Learning Curve

Midwestern colleges have fewer local kids to tap

Annie Baxter Jul 28, 2014
Learning Curve

Midwestern colleges have fewer local kids to tap

Annie Baxter Jul 28, 2014

Tom Crady wants high school kids across the country to think about attending Gustavus Adolphus College, even if they mangle the name.

“Some won’t say the name at all. They just say, ‘Tell me how you pronounce the college’s name,'” says Crady, vice president of enrollment at the college, which is pronounced gus-TAY-vus uh-DOLPH-us.

The liberal arts college, perched on a bluff in southern Minnesota, is seeing fewer applicants from its home state, as well as other Midwestern states. So Crady is courting potential students from far-flung places like Texas and even India.

“We go farther and longer distances than ever before,” Crady says.

Crady says the changes are occasioned by big demographic shifts. In the ’90s, birth rates fell nationally. On top of that, lots of people migrated south and west. That all spells a decline in high school graduates in the Northeast and Midwest today. That’s according to Brian Prescott, who directs research at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

“You can’t grow 18-year-olds or high school graduates in a laboratory,” Prescott says.

Prescott estimates there’s been a 7 percent drop in high school grads in the middle of the country just over the past six years.

Colleges as far away as Dartmouth and Harvard have noticed fewer Midwestern applicants. But experts say the demographic changes are not a big deal for elite institutions with fat endowments and kids lined up at the door. Small, liberal arts colleges that are not household names will likely suffer more as tuition dollars shrink.

“It’s very tough right now not only finding the number of your potential applicants dropping but knowing that there are others competing with you to try to get those graduates,” says Diane Viacava, vice president in the higher education division at the credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service.

Viacava says many small Midwestern colleges are struggling with the shifting demographics. Among those rated by Moody’s rates, a couple dozen have seen two consecutive years of declining enrollments.

Many are bumping up their recruiting budgets and offering big discounts on tuition.

“What we’re finding is that some of the Midwest colleges are discounting over 50 percent to get a student to come to the college,” Viacava says.

That’s true at Gustavus Adolphus. On average, the college cuts its $40,000 annual tuition by about half.

But, Viacava says, as revenue falls, colleges have to figure out how to cut costs in other areas, like faculty.

“Given that many of them could have a somewhat inflexible expense structure, that can prove very challenging for operations,” Viacava says.

Even some public institutions are feeling the pain. Minnesota State University Moorhead recently blamed changing demographics when it announced plans to eliminate several low-enrollment programs.

If there are any winners in this scenario, they may be the Midwestern high school students who are in such short supply. Brayden Yel begins her senior year of high school in a St. Paul suburb this fall. On a recent visit to Gustavus Adolphus, Yel said she’s received a lot of emails and letters from Midwestern Colleges.

“Absolutely,” Yel says. “Lots of asking for tours and stuff like that.”

So far Yel doesn’t seem to mind all the attention.

Region Class of 2008 (actual) Class of 2014 (projected) % change
Midwest (IL, IN, IA, KS, MI, MN, MO, NE, OH, WI) 705,639 656,022 -7
Northeast (CT, ME, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT) 552,289 526,820 -4.6
South (AL, AR, DE, DC, FL, GA, KY, LA, MD, MS, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, VA, WV) 1,031,773 1,051,890 2
West (AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, MT, NV, NM, ND, OR, SD, UT, WA, WY) 711,636 700,086 -1.6

Source: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education

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