Shifting Demographics Influence Changes in College Recruitment and Enrollment

September 17, 2014



When determining their recently published review of 2015 Best Colleges, U.S. News & World Report included acceptance and retention criteria in their ranking of the contenders, along with the school’s academic performance and financial health. Exactly how colleges and universities are performing in attracting new students has become an increasingly significant question of late. Despite the plentiful headlines focusing only on the costs of higher education, there are plenty of people who continue to see its value. Nearly three million more people will be enrolled in American colleges and universities by 2022 than were enrolled in 2012, according to recently released figures from the U.S. Department of Education. Yet, although that number might seem high, the trend is actually representative of a significant slowdown in higher education enrollment growth in the next decade.

A Smaller Demographic Pie

Projections of Education Statistics to 2022Growth of the kind indicated by the Department of Education is even more remarkable in light of the fact that overall, the population of those eligible for college is expected to drop in the foreseeable future. Currently, students under the age of 25 make up 60 percent of the total college population, but that is expected to drop to 57 percent by 2021. According to Nate Johnson, a higher education data expert from Postsecondary Analytics, over the next decade, the 18-to-24-year-old population is projected to decline by four percent, so the almost 14 percent increase from 2012-22 (and the projected 13 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment) “is pretty significant growth while the underlying population is declining.”

Steve Falke, Regional Director for Barnes & Noble College, would argue that demographics are already having a wide-ranging impact on college recruitment. “What we’re seeing is the declining population base of high school graduates, particularly in the Northeast part of the country, and it’s becoming probably the biggest enrollment issue for colleges — there are just fewer students to recruit,” he says.

Falke, who manages the operations of all Penn State University campus bookstores and is based in University Park, explains that his campus has enjoyed continuous growth in applications, and has perhaps one of the largest freshman classes enrolled this year. “But in other Penn State campuses, some urban and some rural, they have a greater sensitivity to the declining population and to the efforts made by local community colleges in their areas,” he says. Falke points out that this kind of environment can create both challenges and opportunities for recruitment at Penn State, where there is already a considerable effort devoted to reaching out both to potential students and those who have already accepted to ensure the success of their university careers. “There is an enormous effort dedicated to new student orientation,” he explains. “For a day and a half in the summer, freshmen are given the opportunity to really understand the resources on campus, to make a connection to the university and get their questions answered,” he says.

Sophomores and juniors are also invited to spend a day on campus with their parents for comprehensive tours. “If they already have a career direction in mind, there is an opportunity to set up meetings with representatives from the business school, or college of engineering for example, to help them develop that interest,” Falke adds.

The Changing Demographic

A key indicator of the success of these kinds of programs is perhaps being seen in the increased diversity of people who are going to college. Attracting female students is a good place to start. The National Center for Education Statistics projects enrollment for women will increase by 21 percent by 2019, compared to only 12 percent for men. “I think that it’s not just a case that there are more woman graduating from high-schools, but that there are more opportunities available to women now in fields such as science and engineering,” Falke says. He also believes that women have benefited from initiatives like the government’s STEM programs that may have helped boost female enrollment.


Actual and projected numbers for total first-time freshmen fall enrollment in all postsecondary degree-granting institutions, by sex: Fall 1997 through fall 2022. SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistic



Baby boomers are another group likely to feature more prominently in college admissions, and the American Association of Community Colleges recently received a $3.2 million grant to conduct a program designed to attract students age 50 and over, focusing on learning, training, and service. New online educational models are opening up to encourage part-time college attendance for stay-at-home parents or those already in some form of employment.

Falke also points to a key role the college bookstore is playing in recruitment and retention. “We believe we have an incredible role to play in supporting the campus,” he says. “Because of what we deliver in terms of textbook and supplies, we touch students, parents and faculty, and we’ve become a great place to aggregate different types of services — from orientation to graduation — to help support students in developing a stronger relationship with the campus,” he says. “I think we’re becoming even more embedded in that role as we’re learning how we can become more engaged in helping students through their academic experience,” he adds.

Preparing for a Different Future

As with many industrial or societal segments, the future of higher education is likely going to change from its past. In addition to the demographic changes, and more flexible recruitment initiatives, colleges are trying a variety of initiatives to attract students. Some tuition-dependent private colleges are changing how they package financial aid for students to make college more affordable, while others are tasked with helping to defray costs on study materials. A trend, particularly prevalent in technical and trade colleges, is a much closer cooperation between community colleges and the business community. Learning more job-related skills, in tandem with their academic programs, can help future students convey a stronger confidence to an employer. It also carries with it the stronger promise of rewarding, well-paid employment at the end of college life, which could be the strongest recruitment tool of all.