Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Fun with Demographics

Over at the FACE blog, there's a worthwhile question about the impending drop in the number of 18 year olds. Given FACE's concerns, it's focused on adjunct percentages, though the issues run deeper than that.

Over the past several years, the baby boom echo has made its way through high school, resulting in gradually growing numbers of 18 year olds for the past several years. Depending on your location in the country, that wave is pretty much peaking now, with a non-trivial dropoff forecast for the next several years. At my college, what are we doing to prepare for it?

(sound of crickets)

(adjust collar)

Boy, it's hot in here, isn't it?...

Given that it isn't terribly hard to predict future age cohorts in the short term – for the most part, the 18 year olds of four years from now are fourteen now – this should be a no-brainer. If the demographic wave is clear and clearly relevant, why wouldn't we position ourselves early to handle it?

I was all set to write something about how hard it is to predict the future, but it seems like optimistic predictions get spread around much more easily and quickly than pessimistic ones. For example, while nobody is talking about fewer 18 year olds two or three years from now, the place is full of predictions of this or that program growing wildly over the next five to ten years. I don't think time, per se, is the issue.

Some of it is probably denial. The thinking is that we'll make it up with dual enrollment programs – supplement the 18 year olds with 16 and 17 year olds – or with working adults, or with senior citizens (the one real growth demographic in my area). Of course, if it were that easy, we would have done it by now. Dual enrollment programs have real promise, but we've found that anything based on the student (or his family) paying will be very small. The working-adults-returning-to-school have been mostly priced out of the area, and the housewives-returning-to-college demographic is an artifact of the seventies and eighties. We're doing well with senior citizens, but they pay next to nothing in tuition. (The payoff with them is largely political – they vote at very high rates, so we want them to feel a stake in the continued success of the college.)

The recession is giving us an enrollment boost right now, which is standard for community colleges. When folks are laid off and having a hard time finding work, the opportunity cost of an education goes down. And when Mom's or Dad's job looks shaky, sending Suzy to Expensive Nothing Special University suddenly looks like an iffier bet. The folks in Admissions are busier than they've been in years, dealing with parents who would have sent their kids someplace else in rosier times. On a selfish level, that's great, since so much of our budget comes from tuition. But the recession is likely to be temporary – I hope! -- and it masks the underlying demographic trend. In a way, it actually makes it harder to have the discussion locally about declining long-term enrollments, since right now enrollments are actually going up.

Looking forward a few years, assuming the recession has passed and the economy is back on track, we'll be hit with a double whammy of fewer 18 year olds and less countercyclical demand. That won't be pretty.

The combination of the glacial pace of academic change and a general ethos of conflict aversion makes it difficult to generate a sense of urgency around a crisis that's merely prospective. The tragedy, of course, is that that's when the cost of dealing with it is lowest.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen (or participated in) serious collegewide conversations about the imminent drop in numbers of 18 year olds? If you have, what's your college planning to do?