WICHE further debunks the Demographic Cliff myth

Focus on high school completion rates supports our argument about overall demographics, college participation levels

Our post on the myth of the Demographic Cliff coincidentally appeared the same day that WICHE (the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education) released its 2020 update of projections of future high school graduation classes, Knocking at the College Door.

  • WICHE paints a positive demographics picture for higher ed, as we did, but approaches the question from a different angle.
    • While WICHE does look at Center for Disease Control population samples, the report concentrates on high school graduation rates and notes their increase from 79% in 2011 to 85% in 2018.
    • They project the 2037 High School graduating class will stand at 3.5 million, slightly larger than 2014’s.
      • For comparison, their estimate of the 2020 class size is 3.7 million.
    • They project the largest ever pool of graduating high schoolers in 2025 (3.9 million).
    • As we pointed out in our preceding post, the “birth death” idea behind the Demographic Cliff threat picks out 2007 as a starting point, a year which happens to be the all-time high for US births, making it an unsuitable baseline against which to compare current birth levels.
      • “Birth death” – euphemism for lower birth rates
      • Looking at the years before and after 2007, the US natality situation looks very stable.
  • WICHE’s projection of high school graduations by state may be the most interesting component of the report.
    • The detailled work that went into these state-level estimates will prove valuable.
    • The difficult task of estimating private high school graduation figures is also very helpful.
    • In general, the report focuses on the traditional high school-to-college pipeline, but data on less traditional educational paths makes the demographic case even sunnier.
    • The study also does not cover the increase in college participation rates that has evolved over the last decade.  This chart posted here yesterday illustrates the point.
% of US population aged 18-25 enrolled in an undergraduate program, 2008-18

% of US population aged 18-25 enrolled in an undergraduate program, 2008-18

  • WICHE’s highlighting of on-time high school completion makes a very worthwhile point but it actually undercounts the pool of prospective undergrads.
    • That increase in high school graduation rates is provided by the Dept. of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences report on Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the US: 2019.
    • This completion metric highlighted by WICHE measures on-time graduation based on cohort data.
      • The % high school graduation rate divides the number of graduates by the number of students in 9th grade 4 years prior.
      • Students dropping out but later completing High School through a GED or other means do not count in this percentage.
    • The IES Report tells us that 93% of 18-24 year olds not in high school have a high school diploma.
      • The 15% of 2015 9th graders who did not complete High School on time numbered about 660,000 (2018 graduation).
      • Approximately 500,000 students pass their GED every year.
      • According to trends, approximately 350,000 of the students among the IES’ 660,000 noncompleters will receive a high school degree within a few years of their scheduled HS graduation, making them eligible college prospects.
        • A substantial proportion of the remaining 7% not in that 93% are in prisonThe IES Report provides a figure of 32% but it is unclear what the denominator is for that ratio. 
    • Almost all high school students eventually receive a high school diploma.
    • The pool of potential college students is thus understated in the WICHE report.
  • Regional differences are notable
    • New England will experience the largest decrease in high school graduation classes up to 2037, according to WICHE.
      • Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island are hardest hit with 18% declines.
      • Maine has been struggling with a falling number of graduates through the 2010s and its flagship university has responded by becoming an importer of students.
        • The University of Maine has gone from 81% of entering undergrads being in-state in 2009 to 54% in 2018.
        • Other New England flagships show the same pattern
          • University of New Hampshire entering students has decreased from 54% to 39% in 2016.
          • On average in the 2010s, three quarters of University of Vermont’s entering class was out-of-state.These figures exclude international undergraduates. 
        • Demographic unfavorability for the states’ colleges is compounded by the outsize number of northern New England high schoolers who attend college out of state (from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont).
        • These three states’ out-of-state preferences lean to schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts, so intra-New-England competition is intense and will likely become more so.
      • Unfavorable demographics and college enrollment patterns will lead to problems for the many New England colleges.
    • Nevada and Idaho will see the largest increases in graduating classes
      • Utah to benefit from favorable trends in 2020s and then dip in 2030s.
      • These regions are at the center of many of today’s more adventurous developments in higher ed.
    • New Mexico has by far the lowest high school graduation rate of any state (2017 IES cohort is 71%).
      • Their rate is 6% lower than the next lowest state, Oregon.
      • WICHE is also predicting New Mexico’s absolute number of high school graduates will decline by about a quarter by 2037.
      • This portends no good for the state’s underdeveloped higher ed system.

    Concluding Thoughts

  • Using a different approach, WICHE supports our point that there is no threat of a college-age demographic bust
  • Projections to the middle of the 2020s are more favorable than the longer-term — and thus more risky — 2030s projections, further supporting optimism
  • Press coverage of the report hesitates to draw a positive from what is supportive information, but you should feel good about it