The next 15 years of high school graduates

What will the high school graduate population look like in the near- and medium-term future?  A new Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) study, Knocking at the College Door, looks at graduation rates through 2032, and thereby offers some projects with major implications for higher education.

Peace Bransberger and Demarée K. Michelau break down present numbers by total population, race, and region, along with categories for public and private schools.  Here I’ll pick out the trends that caught my futurist’s eye.

Total population: the number of high school graduates will remain at its current level for the next seven years.  As the authors put it, “the U.

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S. is headed into a period of stagnation.”  Then,

Three years of growth are projected for 2024 to 2026, reaching about 94,000 more graduates in 2025 (2.7 percent) than in 2013. Between 2027 and 2032, the average size of graduating classes is expected to be smaller than those in 2013.

Like so:


Why that drop a decade from now?  “the fewer number of children born during the Great Recession and the subsequent recovery enter high school through the early 2030s.”

I suspect many strategic planners for institutions focused on traditional-age students will be banking – hard – on that 2023-2025 spike.  Then planning on retiring afterwards.

Region: the South will graduate nearly one half of American high school students, from 42 to 47%.  In contrast, by 2030 the Midwest will graduate 19% and the Northeast 16%.


Clearly, the American South is, by far, the most important sector for higher education planners to examine.

Race: unsurprisingly, the white proportion of graduates will decline, while Asian and Latino populations grow steadily.  As I’ve noted before, the black population is not growing significantly.  Indeed, “the number of Black, non-Hispanic public high school graduates is projected to gradually decline by about 6 percent.”


Interesting point: if it weren’t for two races/ethnicities growing fast, the total population numbers would really drop.

Robust growth in the number of non-White public school graduates – Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders in particular – will act as a counterbalance to the declining numbers of White graduates…

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Public versus private schools: the latter are going to be hit hard.

The number of high school graduates from private religious and nonsectarian schools is projected to decline at an even greater rate than the overall trend, from 302,000 in 2011 (the last year for which confirmed graduate counts are available for private schools) to about 220,000 by the early 2030s – a decrease of 80,000 graduates, or 26 percent…

One more note.  The authors admit that a previous WICHE projection missed the mark.  “Overall, current data reflecting the number of high school graduates are 2 to 5 percent higher for the 2009-12 school years than what the 8th edition of Knocking at the College Door projected in 2012.”  Why?

First, high school graduation rates improved more than expected.  “This is due in large part to much stronger growth and retention in the high school grades after 2010-11, and in some part to slightly greater graduation rates from 12th grade, than was previously indicated in the data.”  That’s very important.  It could also be something for the Obama administration to be proud of.

Second, the Latino population grew even faster than expected, especially in the south and west.

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 “Much of this difference is accounted for by the states that contribute the greatest numbers of students to the national total and that have large Hispanic high school populations, California and Texas in particular…”  So that’s interesting on its own terms, and also reminds us that these are projections, not established facts.

Overall, we’re seeing a continued shift in the high school population, meaning a transformation of the traditional-age undergraduate student body.  Our decades of college and university growth can’t continue if they rely on this populace.

What’s vital in the near- and medium-term future is the South and Latinos.  What’s less significant are whites, the northeast, and the midwest.  Texas, not Massachusetts, is where campuses will bend their attention.  Recruiters will have to heed these trends, and also focus less on private schools.

What catches your eye from this study?

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One Response to The next 15 years of high school graduates

  1. Pingback: America’s demographic currents flowed on schedule in 2016 | Bryan Alexander

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