High school graduation classes are getting smaller. After peaking in 2011, studies indicate this year’s high school class will be six percent smaller. Over the next ten years, projections of the number of high school students will remain flat.
Narrow the scope to the Midwest and high school classes are getting even smaller. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or WICHE as educators call it, predicts the middle part of the county will see a 12 percent decline in students through 2028.
Experts cite lower birth rates and fewer people moving to the Midwest.
These smaller class sizes present a challenge for colleges looking to fill their classrooms. They are having to adjust recruiting tactics and financial incentives to entice students.
“We’re going to have to take those students from someone else,” says Larry Lesick, Ohio Northern University’s vice president of enrollment management.
Leskic says the private university recruits mostly in Ohio.
But WICHE’s predictions have caused ONU to extend the recruiting range. ONU now goes to Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania in search of potential students.
“We really don’t see ourselves going off further afield because of the difficulty in establishing a brand, or an awareness, in a place where you have absolutely none,” Leskic says.
But larger better-known universities can extend recruiting efforts beyond neighboring states which offers an edge.
Ohio State University’s Vice President of enrollment Dolan Evanovich says the university saw the population dip coming five years ago.
Evanovich says OSU is recruiting students from the South and Southwest where the population is growing. And they’re fine tuning their international efforts.
“I think we’ll be fine…I think some of the competition might be a little keener at some of the schools that maybe have a regional approach and don’t have the opportunity to utilize a recruiting center in Mumbai or Shanghai,” he says.
The number of public high school grads peaked in 2011 with about 3.1 million graduates. As expected, the numbers have declined, but David Hawkins with the National Association for College Admission Counseling doesn’t think the circumstances are dire.
“We still have a very significant large number of students leaving high school who are interested in going to college particularly as compared to the 1970s, 1980s or early 90s. So there will be a decline. It will force colleges to work a little harder, but ultimately we’re still talking about a fairly full and vibrant market when it comes to interested students,” Hawkins says.
So what does this mean for students?
Well, Hawkins compares it to the housing market.
“Certainly a decline in population of students tends to be more of a buyers’ market for the students,” he says.
So far, Northland High School’s senior guidance counselor Suzie Thompson has not noticed changes on admission standards or in recruiting. But she says she thinks universities will be able to pick up the slack from non-traditional students.
“I still think there’s enough graduates that didn’t either finish college or didn’t go, and I think with on-the-job training and the increased skills needed, I think a lot of older adults, mid-20s on up to all ages, I think they’re going to go to college,” she says.
With fewer students to entice, David Hawkins, from the National Association of College Admission Counselors, says there could be additional opportunities for low-income and minority students.
“It does present an opportunity to really beat the bushes and try to reach some of these students who haven’t before really been adequately been represented on campus,” he says.
While there may be a dearth of students, there is no shortage of institutions.
Forty-seven-hundred degree-granting institutions exist nationwide. That’s nearly a 30 percent increase over two decades.Ohio has 222 degree-granting colleges and universities.
ONU’s Lesick says it could be time to reexamine whether the current academic structure is viable.
“So it may be that we overall will have too many, and that schools may want to be looking at consolidation or in mergers. We’ve seen this kind of shake out in other industries and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t expect it in our own,” he says.