Minority Applicants to Colleges Will Rise Significantly by 2020

Wave of diverse students will constitute nearly half of public high-school graduates, report says, even as number of black students declines

January 10, 2013

Over the next decade, more students of color than ever before will pass through the gates of the nation's colleges and join the ranks of its work force, according to new projections by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

By the year 2020, minority students will account for 45 percent of the nation's public high-school graduates, up from 38 percent in 2009. In short, the number of white and black graduates will decline, and the number of Hispanic and Asian-American/Pacific Islander graduates will rise significantly.

Those projections appear in the latest edition of Knocking at the College Door, a regular report on demographic change published by the commission, which is known as Wiche. Released on Thursday, the updated report includes national, regional, and state-by-state projections for graduates of public and private high schools through 2027-28, revealing the enrollment challenges colleges must adapt to.

Birthrates and migration patterns are altering the racial and ethnic composition of the population, according to the report. Although increases in minority graduates will vary from state to state, not one, it says, "will escape the necessity of addressing the particular needs of a diversifying student body."

Knocking at the College Door has long been a touchstone for those who recruit students. Rich in data, it portends a future that both inspires and worries enrollment officials, who must chart short- and long-term courses for their institutions. Over the next few years, the total supply of high-school graduates will continue to fall slightly, ending a two-decade boom that prompted colleges to build more and more dormitories and fitness centers, while marketing themselves more aggressively than ever before.

Starting in 1990, colleges could anticipate annual increases in students completing high school. But after a peak of 3.4 million graduates in 2011, the trend line flattened out. By 2013-14, Wiche projects, the number of high-school graduates will stabilize, between 3.2 million and 3.3 million, until the next phase of sustained growth, from 2020-21 to 2026-27. During that time, the number of graduates will increase by about 70,000 (2 percent), a more gradual rise than the one seen over the last two decades.

The projected national picture reveals only so much, however. Trends in one state will not match those in another. In turn, the story line for colleges will vary from campus to campus.

Colorado, Texas, and Utah, for instance, can expect "swift expansion"—of more than 15 percent—in the number of high-school graduates. Kansas, Louisiana, and Nevada are among the states where Wiche projects more-modest growth, between 5 percent and 15 percent. Those states, the report says, "will face ongoing pressure to ensure adequate capacity exists to fulfill the needs of a growing cohort."

Meanwhile, California, Florida, and Illinois are a few states that can expect declines of 5 percent to 15 percent in high-school graduates. And Maine, Michigan, and New Hampshire are three that will see their numbers dwindle by 15 percent or more. In those states, the report says, institutions will face a different challenge: "sustaining existing infrastructure that was built up over many years."

From coast to coast, admissions officials will continue to redraw their recruitment maps. A few years ago, Samford University, in Alabama, did not buy the names of prospective students in California; now it buys a slew. The university has hired a regional admissions officer to recruit year-round in the Golden State and another to do the same in Texas.

That's because Samford cannot depend on Alabama and surrounding states to keep supplying as many students, says R. Philip Kimrey, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management. Blame demographic shifts—and competition. As Samford moves into other colleges' backyards, its own turf has become more crowded. "When we've got more institutions coming to my part of the country and stealing students away," he says, "I'm going to feel that impact."

A Surge of Hispanic Graduates

Although the rise and fall of prospective students sparks much discussion, the crucial question for colleges is not "How many?" but "Who?" The major theme of Wiche's projections—sharply increasing diversity—will soon hit many states and institutions with freight-train force, if it hasn't already.

In several states, the meaning of the word "minority" could change. By 2019-20, the report says, nonwhite students will account for a majority of public high-school graduates in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Nevada. (California, the District of Columbia, Texas, and three other states have already reached "majority-minority" status.)

Those shifts will be driven by "extraordinarily rapid growth" in the number of Hispanic students earning diplomas, the report says. From 2008-9 to 2019-20, public high schools will produce about 197,000 more Hispanic graduates, an increase of 41 percent, according to Wiche's projections. During that time, the nation will see a near-equivalent drop, of 228,000, in the number of white graduates—a 12-percent decline. In all but two states, Colorado and Utah, the report says, the number of white graduates will be "in full retreat."

Meanwhile, Hispanic students are overtaking black students in several states where the latter had been the largest minority group. Nationally, Wiche projects 41,000 fewer black graduates by 2019-20, a 9-percent decline. The number of Asian-American and Pacific Islander graduates will increase by 49,000, or 30 percent.

As those changes take hold, meeting the needs of minority students, especially those from underrepresented groups, will play a greater role in defining institutional success, according to Brian T. Prescott, Wiche's director of policy research and a co-author of the report.

"Unfortunately, our track record nationally in serving underrepresented populations has been wanting, resulting in persistent gaps in educational attainment," the report says. "The nation and individual states have been able to sidestep the need to do better because the economic consequences of not closing those gaps have not been particularly dire." That must change, the report argues, in an era of growing diversity.

In Colorado, where Hispanic students will account for nearly all of the projected growth in high-school graduates, Jim Rawlins, executive director of admissions at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, sees a pressing need for early outreach to schools where students may know little about the admissions process. Colleges that have long excelled at touting their own virtues, he believes, must do more to prepare prospective students, regardless of where they might end up enrolling.

"As we continue to see more and more students who need more and more help, we've got to make sure we're serving them," says Mr. Rawlins, who is also president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "It's not just about putting up a billboard."

Rising and Falling High-School Graduates, by State

Source: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education