President's Book Club: Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education

President Isiaah Crawford

Sounds scintillating, right? A real page-turner. But bear with us a minute. Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of grim headlines about the declining birth rate in the U.S. and what it means for all kinds of things, like the American economy, and how members of the House of Representatives are apportioned, and whether Social Security can remain solvent when there are fewer young workers paying into the system—and what will happen in higher education, where colleges have spent more than five decades expanding to accommodate the baby boom and its echo but now are beginning to find themselves with more classroom seats than students to sit in them.

In this little book, Nathan Grawe, a professor of social sciences at Carleton College, disentangles the demographic data, breaking them down regionally and considering factors such as ethnicity, migration, immigration, and parents’ education levels. He uses these data to develop the Higher Education Demand Index, which suggests that for some types of colleges at least—colleges like Puget Sound—if they think optimistically and strategically, the coming “birth dearth” does not necessarily have to be scary.

Here, President Crawford talks about why Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education was high on his reading list and what the college is doing to prepare for coming shifts in the U.S. population.

—Chuck Luce

Demographics and the Demand for Higher EducationNow this is a book that I can get excited about. For a social scientist like me, it’s intellectually thrilling, even though it’s not exactly flying off bookstore shelves. It is, of course, the case that the U.S. population is trending downward: Birth rates plummeted after the Great Recession of 2008—by nearly 13%— and by 2026 the number of native-born children reaching college age will begin a rapid decline. But Professor Grawe argues that while number is important, so is who. From him we learn the importance of developing reasoned, data-informed perspectives. If we are aware, nimble, creative, and willing to take advantage of the opportunities presented to us, Puget Sound can not only just survive but actually thrive, as competition for traditional-age high school students intensifies. And intensify it will. Every institution will be trying to adapt to contracting enrollments. Not just peer colleges—also master’s, comprehensive, and regional schools, as well as the flagship state colleges and universities— everybody will be trying to take our lunch.

So then how do we stand out? Why would we be the school of choice for prospective students and their parents? Those are questions our new strategic plan is designed to answer. We developed it recognizing that there are all sorts of challenges out there, many of them associated with demographic issues, but also with the idea that we can be the arbiters of our own future if we are willing to take good, calculated risks. We’re exploring ways in which we can further refine our educational model to make sure our students are able to lean into whatever comes before them. And while we are certainly going to send out from Tacoma students who are job-ready and prepared for advanced study, we also want them to know how to adjust, to adapt, to be entrepreneurial, to have a sense of self and a sense of agency, and, as always has been true of a Puget Sound education, to be lifelong learners.

More specifically, our plan—we call it Leadership for a Changing World—has an enhanced focus on making certain our students have high-impact learning experiences: more experiential learning opportunities, strong mentorship, and community engagement. That’s going to be very key: internships, field placements, research, project-based learning, and study abroad. We want to make sure our students know how to apply what they’ve learned and can see connections, that they’re able to work effectively with others and have a global perspective. We want to make sure that all of our students get the best of what we offer. That every student gets the best, most comprehensive Puget Sound experience.

And so we’re looking attentively at the educational programs we offer. We want to remain connected to and committed to our liberal arts focus, particularly around interdisciplinary programs, but we’re looking, too, at creating new academic programs that have emerging demand and interest among current students, as well as prospective students. These might include data science; data analytics, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels; museum studies; expanding programming at the graduate level in the health sciences; and perhaps also in sports management or health care management. Other options that we’re looking into are enlarging our current and highly regarded graduate programs in education, physical therapy, and occupational therapy (which had record enrollment this year).

The college must make investments to carry forth this vision. We want to have strong appeal to the best and brightest and most-resourced students, and the best and brightest least-resourced students, and we will launch a comprehensive fundraising campaign that will have student financial aid as its primary component. In addition, the plan calls for us to identify efficiencies and entrepreneurial opportunities consistent with our mission and values that will allow us to diversify our revenue streams to promote the accessibility, affordability, and value of a Puget Sound education.

Carefully considered and applied policies such as these will help Puget Sound confront looming challenges, but Professor Grawe reminds us that the demographic patterns and consequences he identifies are based on existing data, and population is dynamic. “The [Higher Education Demand Index] is a forecast model, not a seer,” he says. The Leadership for a Changing World strategic plan has a 10-year horizon, which is long by today’s standards. But we feel like we need to build with a vista, at the same time recognizing that we’re not on a fixed track, moving forward irrespective of what happens. Every few years we’ll step back and do an environmental scan to determine if we need to make corrections. Stay tuned.

Chuck Luce is former editor of Arches.