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Addressing Demographic Shifts with Recruitment

Although birth and high school graduation rates have fallen over recent years, institutions of higher education must improve their own retention and graduation rates by collaborating with their local communities on new recruitment strategies. 

If demographics are destiny, as a sage once said, then low birth rates are a defining demographic event. The recently completed census, while controversial in some quarters due to political interference, nevertheless produces important results for consideration by policy makers, education and business leaders and local communities. Birth rates are a critical statistic in the census. What can campus leaders do to help overcome the destiny of these demographics? One idea is to mine the cohorts of alumni as well as students who dropped out before graduating; another is to work collaboratively with host communities.

The Birth Dearth

In 2017, the total fertility rate (TFR) for the United States was 1,765.5 per 1,000 women, which was 16% below what is needed for a population to replace itself—2,100 births per 1,000 women. After a decline during the Great Depression followed by a baby boom after the Second World War, the TFR in the United States has hovered for four decades at just under the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. It currently stands at 1.9. By the 2030s it is estimated that the number of those over 65 will exceed those under 18. 

Because families had fewer children during the 2008 recession, the number of 18-year-olds graduating from high school is expected to fall 11-15% after 2025. New federal data show the number of births continuing to decline, down by 4% last year to the lowest number since 1979. The job losses and lockdowns during COVID-19 have resulted in delayed childrearing and fewer births.

With fewer births and fewer high school graduates, colleges are struggling to recruit students. In addition to the decline in high school graduates, there has been a decline in students entering community college, so transfer students will be more difficult to recruit.

What is a college to do? Well, a first step is to improve retention and graduation rates. In addition, colleges can make use of their newly developed protocols and technologies for remote teaching and learning. It is estimated that nearly 36 million American have some college credits but no degree. Given the average six-year graduation rate for public colleges is 57.6% and 65.4% for private colleges, on average, they have the potential to reenroll the 40% of students who dropped out, assuming they did not graduate from elsewhere. This is a potentially good market for students. Like alumni who can be recruited for continuing professional education, they are known to the college, have some affinity to it, have probably gained experience and maturity in the world of work, and they likely have defined their reasons for not continuing. In addition, many have stranded credits earned but not transferred elsewhere. With adequate advising, they can become enrolled and successful students. 

Working Collaboratively with Communities

While the most vulnerable colleges are in less populated areas, lack a far-reaching reputation and have small endowments, they often are an anchor employer in their region. Colleges are economic engines as well as educational institutions. Imagine if a community chamber of commerce decided to start a strategic planning process for economic development that included the following principles and priorities. First, they would want to recruit an enterprise that produces a product or service of which everyone could be proud. Second, they want an enterprise whose employees are highly educated and willing to participate in community organizations. Third, they want an enterprise that is respectful of the environment. Fourth, they want an enterprise willing to partner with schools, the civic community and businesses. Fifth, they want an enterprise that would have a significant and positive impact on the local economy through taxes paid and both operating and capital expenditures.

Colleges collect FICA, federal and state income taxes, and other taxes. When one adds in the restaurant, hotel and other expenditures of those who visit campus during the year for homecoming, reunions, cultural events, graduation and sports events, the economic impact grows even more. In addition to employing faculty and staff, colleges operate hotels (residence halls), restaurants (dining halls), municipal police forces (campus security) and likely a system to transport students, faculty, and staff to and from bus and train stations, take student-athletes and fans to sporting events, and connect to the local shopping area. 

Therefore, it makes sense for the college and community to work together on plans for survival and renewal. After all, working collaboratively can be mutually beneficial. Questions to explore include:

  1. What can colleges and schools do together to enhance student learning and both teacher and curriculum development?  
  2. What can the college and the village or county do together to provide ongoing professional education and training to employees?
  3. What can the college and hospital, nursing home or family and children’s services center do together to enhance the quality and extensiveness of professional training opportunities as well as social services?
  4. How might the physical assets of the college campus be used to mutually benefit the college and the community?


While these forms of collaboration may not yield a big increase in net tuition revenues, they can result in new revenues from tuition and fees, cost savings and a strong ally in seeking government and foundation support. The combination of recruiting those who dropped out as well as alumni and engaging with the local community can be a strategy for overcoming demography as destiny.

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