In A Theater Near You

The Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education (WICHE) has generated a forecast of public high school graduates to the year 2020, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Clicking on the link will take you to an interactive map that presents two significant trends in U.S. higher education.

First, the northeast quadrant of the USA is producing fewer high school graduates, except for New York and Virginia, where the numbers are flat. New England, which has the greatest density of colleges and universities in the country relative to geographic area, will suffer the greatest decline.

Second, regardless of whether a state has a decreasing or increasing number of high school graduates, the proportion of non-white high school graduates is expanding, sometimes by double digits.

Drive InMany university faculty in the USA are only faintly aware of how they are going to be affected occupationally by these demographic trends. Their job, as they see it, is simply to continue to do exactly what they and their graduate school mentors have done for the last half century.

This attitude is a terrible mistake. I’ve written previously on the havoc that new technologies will probably wreak on the U.S. system of higher education, but let’s ignore technological shifts for a moment and only look at the demographic data. Over the next few decades, the population of high school graduates — like the U.S. population as a whole — will be more culturally diverse, less wealthy in comparison to past generations, and more globally connected. In general, the proportion of any state’s non-white population — and that includes high school graduates — is going to increase, regardless of whether that state’s absolute population increases or decreases.

These demographic changes mean that universities in states with shrinking populations will succeed only if they learn how to compete effectively in areas of the country with growing populations, and that requires making their curricula more responsive to students who have backgrounds, interests, and objectives that are in many cases very different from those of university faculty.

The consequences? Faculty members have to examine the curricula of their employers to ensure that they are well-positioned in a more diverse and more competitive higher education marketplace. The American Association of Colleges & Universities has produced a set of rubrics that can be helpful in doing this — the rubrics can be used to gauge, among other things, how a curriculum measures up in terms of local and global engagement, intercultural knowledge and competence, and global learning.