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Remedying the Demographic Disconnect

Nearly 75 percent of today’s college and university students are nontraditional—representing first-generation students, adult learners, professionals retraining for new careers, or people transitioning from the military. Their needs will affect everything from facilities to student affairs, from leadership training to degree attainment.

By Gretchen M. Bataille

The rapidly evolving demographics of America's population in general—and its students in particular—are exerting profound influence on the future of higher education in our country. The ways that higher education leaders deal with these dynamics can improve our prospects of increasing graduation rates—or not. Right now, we seem to be experiencing a disconnect between the rapidly altered demographic reality and the ability of our higher education system to accommodate the changes.

Census Predicts New Profile

*Today's college student does not resemble the stereotypical freshman in the minds of the public and those on many campus governing boards: 18 years old, male, white, coming from a mid- to upper-class background. On the contrary, nearly 75 percent of students now on college campuses are nontraditional. That is, they are often in their mid-20s or older, retraining for new careers or certifications, transitioning from the military to civilian life—and, by 2043, the latest census predicts, the majority will be nonwhite.

Not only do these students need specific academic advising to ensure their success, they often have a need for specialized counseling as a result of their age, family needs, or battlefield experiences. Taken together, the needs of nontraditional students have serious implications for nearly every aspect of higher education, from campus facility planning (particularly residence halls) to roles of student affairs professionals, from leadership training to degree attainment.

The American Council on Education finds a continuing gender imbalance as well as a decline in the racial/ethnic diversity of top leadership positions at America's colleges and universities.

The latter, education attainment, has become the rallying cry for higher education associations and organizations throughout the country. In a recent report from the American Council on Education's National Commission on Education Attainment, commission members called upon university and college presidents to address attainment as their institution's highest priority.

Prompted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data that show that the United States is 15th in the world in higher education attainment among 25- to 43-year-olds—and urged by President Obama's 2020 goals and support from foundations such as Lumina and Gates—commissioners identified the need to advocate for increased student aid through Pell grants; support for student loans; better measurement for graduation rates; and institutional policies on articulation, course transfer, and prior learning assessment.

Rapid Responses Required

That challenge is somewhat daunting, in part because as campuses have become more diverse, the differences in performance have been striking. The attainment gaps between rich and poor have doubled in the past 10 years. For example, only 9 percent of students from low-income homes earn any postsecondary credentials by the age of 26, while 50 percent of students from high-income homes earn a postsecondary credential by that age.

Given the rapid growth of the Latino/Hispanic population throughout the education system, the data on success rates are disturbing. Twenty-two percent of Latino adults have at least an associate degree, compared to 44 percent of whites and 57 percent of Asian Americans. Fifty percent of whites in 2008 had graduated in six years, while only 35.6 percent of Latinos did. The attainment gap is even higher between white students and students of color.

If the last presidential election showed us anything, it was that to gain support and remain effective, leaders must connect with the reality of a changing country. For higher education institutions, that means ensuring that faculty, staff, and administration reflect the demographic shifts taking place.

Getting Beyond Leadership Lag

How is that going? The news is sobering.

In two of its recent reports, The American College President 2012 and On the Pathway to the Presidency 2013, the American Council on Education (ACE) finds a continuing gender imbalance as well as a decline in the racial/ethnic diversity of top leadership positions at America's colleges and universities. While the share of women presidents has increased from 23 percent to 26 percent since 2006 (13 percent in 1986), the share of racial/ethnic minority presidents decreased from 14 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2011.

This is happening at a time when 57 percent of the students at our colleges and universities are women, and the percent of students who identify as ethnic or racial minorities continues to increase.

Report results also indicate a certain amount of stagnation in the presidency itself. Last year, ACE reported that the average age of presidents in 2011 was 61, up from 60 in 2006. In fact, 58 percent of presidents are over the age of 61 (up from 49 percent in 2006). Between 1986 and 2011, the majority of presidents has shifted from 50 or younger to 61 or older. NACUBO's recent CBO Profile study (see page 104 for the full analysis) reflects a similar trend among chief business officers. In 2011, more presidents came to the academy from outside academia, but the makeup of women and minorities was no different from the other statistics. In 2006, 13.1 percent of presidents came from outside academia, and in 2011 that statistic had risen to 20.3 percent.

What can we do to turn these trends around and better align leadership with demographics? ACE's 2011 report Presidential Leadership in an Age of Transition: Dynamic Responses for a Turbulent Time presented action items based on a June 2010 summit of distinguished leaders from higher education, industry, the military, and selected nonprofit organizations. While the following ideas were generated in large part as a result of the recession, they seem no less relevant to today's demographic challenges:

  • Intentionally seek future leaders.
  • Make leadership development a strategic institutional priority.
  • Rethink the "pipeline" metaphor, by considering alternative paths to points on the career ladder.
  • Expand traditional leadership development content.
  • Reshape the search process.

Living with uncertainty and rapid change is becoming the norm. At the 2010 summit, Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, articulated the problem well: "How do we think about things that we don't know we don't know?" Therein lies the impetus for innovation at all levels.  

GRETCHEN M. BATAILLE, most recently senior vice president, Division of Leadership and Lifelong Learning, the American Council on Education, Washington, D.C., is a strategic partner with ROI Consulting Group. Previously, she served as the first female president of the University of North Texas, Denton; senior vice president of the University of North Carolina System; and administrator at several other universities. Bataille, whose scholarly specialty is American Indian literature, is coauthor of Faculty Career Paths: Multiple Routes to Academic Success and Satisfaction (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006).