New projections show colleges will continue to pick from fewer high school graduates
Telegram & Gazette Staff
Posted Nov 25, 2017 at 6:00 AM
Updated Nov 26, 2017 at 6:26 AM
Colleges in the region that have been waiting for the shrinking number of local high school graduates to finally rebound will have to wait even longer, a new state report suggests.
According to the latest college enrollment trend analysis from the state’s higher education department, the annual high school graduate count in Massachusetts, already down over the past few years, will continue to decline over the next two decades. That revised projection is less optimistic than earlier reports that estimated the numbers would trend upwards again after 2025.
“We knew (the high school graduate population) would be going down,” said the state’s Commissioner of Higher Education, Carlos Santiago. “The pessimism here is that we thought there would be a recovery a lot earlier. It’s very disappointing, but it’s just the reality.”
The state’s latest enrollment report says that this past year there were just over 75,000 new high school graduates in the state, a number that is expected to shrink next year but still hover in the 71,000 to 74,000 range over the next decade. But in 2026 – right around the time earlier projections forecast the start of a recovery – the number of new graduates is now expected to fall off even more sharply, dropping to just under 67,000 by 2031, which would be the lowest amount since 2003.
Officials at local colleges contacted by the Telegram & Gazette last week said the latest student population projections did not come as a real surprise; several said the state’s latest report was reiterating data that had been circulating previously. Some schools said they also haven’t seen much negative fallout so far from the leveling off of high school graduate numbers over the past few years.
The state university system, for example, which enjoyed a steady increase in applicants up until around five years ago, when its enrollments started to plateau, has nearly maintained enrollment since then. Between 2013 and this fall, for instance, Worcester State University’s enrollment slipped only from 5,556 students to 5,496, according to the state higher education department’s records, while Fitchburg State University went from 4,245 to 4,135.
Community colleges, however, have seen a precipitous decline in students, although that has a lot to do with the country’s economic rebound since the start of the decade. In the region, from 2011 to this fall, Quinsigamond Community College’s enrollment dropped from 9,130 students to 7,370, and Mount Wachusett Community College’s fell from 4,755 to 3,854, state data shows.
Fall enrollment data for local private colleges, meanwhile, was not readily available from most campuses contacted by the Telegram & Gazette. Some, like Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said they’ve seen flat to modest gains the last few years, which they expect to continue.
Andrew Palumbo, WPI’s dean of admissions and financial aid, acknowledged that the latest demographic data projections means “we’ve sort of climbed the mountain and reached the peak – now we’re on our way down.”
But WPI, he said, “has been preparing for this for years,” focusing much of its efforts on trying to bring in more applicants from groups that have traditionally been less represented in the sciences, like women and people of color.
“We want to make sure we’re continuing to break down those barriers,” he said, noting as an example WPI’s recent grade-school level programming it offers on its Institute Road campus, the intention of which is to introduce a new generation of students to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
In the public higher education realm, local campuses also see diversifying their recruiting efforts as a possible counter to the expected decline in high school graduates – out-of-state and international students and adult learners are some of the populations they’ll be leaning more on. They also expressed confidence their evolving degree offerings will continue to attract applicants – “programs like game design and our criminal justice police concentration continue to attract high numbers of applicants, for example, and we are confident that new programs launching now and in development will help us remain competitive,” said Matthew Bruun, the director of public relations at FSU.
Student retention will also be an important goal over the next two decades, according to Ryan Forsythe, WSU’s vice president for enrollment management, who said officials at the university “are optimistic we’ll be able to maintain our enrollment.” But the predicted demographics changes in the state have also motivated them to undertake a new “large-scale positioning study,” he said, that will help them get a better understanding of “what the future of Worcester State looks like” in that more competitive environment.
Community colleges, meanwhile, are not as beholden to swings in high school graduate numbers, given they already serve a more diverse population than their four-year counterparts. Their struggles the past few years are tied in part to the stabilizing of the local economy, which has allowed many would-be students to find work or keep their current jobs without having to go to college.
“I think that’s always going to be the key determinant for us,” said Luis Pedraja, the new president at QCC. “I think we’re better positioned to respond to that decline (in high school graduates).”
Mr. Pedraja added QCC has been able to weather its ongoing enrollment contraction. “I don’t see an immediate impact at this time,” he said of this fall’s numbers specifically.
MWCC communications specialist Sam Bonacci, meanwhile, pointed to the college’s variety of degree and certificate programs “designed to meet the wide array of needs in the region, from traditional college-age students, those returning to school after some time away, or professionals looking for continuing education,” as a source of confidence for college officials as they continue to deal with the declining high school-age demographic.
That trend is still impacting even community colleges, however, he said – “we are happy with our (fall enrollment) numbers given the stagnation” of the local high school graduate population.
While the community colleges’ continued enrollment decline is “a source of concern,” Mr. Santiago said, Central Massachusetts’ two campuses at least “are probably in better standing” than the two-year schools in some other parts of the state, like Western Massachusetts and the South Shore.
“They’re adjusting within their resource base” to deal with the financial impact of their lower student counts, he said of the state’s community colleges, as well as cooperating more to share facilities. “I think we’re seeing more of those collaborative efforts.”
In general, Mr. Santiago added, to get through the next 15 years, the state’s public higher education system will “need to respond more as a collective of institutions, rather than 29 separate ones.”
“I think we’ve been moving in the direction that I think will help us respond better” to the state’s demographic changes, he said.
Scott O’Connell can be reached at Scott.O’Connell@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottOConnellTG