YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The demographic cliff presents universities with a unique set of challenges and some schools are saying it arrived ahead of schedule.
The U.S. birthrate fell considerably during and after the Great Recession. Nearly 2.3 million fewer babies were born in the United States between 2008 and 2013 than would have been expected if pre-recession fertility rates had been sustained, according to a study by the University of New Hampshire.
Unlike previous economic downturns, the birth rate did not bounce back when the economy stabilized. According to a 2020 study by the Brookings Institute, the birthrate is down nearly 20% between 2007 and 2020. Prospects of it rebounding are unlikely.
The drop in birthrate catalyzed a “demographic cliff” for higher education in the United States in the form of a dramatic drop in the traditional, college-aged population – particularly in the Midwest. Ohio and Pennsylvania expected to see a decrease of over 15% in graduating high school seniors. The cliff was projected to begin in 2025. Some university administrators say it’s already here.
Enrollment declines continued to worsen this past spring semester, according to the biannual Current Term Enrollment Estimates report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Undergraduate enrollment dropped 4.7% this spring, or over 662,000 students from spring 2021. As a result, the undergraduate student body is now 9.4% smaller than before the pandemic, a decline of nearly 1.4 million students.
The University of Akron’s vice provost for enrollment, Stephen McKellips, says the pandemic brought the demographic cliff early to his university.
“It’s hard to believe that there’s even a cliff, let alone that the cliff came early,” he says. “We went from anticipating it and trying to create a response, to it happening so fast that our responses haven’t been able to hit full force before the numbers actually started to adjust.”
McKellips says enrollment is low compared to previous years. The previous fall semester saw a decrease of approximately 9%. In 2020, enrollment fell 7.2% from the 2019 fall semester. In 2016, 23,152 were enrolled for the fall semester and in 2021 only 16,193, a 30% decrease in five years.
It’s hard to accurately predict enrollment, McKellips says. He notes the university is often the last to be notified when a student makes his decision. An accurate count can’t be made until after the university’s census date, which falls between the 10th and 14th day of the semester.
“When students make their decisions, they may announce it on TikTok. They may announce it to their friends,” he says. “They may tap their parents on the shoulder and say they’ve made a decision. But the last person they call is me.”
Youngstown State University estimates a 4% decline in enrollment for the upcoming fall semester. Provost Brien Smith and Neal McNally, vice president for finance and business, cited a lack of high school graduates throughout the region along with students arriving with college credits as causes for the decline.
“The decline is compounded by the fact that an increasing number of students are arriving with significant College Credit Plus credits that they earned in high school,” Smith and McNally said in a campuswide email on June 30. “That, in turn, has helped us experience significant increases in our graduation rate and in the numbers of students graduating and leaving the university every year.”
They added that while those are all positive factors, they also have implications on enrollment and the future size of the institution. Enrollment is the university’s main source of revenue. Fewer enrolled students mean less revenue to support operations.
YSU has faced several enrollment challenges since 2010. In the last 12 years, enrollment has decreased by 26%. In October, enrollment stood at an all-time low and revenues from fees and tuition were down $2.6 million.
“While so many people on campus are working hard to enhance enrollment, we must recognize that YSU has experienced a 26% decrease in student enrollment since 2010,” Smith and McNally said. “We must prepare for continuing declines over the next several years.”
Penn State Shenango also cited a shrinking high school graduate demographic as cause for its enrollment decline over the last five to 10 years, says Chuck Greggs, director of enrollment management and admissions.
Greggs says 300 students enrolled last year and he expects that number to remain stable. The number is down from an average of 400 in recent years and pre-pandemic. Looking down the road, he would like to see it restored to the 600-student mark it hit regularly five to 10 years ago.
“We have a small number to start with. We were in the 400s and now we’re in the 300s,” Greggs says. “That’s directly related to the demographic cliff everyone talks about.”
The Kent State University campus system, composed of eight regional campuses including main, saw a 4.1% decrease in enrollment from fall 2020 to fall 2021. Peggy Shadduck, vice president for regional campuses, says enrollment varied greatly among campuses and even programs.
“I don’t think you can look at any one number and think that particular number completely described what was going on with enrollment in 2021 and 2022,” Shadduck says. “You kind of have to dig into details by program, by campus and by modality. Overall, our enrollment was down some. But some areas were up and that depended on all kinds of things.”
Enrollment in the KSU system has remained steady over the years and typically fluctuates only a few percentage points between semesters. The main campus exceeded pandemic-based predictions and saw a 4% increase in enrollment for the 2021 fall semester over 2020.
Andrew Crawford, associate vice president of strategic enrollment management for regional campuses, says KSU is inching toward normality but it’s not quite there. The comfort level of students and staff regarding the pandemic, he says, and the return to campus played an influential part in enrollment and the university’s response.
“There were still a lot of things that we wanted to do to make sure that we had a safe environment for our students, for our staff or our faculty and for the surrounding communities,” Crawford says. “Regional campuses are embedded deeply within those communities and have to have strong ties with those communities. Safety and education were really at the forefront of what we were trying to do as we reengage with getting back to campus.”
The demographic cliff is inevitable, UA’s McKellips says, and nothing can change the facts – but universities still need to adjust and plan accordingly. He says the university can’t manufacture 18- and 19-year-olds to enroll in the university. Instead of trying to do the impossible, he says, the university focuses on making the student experience the best it can be for the students it does and will have.
“There’s nothing we can do about the students. They were born already. Instead, we’re paying a lot of attention to the quality of life the students experience and making sure that when those students who choose to come to the university, the experience is the best kind of experience we can provide,” he says.
McKellips can’t increase the number of people who walk through the front door as he’s done for the 25 years of his career, he says, but he can “potentially influence the experience in such a way that those who come will stay.”
Greggs says Penn State Shenango has effected several tactics to recruit the dwindling number of high school graduates. The university introduced athletics after 20 years of disbandment.
“We have athletes from as far away as Florida and New York and Michigan. We pull a lot of students from the Ohio area for athletics programs,“ he says. “So, athletics was a big piece.”
Greggs says his school is also working to improve student life in downtown Sharon. Privately owned student housing that can hold 15 to 20 students, he says, might attract more students from further away.
“We’re trying to work with some local developers and the city of Sharon to make more student life areas downtown here to attract students from outside the area,” he says “Because in Mercer, Lawrence, Trumbull and Mahoning counties, there are definitely some population challenges there.”
The YSU Plan for Strategic Actions to Take Charge of Our Future was introduced and endorsed by its board of trustees in June 2020. The plan provides a “comprehensive road map for a successful and sustainable future.”
Smith and McNally say progress and success have been achieved with the plan, including the implementation of the Penguin Pass, CRM Advise, Student Success Seminar and a new academic advising structure. The university also increased its marketing tactics.
“We also have increased our investment in marketing to target specific regions and geo-markets, stepped up recruitment and cultivation initiatives for prospective students and adjusted our scholarship strategy to boost student access,” Smith and McNally said. The initiatives appear to be paying off in terms of student success and graduation rates but enrollment continues to decline. “Despite this progress, the lifeblood of our financial sustainability – student enrollment – continues to wane.”
Crawford and Shadduck say the regional campuses are in a unique position for the demographic cliff. The campuses do not rely solely on “traditional” 18- and 19-year-old students and they are leaning in and embracing their adult learners.
“The demographic cliff really refers to the idea that we’re going to have fewer and fewer students coming out of high school,” Shadduck says. “But that doesn’t mean there are actually fewer and fewer learning needs of people.”
Crawford says KSU will continue its emphasis on adult learners. The communities surrounding the regional campuses have a lower-than-average number of adults with degrees and credentials beyond secondary education. He says KSU has an opportunity to increase enrollment despite the cliff.
“We’ve got a whole group of adult learners that are right there within our own communities that we need to tap into, not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of the surrounding communities and counties in the state of Ohio,” he says. “Our wonderful programs and the careers and the opportunities they can provide for those families and really change family trees for years to come – that’s really what’s important here.”