The news media has focused of late on several areas within higher education, emphasizing the admissions scandals at top universities; the devastating impact of student debt that now greatly exceeds credit card debt, and whether the expense of college is “worth it.” While these are serious issues affecting U.S. institutions, not much has been said about demographics, a key force changing both the structure and the size of higher education in America.

How many people know that, nationwide, 2.9 million fewer college students were enrolled in higher education last year than in 2011? And that U.S. college enrollment has decreased for the eighth consecutive year – by nearly 300,000 students – according to data recently released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a non-profit research organization? And that in California, enrollment declined in 2018 by about 45,000 students, or 1.9 percent?

In “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” a book published last year, author Nathan Grawe argues that we are “facing a looming demographic storm as child-bearing has plummeted in response to the Great Recession.” He predicts that in 2026, the “supply” of college-age students will have decreased nationwide by about 15 percent.

How about the “demand” side of the equation? Some 70 million Americans – nearly 50 percent of those ages 25-29 – now hold college degrees.  But according to a study from the prestigious Lumina Foundation and cited in “The Promise of Higher Education,” a report from the Association of Governing Boards of universities and colleges, workers with college credentials may still fall 16 million short of what the nation will need by 2025.

As the president of a small, private, four-year nonprofit university in the Valley area that is very sensitive to student enrollment patterns, it is this demographic variable that keeps me up at night. Fortunately, the projected growth in students is positive for California in the longer term. Grawe predicts that student growth will decline in the Northeast and Midwest by 20-25 percent through the mid-2020s, while the Pacific region will grow at about 1 percent.

These U.S. demographic trends also have global ramifications. For example, as the number of U.S. students has declined in this decade, the number of international students grew to partly fill the void: international enrollment expanded by 51 percent from 2009-10 to a peak of about 1.1 million in 2015-16, but has since declined by about 10 percent. Two countries account for a large proportion of these international students: China, at about 30 percent, and India, at about 19 percent. But with the U.S. now making it harder to obtain student visas, English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia are becoming more attractive destinations for international students.