The Browning of U.S. Higher Education: Changing Student Demographics May Prove the Most Formidable Ever for American Colleges and Universities as Well as for Public K-12 School Systems, Scholars Say

By Roach, Ronald | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, June 11, 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Browning of U.S. Higher Education: Changing Student Demographics May Prove the Most Formidable Ever for American Colleges and Universities as Well as for Public K-12 School Systems, Scholars Say


Roach, Ronald, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Scholars at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California have pointed to the precedent of European immigration in the latter years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century to describe the challenges that lay ahead for U.S. K-12 and higher education. The institute recently released a population analysis showing that Hispanic children make up a majority or near-majority of first-graders in ten of the nation's largest cities.

"This is a profound demographic change, which provides a challenge for American education .... Like the Italians of the past, the Irish of the past, and the Jews of the past (who were immigrants), now you've got Asians and Hispanics overwhelmingly," says Dr. Rodolfo de la Garza, vice president of research at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute and a Columbia University political science professor.

"We are at the same percentage of immigrants in the nation that you had in 1920 and at that point they were 11 percent in the nation. And that's about where they are now.... The question is going to be 'are we going to take advantage of that opportunity or are we not?' And if we do, the nation has a whole new pool of people to work with," he adds.

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To scholars, such as de la Garza, and education access advocates, the challenges ahead for U.S. higher education over the next quarter century raised by changing student demographics may prove the most formidable ever for American colleges and universities as well as for public K-12 school systems. Non-White immigration to the United States since the 1960s is a major reason why minorities have become an increasingly growing presence the college-age pool.

While there is a predicted decline in White high school graduation numbers from 2004-2005 to 2019-2020 by 13.4 percent, projections of Black high school graduates will be largely flat with a slight increase of 2.5 percent during the same period, according to "Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates by State and Race/Ethnicity, 1992 to 2022," a report by the Denver-based Western Interstate Con> mission for Higher Education (WICHE) published in 2008. The WICHE report showed impressive national growth projections for Hispanic and Asian Pacific Islander students through 2019-2020. From 2004-2005 to 2019-2020, Hispanics will see a 89.9 percent jump in high school graduates, and Asian Pacific Islanders wil1 experience a projected 62.7 percent increase in high school graduates.

"I would anticipate that all things being equal the growing diversification of the (U.S. college student) population only will continue to escalate in the years beyond the last eight for which we actually projected high school graduates," says Dr. Brian Prescott, director of policy research at WICHE.

Bridging the Achievement Gap

Yet population numbers tell only part of the story, scholars and education access advocates say. While they point to data that predicts increasing proportions of Hispanic, Asian and Black students making up the college-age population in the coming years, experts report that the potential college cohort will seek postsecondary educational opportunities with greater financial aid and college transition support needs than ever before. These needs mean that efforts aimed at solving the achievement gap, increasing college affordability and reducing college costs, and boosting U.S. degree completion rates so that Americans can regain global academic leadership will remain among the most important policy initiatives for the health of U.S. higher education.

"The numbers suggest we're not in a good place. The rhetoric, on the other hand, suggests that at least we're increasingly aware of where we ought to be and more mindful of where we are," says Dr. Arnold Mitchem, president of the Washington-based Council for Opportunity in Education, which lobbies on behalf of federal TRIO student access and success programs.

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