WOODED (Kevin Richert, IdahoEdNew.org) – Colleges are battling the current enrollment crisis: recruiting students in the age of COVID-19.
But more registration issues are looming in Idaho.
The problems are related to demography: growth and birth rate. And they could hit Idaho’s four-year schools in different ways.
A recent report of the National Board of Education breaks down the demographics in detail. It’s wonky – OK, you’ve been given fair warning – but it’s also interesting.
It is also of vital importance. Recruitment of students is essential to fill the lecture halls and dormitories on campus. Enrollment is also an essential part of the business plan as colleges and universities in Idaho try to fill their coffers.
Fewer babies = fewer college students
Demographic change began during the upheaval of the Great Recession.
In 2007, 25,023 babies were born in Idaho, a one-year high.
But the birth rate began to decline during the recession as couples put off (or rule out) parenthood. And the rate never recovered.
In 2020, 21,540 babies were born in Idaho.
This translates to a decline of 14% over 13 years.
Fewer babies means fewer potential students.
But one factor could work in Idaho’s favor: the state’s rapid and often uncomfortable growth spurt.
Idaho’s graduating high school class is expected to peak in 2025 – 18 years after the record baby boom of 2007. Idaho’s graduating classes will decline after 2025, according to projections by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, but it will not be as serious as the national downfall. It’s because of immigration, as newcomers settle in Idaho.
Idaho is growing – but not all of Idaho
Immigration is good news for university recruiters. But it’s better news for Boise State University.
Boise State recruits many of its students from the southwestern state of Idaho, a hotbed of growth. The state Department of Labor forecasts that Southwest Idaho’s 15- to 19-year-old population is expected to grow 7% between 2019 and 2029. “This suggests that there will be an increasing number of college graduates high school in an area well-served by BSU,” wrote Cathleen McHugh, director of research for the State Board.
For other four-year schools in Idaho, the forecast is mixed.
The University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College both take inspiration from southwestern Idaho and the Panhandle, another growth hotspot. But in north-central Idaho — major recruiting territory for the U of I and Lewis-Clark — the Labor Department says the population of 15- to 19-year-olds is likely to decline.
The shrinking local market is a serious concern, said U of I vice provost for strategic enrollment management Dean Kahler, and it underscores the need for Idaho to improve its declining university attendance rate statewide. ” It’s a big problem. We get many of our students from 100 miles or less.
In a statement Wednesday, President Cynthia Pemberton said Lewis-Clark is “carefully reviewing” the State Board report, but she said she believes the college is “well positioned” to serve North Central Idaho and beyond.
At the other end of the state, Idaho State University is also recruiting heavily from its backyard. The Department of Labor said Southeast Idaho’s 15- to 19-year-old population is expected to remain stagnant for the next few years.
Idaho State Associate Vice President for Enrollment Staci Phelan is also concerned, particularly because a national decline in the birth rate will force Idaho colleges to work even harder to maintain their local market share. “We truly anticipate that the competition for our Idaho students will be fiercer than ever.”
Idaho out-of-state pipeline
But it’s out-of-state enrollment that has helped Idaho colleges weather the pandemic. Launching the Promise of In-Person Learning – and Competitively Priced Against In-State Tuition at Home – Idaho Schools attracted a growing share of their enrollments in neighboring states.
In the fall of 2021, the majority of Boise State freshmen were from outside of Idahofor the first time in the school’s history.
But is it sustainable? The Council of State’s report calls this into question.
The bulk of Boise State’s out-of-state recruits came from the West Coast – from California, Oregon and Washington. Recruits tied to Boise State are disproportionately white compared to the states’ overall population. “There is a projected decrease in the number of white graduates from public high schools in these states,” McHugh wrote. “This could lead to challenges for BSU in the future if their registration patterns remain the same.”
Boise State declined to comment on the report this week; university officials said they wanted more time to review it.
The U of I faces similar out-of-state recruiting questions. The U of I employs five full-time recruiters outside of Idaho and, as the State Board report notes, the university attracts many of its students from out of state on the West Coast. Kahler expects increased competition for students, especially in larger population centers, but he thinks the U of I’s small college town setting is a draw.
“We got the right messages for those audiences,” he said, “but we just have to keep putting our story at the top of the page.”
An existential and permanent challenge
Enrollment is the most existential challenge facing colleges and universities, in Idaho and beyond. And even before the COVID-19 pandemic closed campuses and caused many students to drop out or stay home, colleges and universities in Idaho were struggling to attract students from the state.
Idaho Colleges and Universities lost some 5,000 students for the 18 months following the pandemic, although they have since erased much of that 8.7% decline.
Now there is a lot of cautious optimism. Applications and admissions increased this spring, suggesting a possible increase in enrollment this fall. And when the Council of State released its demographics report last week, it came with a hopeful guest opinion from board chairman Kurt Liebich. “Because of internal migration, Idaho is in an enviable position relative to other states,” he wrote.
But forecasting enrollment is a risky proposition – in the long term, but even in the short term.
Nine weeks later, Kahler remains hopeful. But now it’s about turning applications and admissions into enrollment. “We are seeing a lot of late activity. … It’s an adventure.
Idaho State saw an increase in enrollment last fall, after a decade of neglect. Phelan says the numbers could be flat this fall, or slightly down, but she won’t have a good idea of what to expect for about a month.
But Phelan knows that the state of Idaho struggles with a host of other variables that can deter a high school graduate from southeast Idaho from choosing college: an abundance of local jobs, a shortage of on-campus and off-campus housing and high gas prices that could deter commuters. students.
“We do our best to mitigate what we can control,” she said. “We know there are a lot of things we can’t.”
It’s the short term. In the years to come, universities in Idaho will have to contend with daunting demographics — something also beyond their control.