Student Demographic Trends For The 2020s: How To Stay Ahead

Stephen Hawking once said: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” Indeed, the student landscape in higher education has gone through cataclysmic changes in recent years, including a continual drop in domestic college-age population, increasing diversity, more non-traditional students, less international students, and continued adjustments to the current Gen Z student population, among others. Colleges should not just adapt but get ahead and embrace these changes, wherever and whenever possible. Here are some ideas and tips for staying ahead of the trend lines.

The Traditional, Go-To Student Pool Is Drying Up

The primary student prospect pool that U.S. colleges have targeted over the years is defined as well-prepared, domestic high school graduates under age 25 from families able to support the cost of college. Unfortunately, this population as a whole is shrinking.

According to Nathan D. Grawe, author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education (2018), in an interview he did for Inside Higher Ed, the recession that started in 2008 led people to delay starting families. The accompanying decline in birth rate means that by 2026, the number of college-age students in the U.S. will have dropped by 15 percent.

Regionally, the Northeast and eastern Midwest are hit the hardest with 20 to 25 percent fewer college-going students.

How are colleges and universities addressing this problem?

  • They are working to attract non-traditional, adult learners. The good news is that this is a growing demographic!
  • Expanding online education.
  • Increasing their outreach to parts of the country where population is growing. Population in the U.S. has shifted south and west.
  • Increasing outreach to first-generation, underrepresented students- another student demographic that is growing.
  • Focusing on diversity


A More Diverse Student Body

A 2019 report by the American Council on Education confirmed that colleges, reflecting national trends, are becoming more ethnically diverse, with some of the biggest gains among Hispanic and Asian students. Students of color made up just 29.6 percent of the undergraduate student population in 1996, increasing to 45.2 percent in 2016. According to Hanover Research, nearly one-third of all students are the first in their family to attend college. Nearly one-third of these first-generation students drop out within three years. With diversity in all its facets being so crucial to the educational environment and preparation of students for a diverse world, the report also sadly underscores how many institutions lag in support for underrepresented students, and in mirroring the growing student diversity with more diversity among their faculties and leadership.

A Century Foundation report authored by professors Mesmin Destin and Mary Murphy presents some excellent tips on supporting student diversity, including:

  • Reminding students they are not alone.
  • Enhance the visibility of financial aid and work-study jobs.
  • Ingrain in the campus culture- acknowledge, accept, and celebrate multiculturalism.
  • Treat discriminatory actions as dangerous, direct threats to a culture of inclusivity.

Hanover Research offers these suggestions in their “2020 Trends in Higher Education” report:

  • Engage parents through events, communications, and outreach.
  • Increase financial aid and scholarships for underrepresented students.
  • Conduct proactive outreach to students who may need more help.
  • Utilize peer mentors.

Christine Lee on presentsexamples of  college efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, including:

  • Establishing offices dedicated to supporting diversity on campus.
  • Increasing faculty, staff, and leadership diversity.
  • Offering academic programs, courses, and majors that push diversity and inclusion.
  • Offering flexible hours and arrangements to serve students who have jobs.
  • Providing targeted support for first-generation college students before they matriculate.
  • Diversity and inclusion training for faculty, students, staff and leadership.

The Continued Rise of Adult, Non-traditional Learners

According to, almost 75% of higher education students are “non-traditional,” defined as students over 25 who often hold full-time jobs (59%) and perhaps children of their own.

Jeff Maggioncalda in Inside Higher Ed, explains the educational need this way: “As workers move across jobs and careers, they will constantly need new skills — over many decades — to remain employable. This pace of change, fueled by globalization and technology, is fundamentally reshaping the future of work and creating a need for a new kind of lifelong learning.”

The rise of non-traditional students, which started many decades ago and continues today, has forced institutions to reassess traditional education, become more flexible, and redesign the program and delivery of degrees. Here are some examples of what colleges are doing, courtesy of Inside Higher Ed:

  • Expanding online education.
  • ”Unbundling” master’s and bachelor’s degrees into smaller certificates, and “micromasters” programs, making education more accessible to working adults.
  • Performance-based admissions– “The University of Colorado at Boulder’s master of science in electrical engineering exemplified this emerging trend, where a degree does not require prerequisites or an application. To qualify, students simply need to pass a series of online courses and a summative assessment for admission to the program.”
  • Partnering with employers who are increasing investment in employee education and development.

For higher education, a sector that often finds change difficult (see our earlier post), the decade ahead brings both challenges and opportunities. In subsequent blog posts we’ll explore how to deal with dwindling international students and supporting Gen Z. Here’s to a productive and fruitful 2020 and beyond.