U bracing for shifting Minnesota

Administrators are planning to address demographic changes that could affect higher ed.

by Blair Emerson

Over the next six years, Minnesota’s high school graduation rates are projected to flatten. At the same time, the state’s older population will outnumber younger residents, putting a new strain on public funds.

University of Minnesota leaders are preparing a response to those trends and other forecasts that are poised to affect colleges across the state.

A report presented to the Board of Regents at its October meeting highlighted four statewide demographic trends for upcoming years that could alter Minnesota’s higher education climate: stagnant high school graduation rates, increasingly diverse student populations, an increase in the number of older residents and a slow-growing labor force.

But some University officials say the school is ready to counter these changes.

“With these demographic trends, there will be winners and losers among colleges and universities,” said Richard Beeson, chair of the board. “And we’re going to be on the winning side.”

Filling shrinking graduation rates

About 59,500 Minnesota high school seniors are expected to graduate next spring — down approximately 6,000 students from 2007, when the state’s graduation rate was at its highest point in recent years.

The high school graduation rates won’t fluctuate much until 2020, according to projections. It will return to about 65,500 again around 2023, according to the report presented to the regents.

Administrators are already planning for the predictions’ impact on University enrollment and recruitment efforts.

At a school that has historically enrolled about two-thirds of its students from Minnesota, recruitment efforts will have to expand to counteract flat state high school graduation rates, said Rachelle Hernandez, the University’s associate vice provost for enrollment management and director of admissions.

That shift in focus, she said, will also ensure that the institution is attracting out-of-state students.

Office of Admissions staff members are beginning to forge relationships with high schools outside the Midwest, Hernandez said, in Texas; Washington, D.C.; northern Virginia; New Jersey and New York.

The report also predicted that a growing number of multicultural students will make up  Minnesota’s high school graduates.

As students in this swelling sector typically come from low-income backgrounds, college affordability will become increasingly critical, said Susan Brower, a demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center who prepared the report and gave it to University officials.

Beeson said increasing both need- and merit-based aid for those students will be a priority of the school moving forward.

Shifting populations squeeze state budget

According to the report, by 2020 the state’s number of baby boomers, or those age 65 and up, will outnumber younger populations.

As a result, the state will see an increased demand for health care services but slow revenue growth, said Karen Hanson, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, at the regents meeting.

“This could mean that the budget for all other services, including higher education, will be severely squeezed,” she said.

Brower said it’s an unprecedented population shift for Minnesota.

“This is something that is happening across the country,” she said, “but I think it’s notable to point out this will be a shift for the state to adjust to, as we’ve always had more young people.”

The University has recently undergone severe budget cuts, Beeson said, and it will weather the financial impact of projected demographic changes.

“The state budgets seem to have cycles and some fairly substantial swings,” he said. “We’re always part of that; we benefit or suffer when those occur.”

For this spring’s legislative session, the University is requesting state support for continuation of a two-year tuition freeze for undergraduate students paying in-state tuition and a similar freeze for graduate and professional students.

Even if lawmakers meet that proposal, Beeson said it’s unlikely that the school will be able to continue that tuition freeze beyond the next two years.

He said demographic predictions will continue to shape conversations about the University’s future.

“We intend to talk about it, at least annually,” Beeson said. “It’s really about talking about it more often than not, and looking at data more frequently.”