Talk to anyone who studies demographics for a living, however, and they'll tell you those images are rooted in the past. Young people seeking higher education these days, they say, are less likely to be white or male, more likely to be Hispanic, may be the first person in their family to continue an education past high school, and will likely need help paying for it.
The demographic shifts mean big changes for colleges, too, analysts say – perhaps including restructuring admissions requirements, boosting financial aid and providing remediation to bring students from under-performing schools up to speed.
“‘Traditional student' – that's becoming such a hard thing to speak to,” says Peace Bransberger, a senior research analyst at Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, a Boulder, Colorado-based education policy center. Because of the rapid diversification already underway, she said, the definition of a “traditional” student has become obsolete.
“We'll need some new language,” Bransberger adds.
For years, the Census Bureau has forecast that the U.S. will have a majority-minority population by 2043. Whites remain the nation's largest racial group, but their birth rate is declining; meanwhile, non-white Latinos have already surpassed African-Americans as the nation's largest minority.
But the future may already be here.
In August, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that, for the first time, the total percentage of minority students – Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans combined – is larger than the percentage of whites in public grade-school classrooms this year.
Meanwhile, in California, the state's flagship, nine-school University of California system announced an eye-opening milestone: that it has admitted more Latino students (29 percent) than whites (27 percent) for the 2014 academic year. Thirty-nine percent of the Golden State's population is non-white Hispanic.
“We were perhaps even a little bit surprised in the uptick,” Bransberger says. This year, she adds, more minorities than whites will graduate from high school in several states, evidence of “a faster rate of change in the population overall than what was known before.”
The gender gap is widening, too, with women now making up about 57 percent of all college students, an exponential gain compared to around 40 percent in the 1970s, according to the NCES. Among African-Americans, however, the gap is more of a chasm: just 37 percent of black undergraduates are males.
Bransberger and others, however, say the anticipated boom in students of color carries some troubling echoes of long-standing, systemic problems that the higher education industry has not yet completely solved.
“The shift is most definitely happening. I think there's lots that can document that,” said Scott Jenkins, the education program director for the National Board of Governors. “I think it means a lot, and in particular, to colleges and universities themselves. They need to be thinking about the needs of these students.”
In its most recent survey, “Knocking At The College Door,” released in 2013, the WIHC reports that “20 to 45 percent of the nation's public high school graduates are projected to be non-White, up by more than 7 percent over the class of 2009.” At the same time, according to the report, the number of black, non-Hispanic high school graduates is expected to decline overall within the next few years before rebounding in the middle of the next decade.
The forecast is worse for whites, whose high school graduation numbers will continue to fall, and may not recover. “Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic high school graduates will increase in every region of the country by large magnitudes,” the report states.
Source: Published originally on U.S. News & World Report as College of Tomorrow: The Changing Demographics of the Student Body by Joseph P. Williams, September 22, 2014.