A waning number of high school graduates from the Midwest is sparking a college hunt for freshman applicants, with the decline being felt as far away as Harvard and Emory universities.
The drop is the leading edge of a demographic change that is likely to ease competition for slots at selective schools and is already prompting concern among Midwestern colleges.
“You can’t create 18-year-olds in a lab,” said Brian Prescott, director of policy research at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Boulder, Colorado. “Enrollment managers are facing an awful lot of pressure that they can’t do much about.”
Nationally, the high school Class of 2012 ushered in a first wave of declines in the number of graduates, according to a report by the commission. The trend will worsen after 2025, when admissions officers face the impact of a drop in births that began with the 2007 recession. Over the next two decades, the biggest drain in graduates will be in the Midwest and Northeast. The demographic shifts are compounded by economic factors as the cost of higher education continues to rise.
“We are attempting to leave no stone unturned in our primary market,” said Ken Anselment, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. “Demographics are not working real well in the Midwest.”
Harvard University said it had a 2.1 percent drop in applications for the next school year, led by a 5.8 percent fall-off from the Midwest. Atlanta-based Emory University reported a 3.3 percent decrease from the region, while Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, attributed a 14 percent slide in total applications partly to a 20 percent drop from the Midwest. The decline at Dartmouth was the biggest in 21 years.
Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, is projecting an 8 percent drop from the region and 11 percent overall.
The migration of manufacturing out of the Midwest, coupled with a declining birth rate, is leaving a mark on regional high schools. The Midwest is headed for a 7.2 percent decline of graduates in the Class of 2014, almost 55,000 fewer than its peak year of 2008, which had about 772,000, according to projections in the report.
Oberlin College, known for its conservatory of music, is projecting about 2 percent fewer applicants than last year, led by about a 20 percent decline in its home state of Ohio. Oberlin, which draws almost a quarter of its students from the Midwest, has seen the trend coming and has tried to prepare, said Debra Chermonte, dean of admissions and financial aid.
The school has been offering more personal attention to high school counselors, especially in the Midwest, such as inviting them to concerts and boosting marketing in the South and Southwest, where populations are growing.
Anticipating changes in demographics, about a half dozen private schools in Ohio, including Oberlin, began jointly promoting their campuses about six years ago.
Denison University, in Granville, and the College of Wooster, both project about a 13 percent drop from within the state. Ohio residents make up about a quarter of Denison’s student body and about a third at Wooster. Denison and Ohio Wesleyan University have boosted travel outside the state to attract prospective students, especially in California and the Southwest.
“It’s been a wake-up call this year,” said Alisha Couch, director of admission at the Delaware, Ohio-based school. “There’s just not as many names out there in Ohio.”
The trend hasn’t extended to Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, which said it’s seeing more applications this year from every region. The school, where about 14 percent of the student body comes from Ohio, dropped an extra writing supplement from its application process, according to Bev Morse, associate dean of admissions.
Lawrence, a private school 190 miles north of Chicago, expects applications to be little changed from last year at about 2,700, Anselment said. About half the student body comes from Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota.
“Since most students are going to college within 100 to 150 miles from home, we want to make sure we’re part of the conversation,” Anselment said. “We started more aggressively reaching out to juniors and sophomores in our primary market than we have been in the past.”
Some colleges are planting regional representatives in large cities such as Chicago.
Marquette University in Milwaukee added a second enrollment staff member in the Chicago area to work with students, parents and college counselors, said Robert Blust, dean of admissions.
“It’s certainly to solidify our market in Chicago,” Blust said. The school receives the most applications from Illinois, followed by Wisconsin. Its applications are up 9 percent this year to more than 25,000, he said.
Larger schools aren’t immune to the shortfall in students and even some in the Ivy League are seeing declining applications as high school graduate numbers dwindle in both the Midwest and Northeast.
Harvard, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, received 5.1 percent fewer applications from the Northeast. New York-based Columbia University cited demographic changes as a reason for a 1.7 percent drop in total applications at undergraduate schools Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“Regional differences matter,” Harvard said in a Feb. 3 statement. “In the Northeast, where many peer selective private and public colleges already vie for the attention of an increasingly limited number of students, there likely will be decreases in applications at most colleges in the future.”
While total applications at Duke University rose 2 percent, the number from the Midwest declined by less than 1 percent, according to Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions for the Durham, North Carolina-based school. The number of students seeking admission to Emory rose about 1 percent, offsetting the Midwest decline, according to preliminary data, said spokeswoman Beverly Cox Clark.
Amy Belstra, a college counselor at Libertyville High School in the suburb northwest of Chicago, said her students have noticed the increased attention from college recruiters.
“Chicago-area kids have always been a popular commodity,” Belstra said. “There are some lovely options in our backyard and they are trying to make themselves as attractive as possible.”