WICHE Way Forward?

“How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another!”  So worries Alice, as she shrinks and expands size-wise on her journey through Wonderland.

The changes described in a recent report from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) may be no less confusing to higher education traditionalists, those educators at competitive admissions institutions who now face a decline in the supply line of academically prepared students flowing from high school to college.

“Although recent high school graduates are a core component of the demand for a college education, they represent a decreasing share of actual postsecondary enrollments…” says the WICHE report, Knocking at the College Door, Projections of High School Graduates.

WICHE forecasts a modest decline in total high school graduates, dropping from a peak of 3.4 million in the 2010-2011 academic year to between 3.2- and 3.3 million in the 2013-2014 academic year.   While small, the drop marks the reversal of a trend that has been underway since 1990.  Growth will return, but not until 2020-2021, according to the WICHE forecasters, and even then the high school graduation peak will not reach its 2010-2011 high.

Given this downward trajectory in the supply of students, will some traditional colleges and universities need to rethink their admissions flight plan?  Undoubtedly so.  Particularly given a companion finding in the WICHE report that “…the pool of future college students is rapidly growing more racially and ethnically diverse.”

In the years ahead, the nation’s high schools will be producing more Hispanic and Asian/Pacific students and fewer White and Black students.  And the current traditional college and university infrastructure, often structured to anticipate and support merit-based, competitive admissions, will be educating a more non-traditional student population.

Top tier schools will likely be able to soldier on as before and largely escape this new working reality.  Institutions that work hard to curry demand—from those who consider themselves “very competitive” down to those practicing open admissions–will be forced to consider this new handwriting on the wall.  As they do, these institutions will either adapt their programs to be more workforce relevant or face the inconvenient truth of education for the sake of education–fewer people want it.

Now wait a moment.  Postsecondary institutions serving a more diverse student body?  More adult learners in the classroom?  Students entering college not from high school but the school of hard knocks?  These trends may seem like old news to the nation’s career and community colleges.  These schools have been serving this population for years.  But here’s the hitch.  The neat site lines between the mission of public four-year, public two-year, liberal arts private, and for-profit colleges and universities are starting to blur.  Across the postsecondary landscape, distinctive missions are getting murkier and pedagogic methods more similar.

The WICHE report may not come as a revelation to those institutions who have been serving working adults, helping these individuals to trade on their motivation, discipline and sacrifice to improve their career prospects.   Yet the savviest career and community colleges may read in the report the notion that all relevance is competitive, comparative and, in the end, fleeting.  The most successful will see in change the rationale to track employer directions consistently and to challenge the status quo constantly.