Colleges brace for thinning population of high school graduates

The strong, reliable supply of college students is about to run out for some parts of the country. The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education predicts the Midwest is among the areas where the number of high school graduates will shrink in the coming years.

"Some institutions that have been relying on just larger and larger and larger classes for the last decade and a half are going to have to potentially be more creative and thoughtful in their recruiting strategies," said WICHE researcher Brian Prescott, one of the study's authors.

New college student populations will be less white and at times less able to navigate higher education, according to the commission's projections, which come out every five years.

"How are you going to reach those individuals, how are you going to serve them and how are you going to make your institution accessible and welcoming to them, particularly if they don't look like the student body you currently have?" Prescott asked.

It's a question recruiters at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall have also been asking themselves. Southwest State relies chiefly on residents of the mostly rural, western Minnesota prairie to feed the school's traditional base of students. But enrollment manager Richard Shearer is already looking well beyond the state's borders to population centers elsewhere.

"Where the pockets of people are is where we're looking toward," Shearer said. "We know it's not a quick fix. It's not something that you can go to Dallas and suddenly have ten students. It's going to take three, five years before you start to build a relationship."

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The mostly white, mostly Minnesota-resident students at Southwest State are just the demographic the Western Interstate Commission's report says is dwindling. Shearer's efforts have branched out to the population that is growing in Minnesota: Hispanic immigrants and other people of color that historically don't access higher education.

"So we're starting to access...populations that traditionally have not gone on to college, not had the high graduation rates that Minnesota is known for."

We know it's not a quick fix. It's not something that you can go to Dallas and suddenly have ten students.

For Shearer the outreach goes beyond the Midwest and even beyond the national borders. Shearer has traveled to Mumbai, India where Southwest has established an educational partnership. Southwest officials believe the school can offer American-style liberal arts courses to compliment the more practically-oriented educations offered some East Asian students. Four years ago, Southwest had no Indian students, now it has two dozen.

"We started developing that and now we have 25 students here," Shearer said. "Our retention has been almost 100%. And we anticipate 20 to 25 coming in the fall."

Southwest recently hired a Mumbai native to its recruiting staff.

Just as Minnesota colleges attempt to lure out of state and out of country students, however, colleges elsewhere are expanding their reach.

"We'll have more and more colleges and universities coming looking to Minnesota for our good students," said Minnesota Demographer Tom Gillaspy. "There'll be more and more opportunities for young people but we'd like to keep them here. So our colleges and universities will need to be able to compete with other colleges and universities nationwide. So there will be more competition for the same number of slots."

MnSCU is beefing up its recruiting and remediation efforts across the system for international students, older people returning to school and first generation students. The University of Minnesota also has incentives for minorities and other students traditionally not represented in higher education to keep enrollment stable when the supply of high school graduates declines.