cliff.” (19; emphasis mine)

[B]oth population and college-going students are expected to hold steady through the early 2020s before a brief and modest 5 percent increase precedes a precipitous reduction on 15 percent or more. (45)

Elsewhere the author described this as “declining demand for higher education as a whole”.

This short book is crammed with details, so let me extract just a few for this post.

Ethnicity: while Hispanic populations rise and lead to greater numbers of graduates, white numbers decline.  In addition, Grawe finds Asian high school graduate numbers rising more than any other population’s, while the black graduate population actually shrinks (17, 54, 119).

Grawe_Figure 1_6 Forecasted growth in public high school graduates by race-ethnicity 2012 to 2032

Figure 1.6 Forecasted growth in public high school graduates by race/ethnicity 2012 to 2032

Who goes to college?  Grawe focuses on several factors: “family income, race/ethnicity, and parent education.” (23) . He also includes “an interaction between sex/ethnicity [and] census division and urban/nonurban location of high school” (29).

Who won’t go to college?  Grawe finds that first-generation student populations are not likely to grow.  Instead, parents with college education will remain the most eager to send their children to campus, and are presenting “gaining in their population share” (55; 51-3; 83).

While first-generation students make up a clear majority (60 percent) or postsecondary students today, by 2029 such students will comprise just 53 percent of the whole, and more than 25 percent of college students will hail from home with two bachelors degrees. (55)

Indeed, Grawe suggests that the most visible change in the student population will be increased parental education (84).

What happens to colleges and universities?  Demographics does a fine job of distinguishing between different sectors of American higher education, drawing out differences among community colleges, four-year institutions, and the elites.  The findings here are fascinating, as Grawe finds students with parental higher ed degrees increasing in community colleges (65), Asian-American students the major growth population for baccalaureate institutions (82-3), and elite universities enjoying a significant advantage over everyone else once the birth dearth really hits, although students attending the latter will be less likely to come from cities, counterintuitively (81; 71).

Grawe also sees the number of full-pay students rising, up to 25% more than today by 2025, especially in families from the south and west (93, 94, 95).  Based on the American model of using steep discount rates whereby full pay students subsidize the rest, “regional and national institutions will find a bit of relief in their students’ ability to pay.” (95)  One possible strategic result: [r]ising numbers of full-pay students may cushion the blow of falling overall demand among regional colleges and universities.” (97)

How about instructors?  Using HEDI figures Grawe projects a loss of “roughly 25,000 faculty positions.” As a result, “we might anticipate a steady continuation of the movement away from tenure.”(57) . Queen sacrifices seem likely (100).

One extra detail: Grawe sees Asian-American student numbers rising sharply in distinction to many others, which might lead some elite institutions to quotas against them.  Well, those are my words.  The text actually reads “elite schools… may opt to pass on some highly attractive Asian American students for the sake of a more representative student body.” (120) . My bet: expect more lawsuits as a result (Grawe quietly noted this in an interview).

Things that won’t help campuses Grawe doesn’t see the digital world having much of an impact on these numbers, especially given the MOOC bubble’s bursting, although they could help attract adult learners in a small way (102-3; 109).  He also thinks aggressively recruiting adult learners won’t have much of an impact (109).

Caveats: I’m impressed at how frequently Grawe cautions us not to take his forecasts as graven truth.  He repeatedly notes ways the future can diverge from HEDI’s outputs, such as noting that which high school grads actually go to college isn’t 100% driven by the total number of students (28, 33-6).  The author also conducts a rare exercise, testing to see how HEDI would have predicted recent years’ data, had it been created and run in the past (37-43).  He also asks readers not to exaggerate his findings (69), and reminds us that some policy changes backed up by popular support could change things up to a degree (133).

I have many questions for the author, and will hopefully get to ask him when he’s a guest on the Future Trends Forum (March 15th, 2-3 pm EST), such as:

  • How will the Trump presidency impact immigration as a factor in international student demand?
  • Could several factors drive online learning to make a significant difference: decreasing costs; greater fluency among the population?
  • What impact would an economic downturn have on these numbers?
  • What would it take for a campus to successfully combine online learning and adult student recruitment to offset the demographic challenge?
  • Would closer relationships between campuses and high schools help increase the proportion of students who actually make it to college?
  • If recruitment becomes a problem, will technology appears as one solution for boosting retention?

If I write any more I’ll start approaching this short book’s word count.  Let me close by recommending Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education to anyone interested in American higher education.


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6 Responses to The most important book about American higher education in 2018

  1. The first question that came to mind was, “When will Rawe be on Forum?” You answered that. There’s enough lead time to read the book too. In the meantime (and because the book is pricey, rural ILL slow), here’s a February 11 podcast interview,

  2. Phillip Long says:

    Sounds like a fascinating book. I’m a bit surprised that there is less attention to the increasing need for long-term episodic learnin/training over a lifetime. It would seem that either this just isn’t something in the predictive models he’s using, or, this isn’t a real demographic shift that will be met by traditional higher ed institutions.

    I hope you ask him.


  3. Maria says:

    I echo Phil’s question. While the traditional college demo might be changing and shrinking, the other end of the spectrum (i.e. the huge workforce population) is waiting for some high quality, affordable, accessible learning opportunities. Personally, I’ve been a continuous student whether in an advanced degree or certificate program for most of my working life. Why? Well, for one thing, I’m in higher ed so there’s that, but in my field, there’s no end to the skillsets I could be building and exploring to keep my career interesting and moving. I feel what’s missing, perhaps, is learning opportunities that are exciting and doable. Doable, meaning manageable with the life you actually live (the one that involves working, taking care of kids etc.). And exciting meaning not just a series of lengthy videos to slog through. IMO, there’s a lot of room to craft these types of courses geared to professional development for working adults.

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