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THE BIG IDEA

A shortage of college students will soon hit the Northeast

The number of college-age kids is shrinking since the US saw more than a 16 percent drop in the number of babies being born between 2007 and 2020.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

It’s hard to beat the numbers.

And to understand the numerical disaster that’s about to hit higher education, a pillar of New England’s economy, travel back with me — for a moment — to the Great Recession.

In 2008 and 2009, with financial fortunes crumbling and banks going belly up, Americans made some profound adjustments to their lives.

“Many of us can think of our employment situations at that time, and found the Great Recession to be stressful and uncertain,” says Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College in Minnesota. “And we might have experienced that in our workplaces. Well, young families experienced it also in their home. And they responded by — it seems — decreasing fertility.”

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He points out that between 2007 — when there was a little “baby boomlet” — and 2020, the US saw more than a 16 percent drop in the number of babies being born. Which is to say that between 2008 and 2020, more than 7 million babies were not born that would have been born, had fertility rates stayed at 2007 levels.

And long before the Great Recession started — stressing out potential parents — America’s birth rate had declined notably, going from about 3.7 children per woman in 1960 to 2.1 children per woman in the early 2000s.

In other words, the number of college-age kids is shrinking, and that trend will only become more exaggerated in coming years. So what are the implications for those who work in and around higher education — and for cities and towns that depend on local colleges?

Lots of potential turmoil, says Grawe, the author of the book “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education.”

Grawe says that more than a decade ago, when he first saw projections of the number of college-age students, “my first thought was: ‘Wow, that does not look good.’ My second thought was: ‘Well, maybe that’s got nothing to do with me.’”

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But once he began examining the numbers, what struck him was how unevenly the demographic earthquake will be felt. There will be winners and losers, with enormous implications for different geographic, racial, and economic groups.

On the geographic front, the story is particularly rough in the Northeast, because we had some of the lowest birth rates in the nation even before the Great Recession. Which has already spelled trouble for schools that primarily serve local kids.

It has likely factored into a slew of mergers (like Pine Manor and Boston College), closures (such as Newbury College and Green Mountain College), and angst about the future (exemplified by Hampshire College’s debates about whether it could survive independently).

In addition, Grawe says, young families are increasingly moving away from both the Northeast and West Coast, and landing in the Southeast and Southwest. And immigrants coming from outside the US also tend to head to the southern half of the country.

Some colleges in southern states have been able to buck demographic trends, because their states are seeing so much in-migration. But there are other sorts of divisions that promise to further turn higher education into a world of haves and have-nots.

In his book, Grawe writes about two contrasting figures: an Asian-American girl who lives in the Boston area with her parents, both of whom have earned more than a bachelor’s degree; and a Hispanic boy who lives in rural California with his mother, who did not receive a high school diploma. These aren’t real people — just demographic examples.

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The girl will likely face stiff competition if she wants to go to an elite college. Women now enroll in colleges at much higher rates than men; close to 60 percent of college students are women, while about 40 percent are men (a truly stunning divide). In addition, the percentage of students who have parents with college educations is increasing, and Asian Americans are the fastest-growing demographic group in the country.

Grawe writes that the probability that the girl from Boston will attend a four-year college is more than 95 percent.

The boy, meanwhile, is statistically less likely to be part of the college crowd for a few reasons. First, he’s male. Second, his mother doesn’t have a college degree. Third, he’s from a rural area. Grawe says the likelihood that the teen from California will attend a four-year college is under 10 percent.

Elite schools, then, are unlikely to suffer from a demographic downturn in the way that regional schools will.

Elite schools are poised to benefit from the growing share of kids whose parents went to college — making their children more likely to go to college — and from the fact that fame allows them to draw from parts of the country with a more modest decline in teenagers. It’s possible, Grawe says, that some selective colleges could get even more selective.

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Meanwhile, two-year and regional four-year institutions, which generally accept all qualified applicants, could suffer profoundly.

Grawe says that some predict 10 or 20 percent of institutions will close. “We already have — especially in the Northeast — a large number of small private institutions with minimal endowments, so they don’t have a whole lot of a backstop.”

And the effect of closures, he believes, could be catastrophic, especially in towns where the health of the economy is dependent on the local college.

Michael Goodman, a professor of public policy at UMass Dartmouth, says that “the stakes for the small New England college town are high.” And he notes that “given how dependent the Commonwealth is on higher education as an industry, it’s going to be deeply challenging.”

But both Grawe and Goodman believe there are reasons to be optimistic.

Goodman says there are major needs in the New England labor market that have to be filled. “They’re going to need people who can do multiple things, who can learn quickly.”

Grawe, meanwhile, believes that no one — from students to alums to neighbors — wants to see the places they care about shut down, “and they’re willing to substantially reform what they do to avoid that outcome.”

Students and visitors mingle in Harvard Yard at Harvard University.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

What sorts of reforms might be in store?

Many colleges may have to “change the product that [they’re] selling,” says Grawe. “The institutions that I fear for are the ones where we can’t agree that there’s a problem.”

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To survive, many institutions may shrink, reducing the number of teaching positions.

Goodman says that online education is increasingly in demand from both traditional and non-traditional students. It will be “a growing part of the mix of options,” he says. “But is online education the silver bullet? I don’t think so.”

Another potential answer is more international students, but Grawe notes that “COVID has thrown a serious wrench into the international student pipeline.”

We now have fewer international students than we did in 2019. And lots of countries are building new campuses, in a bid to keep their best and brightest at home.

So, Grawe argues, higher education has to do a better job of reaching out to groups who are, historically, less likely to attend college, including rural residents, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, men, and students whose parents aren’t college educated.

We also have to be better about making sure that students who start college don’t drop out — research shows that about a quarter of freshmen don’t return for sophomore year.

And while elite schools may assume that they can put blinders on and let the good times roll, there’s a catch. As more colleges feel the squeeze, they will likely start to exert pressure on more selective schools.

“I anticipate them to amp up their competition in ways that may become uncomfortable for more selective peers,” says Grawe. “More tuition discounting, more merit-based aid, and so on.”

That competition is likely to intensify with time.

“We’ve now baked in many, many years of deep, deep cuts in births,” Grawe says. “It’s not like: well, we’ve just got to skate through this couple of years of small cohorts, and then we’ll come out the other side and go back to normal.

“No, the new normal is declining numbers of kids coming into the pipeline, and that will occur year after year ... through the 2030s and into the 2040s. So whatever plans you have to respond better not be short-term ... We’re going to have to think more fundamentally.”


Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.