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Colleges and universities adapt to changing demographics, student preferences

Colleges and universities adapt to changing demographics, student preferences

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Photo by Polina Tankilevitch

Dramatic demographic shifts, along with changes to how and where students want to learn, are leading to a substantial transformation of recruitment and instruction strategies at higher education institutions. In anticipation of a drop in undergraduate enrollment, schools now scramble to find new and innovative methods for attracting prospective students

The number of high school graduates is on pace to drop significantly throughout the Northeast and much of the U.S. by the early 2030s, including New York and the New England states, which anticipate reductions between 2.5 and 15%.

This is according to Dr. Nathan Grawe, a professor of social sciences at Carleton College who authored the 2018 book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. Even steeper declines are expected among white, non-Hispanic college age students across the country, while the number of Asian and Hispanic students is rising in most of the U.S.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges Dean of Admissions John Young, who is familiar with Grawe’s work, said the number of students starts to decline significantly in 2025. Beyond 2025, students of color will make up an increasingly higher percentage of college-bound teenagers.


“Demographics are shifting dramatically,” Young said. “As an institution, if you aren’t spending a bunch of time thinking about this it would be to your own detriment.”

Young, who has worked in higher education for more than three decades, said it’s critical that schools start to lay the groundwork now to be able to attract a more diverse cohort in the future. In preparing for that future, Hobart and William Smith plans to increase the geographic footprint of its recruiting area.

For Hobart and William Smith, it’s vital to recruit from outside the Northeast, where the majority of the school’s students traditionally have come from, Young said, noting that this is particularly due to the region’s dwindling student population.

As part of its efforts to reach expand its geographic reach, Hobart and William Smith has increased partnerships with community-based organizations aimed at helping students from traditionally diverse and underserved backgrounds gain access to college. Young said the extensive outreach and networking within such organizations provides the school with broader reach into underserved high schools and, ultimately, has delivered “phenomenal students” to the college.

Young said the strategy has proven successful for Hobart and William Smith, which has an incoming class that is 27% Black, Indigenous and people of color and 20% first generation college students. Those numbers are “dramatically different” from the single-digit percentages at the school when Young started 17 years ago.

The coronavirus pandemic also forced Hobart and William Smith “to look in the mirror” and ask if there are programs or other opportunities that would be more relevant and attract prospective students, Young said, adding the school added several sports and a few minors and majors in fields like data analytics, museum studies and aquatic science over the last couple years.

Robert Wyant, director of undergraduate admissions at SUNY Brockport, echoed Young’s thoughts about the dwindling population, saying the state of New York specifically is “experiencing a declining high school demographic” and the state is “in the middle of a massive drop off” of high school graduates.


Wyant said there are several efforts underway at SUNY Brockport to maintain enrollment despite fewer incoming students, starting with several unique scholarship programs, something that has attracted students by making it financially feasible to attend college. Finances always play a role in education decisions, Wyant said, and many students and families are “hyperaware” of the financial component as costs rise and economic uncertainty increases.

One such program aimed at making college more affordable for low-income and underrepresented demographics at SUNY Brockport is the Fannie Barrier Williams Scholars program, a partnership with ESL Federal Credit Union, that will provide 30 local low-income students with funding to eliminate out-of-pocket expenses.

“Another piece of it is ensuring that your academic program array is relevant to the needs of society and market demands,” Wyant said. “We’re constantly reviewing that and evaluating that, adding new programs and adding new methods of delivering those programs.”

Part of that right now involves identifying new opportunities for online bachelor’s degree completion programs, Wyant said, adding students “want to have the opportunity to take classes when and where they want,” especially in the case of working adults seeking to complete a degree program.

In response to the shrinking population of college-bound students, Nazareth College Vice President for Strategic Enrollment Management Frank Williams said the school is seeking to distinguish itself from other schools in a variety of ways.


“There are fewer students overall and a lot of students now are questioning the value of a higher education, and they’re questioning if they should go to a four-year school and they’re questioning loans,” Williams said. “We’re really trying to differentiate ourselves with regards to how we’re speaking about Nazareth and making sure we’re equity minded and enhancing our offerings.”

Williams said diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are front and center at Nazareth and a top priority of the school’s leadership. Roughly 17% of Nazareth’s student body belong to underrepresented populations, Williams said, and the school is aiming to reach 22-25% in the coming years.

“There’s definitely a push to increase underrepresented populations, and specifically we realize that the growing population of Latinx and Hispanic students is here,” Williams said.

Like Young, Williams pointed to partnerships with community-based organizations as important moving forward. Williams said Peer Forward, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, recently brought more than 300 students from high schools across the country to the Nazareth campus for a workshop that included learning about the admissions process, financial aid and drafting a personal essay.

Nazareth College also launched major initiative focused on innovation in education and reaching a wider range of learners. Their Expansive Naz program strives to create programming for individuals seeking a career change or advancement, develop flexible degree programs for cost-conscious undergraduates and provide adaptable educational content and delivery options to meet the needs of new and different learners.


“We’re really looking at the whole picture of what the opportunities are for us to deliver quality and cost sensitive content to learners,” said Janet Anderson, who was named executive director of the program in July, adding Expansive Naz would complement the school’s equity and inclusion initiatives.

Anderson said ultimately Expansive Naz intends to meet people where their needs are and assist them with career changes or specialized education, while also attempting to attract alums who may want to acquire a certificate or complete a graduate program and connecting with former students who seeking to finish a degree.

“You can think of it as moving beyond the strict semester-type focus and putting modules together and making those stackable,” Anderson said, adding Nazareth is actively working on flexible classrooms and hybrid schooling is a clear focus moving forward. “All of that is open territory for us at this point.”

Matt Reitz is a Rochester-area freelance writer.