Commentary

Meeting the Challenge of Demographic Change

December 06, 2016

Over the last two decades, our colleges and our work force have benefited from a 30-percent increase in the number of students graduating from high school, but projections show an alarming departure from that trend in the near future. Not only will some regions see flat or declining graduation numbers, the new arrivals on our college campuses will be increasingly nonwhite, first generation, and low income.

If we fail to act decisively and collaboratively, college enrollments could decline at the same time that our need for college-educated workers will increase. Colleges must change the way they recruit and retain an increasingly diverse student body or they will face declining enrollments and declining revenue. In other words, it is not only in the students’ interest but that of our institutions and our economy to double down on our efforts to enroll and graduate students who have too often been overlooked in the past.

If we fail to act decisively and collaboratively, college enrollments could decline at the same time that our need for college-educated workers will increase.

We can no longer pay lip service to closing attainment gaps, nor can we continue to rely solely on poorly funded community colleges and open-access urban institutions to carry the load. All of our institutions, including four-year colleges and research universities, have to do their share to educate and graduate more students of color. For example, in Texas, the most selective institutions have made significant progress. Yet only 20 percent of their total enrollment is Hispanic despite nearly 40 percent of the state’s population being Hispanic.

At the same time, community colleges are learning valuable lessons about how to significantly improve student outcomes through evidence-based practices. Many of these colleges work with students in pre-enrollment summer programs, including outreach to families to create communities of learners. Most work with cohorts in the first year of college to support success and have improved developmental education pathways. Many have established early-alert systems to contact and assist students who are faltering and developed better data systems to track student progress toward certificates and degrees.

Others have scaled up campus initiatives to provide academic supports, such as counseling and tutoring and nonacademic supports, some of which connect students to public services related to housing, transportation, health care and meals. And many institutions have worked to increase the diversity of their faculty and their leadership.

While these approaches and others work, we need to improve how we share strategies and successes across sectors and among all types of postsecondary institutions. At the same time, higher education must work with, and not blame, the public-school system that prepares students for college.

Colleges and communities that have improved college completion have created partnerships with feeder schools as part of a master plan to ensure that public-school students have the opportunity to visit campuses and understand as early as elementary school that college can be part of their future. Familiarity with college opportunities should not be a right granted solely to students from wealthier families.

Dual-credit programs are another way to create a college-going culture among all students and to prepare them for college success by engaging more low-income students and students of color in college-level work while still in high school. High-school students who graduate with college credits outperform others who do not. In El Paso, for example, 80 percent of dual-enrollment students matriculate in college.

Federal and state policy makers also need to demonstrate a shared commitment to dealing with the changing demographics in higher education at the policy level. That means not only ensuring that students are college-ready when they graduate from high school, but also that they have the financial means necessary to enroll and graduate from college as well as the supports inside and outside the classroom to complete a credential in a timely manner.

Given that state economies are more dependent than ever on a work force that is college-educated, investment is critical to ensure that need is met. State funding should be allocated based on formulas that provide more — not less — support for low-income, academically underprepared, and minority students and for programs and institutions that drive student persistence and attainment. And, since around half of all students of color begin at community colleges, state and institutional policy must create better pathways to ensure successful transfers for those who want to complete a four-year degree.

Our system of higher education is built on a foundation of high expectations and high standards for our students — and that foundation must remain. However, if we want to help all students succeed in higher education, we have to change what we do and not simply expect students to change to adapt to our expectations. How we answer the knock at our doors matters more than ever.

Joe Garcia is president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. William Serrata is president of El Paso Community College.