When she was a high school freshman, Praise Hall lived in a hotel room in Colorado with her parents and six siblings. Even back then she knew she wanted to go to college one day, but it didn’t seem possible.
“I looked at my parents and I was like, how are we going to afford college?” she recalled in an interview last week from Bowdoin College, where she is a sophomore. “My mom looked at me and she was like, it’s all going to work out.”
And it did — in what she calls a miracle, she was awarded a full scholarship to Bowdoin, an elite liberal arts college in Maine. Her life will never be the same.
In college admissions jargon, Hall is a first-generation, low-income student of color, the type of student who used to be an anomaly on the white, middle-class campuses of New England’s many colleges. But increasingly, people like her are becoming a more common presence.
Although colleges for years now have made at least some effort to diversify their campuses, the country’s changing demographics will soon give them no choice.
The nation’s high school population is becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly unable to afford high tuition prices. Additionally, experts predict a major drop in the number of high school graduates overall after the year 2025 — especially in New England — because people have had fewer babies since the 2008 economic recession. As a result, local colleges will have to work harder to bring students to campus and offer them significantly more financial assistance. And some of them, experts predict, will find this a daunting new calculus, leading to more college mergers and even closures.
“Institutions in places like Massachusetts and New York and Illinois are going to be really challenged to maintain enrollments,” said Joseph Garcia, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, whose research on this topic is the industry gold standard. “There are just not going to be enough wealthy, full-paying students to go around.”
College admissions offices know about these new demographics, which are predicted to continue, and many have begun to alter their recruitment strategies so they don’t find themselves with a sudden dearth of applicants. They are recruiting in new locations, connecting with students in new ways, and trying to find more money for scholarships and ways to cut tuition prices.
Saint Michael’s College, in Vermont, offers some students the chance to enroll in a free college course online during their last semester of high school to help persuade them to attend and also save money.
Suffolk University, in downtown Boston, has a new agreement with state community colleges that guarantees students with good grades a tuition discount to finish their degree at Suffolk.
Hampshire College in Amherst has twice the number of first-generation students and students of color as it did five years ago. To help them afford the $50,000 tuition, it has decreased its merit scholarships and used that money instead for need-based aid.
Earlier this month at Trinity College in Connecticut, Angel Perez, the vice president for enrollment and student success, met with his staff to formulate a plan for how they will recruit amid the expected demographic shifts.
“This is the biggest challenge higher education has right now,” Perez said.
When Perez sends out his recruiters each year, he urges all of them to seek out low-income, first-generation students, even though it can be more time-consuming and expensive. They meet students not only during the day at high schools but increasingly at after-school programs that help such students successfully make it to college.
According to data from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the decline in high school graduates will come largely because of a decline in white public school students.
The number of high school graduates has been growing for the past 15 years, according to the research, but starting around the year 2025, the number is expected to decline. The pool of graduates will be down by 8 percent by the early 2030s, the commission predicts.
Regionally, the story is more nuanced. The number of college applicants from the South and West is predicted to grow, while the number in the Northeast and Midwest will likely decline. About 45 percent of the nation’s high school graduates will be from the South by 2030, according to the commission’s latest report on the topic, which means New England colleges will likely focus more of their recruiting efforts there.
Very well-known schools like Harvard and Yale, with their national appeal and vast resources for recruitment and student aid, are likely to navigate the demographic shifts with ease, but not so those with less name recognition, wealth, and prestige. Many have spent recent years beefing up amenities (fancy athletic centers, gourmet dining halls) to attract students who can pay the sticker price. And many will still be paying down that debt when enrollment of full-tuition students is likely to ebb.
In a report released in December, Moody’s Investors Service changed its outlook for the higher education industry from stable to negative because of the expected slowing of tuition revenue growth.
The sector faces even more uncertainty, Moody’s said, because of potential changes to federal policies that could squeeze financial aid and philanthropic support, and raise the cost of borrowing.
Public colleges are not immune from these trends, either. Amid years of declining state support, public schools increasingly recruit out-of-state students because they pay more. About three quarters of undergraduates at the University of Vermont are from out of state, for example. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, about a quarter of students are from other states.
For years, many schools have leaned on international students as a major source of full-pay students. But President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and tighter federal policies have made it harder for students to obtain visas, so they increasingly go to other English-speaking countries like Australia and Canada.
Amid increasing competition, college admission officers from some elite schools say they have also become more targeted in their marketing and aggressive in explaining their generous financial aid policies to students who, like Hall, often assume the elite schools of the Northeast are too expensive.
Colleges increasingly use social media to reach students likely to be interested in their type of school, and they rely less on traditional in-person visits to high school guidance offices. Schools also turn to charity recruitment organizations like QuestBridge, the one Praise Hall participated in, and the Posse Foundation to attract high-achieving low-income and minority students.
Hall said her guidance counselors would have been satisfied if she had attended a local community college or state school, which was her plan before she took it upon herself to apply for the scholarship program that ultimately connected her with Bowdoin.
“My parents hadn’t gone to college, so this whole experience was new to me; it was uncharted territory,” she said.
To encourage a more diverse pool of students to apply, many colleges have waived application fees, modified their application forms, and even accepted simplified applications to make the process easier for families who are new to the process and have limited time and money.
Amherst College is translating a brochure for prospective students into Spanish for the first time, according to Katharine Fretwell, the Amherst dean of admission and financial aid.
Other college admissions officials said they have done little to reach new parts of the country, but they have reported a rise in applications from those regions nevertheless.
Bowdoin received applications from students at 1,000 more high schools this year than three years ago, and from students of increasing economic and racial diversity, said Whitney Soule, dean of admissions and financial aid. Last year the school eliminated the application fee for any student applying for financial aid or who was the first in their family to attend college.
“It really is important that not just Bowdoin but all schools are thinking ahead of where students are, and making sure we get there,” Soule said.
Colby College, in Waterville, Maine, does not require parents who make $60,000 or less to pay at all. The school’s top admissions official, Matt Proto, said he believes that policy has helped the school become more diverse. Two years ago about 7 percent of the entering class was very low-income; this year that figure was 14 percent, he said.
As schools recruit students who would have otherwise never applied, recruiters must often convince these students not only that they can afford it, but that they belong. That was a challenge for Ali Rami, a child of Moroccan immigrants who went to high school in Texas.
His parents had big dreams for him to attend Harvard, but the 19-year-old felt like an impostor when he started to think about applying. And he knew Colby College, where he is now a freshman, was a predominantly white school.
“I didn’t think I was what the colleges were looking for,” said Rami.
Like Hall, he was accepted to a scholarship program that recruits promising first-generation, minority students and coaches them through the application process. Rami slowly started to see himself as capable. In his senior year he took five advanced placement courses and was a member of 23 extracurricular clubs.
Since arriving at Colby, he said, it’s been a journey of not only academic but personal growth. Rami is a Muslim, and he said it was a challenge at first to open up about his religion. But he found people at school compassionate and open-minded, even if his traditions were foreign to them.
“They’re willing to accept that they don’t understand, and that’s OK,” he said.
He has also had to adjust to things like the cold, and that everyone wears flannel. But he said Colby has also made him more open and honest, because people check on him when they notice he seems to be struggling.
“This college has done something for me that I don’t think I would have gotten to do otherwise,” he said.