While all of us in higher education are fully focused on the present needs of those we serve (students, faculty, others), we must also acknowledge that universities will likely persist as key institutions in society for many decades in the future. In that sense, a look ahead at population trends is relevant to advance planning.
One of the surprising forecasts (to many) is that the total youth (15-19 years of age) population is plateauing over time, with a likelihood of decline in the coming decades. This follows the reduction in fertility rates reflecting modernization, female labor force participation, and widespread contraceptive use. For example, the forecast from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation for global population of such youth is notable.
The chart below is a presentation of estimates of global population of 15-19 year old’s. The light blue fan-shaped pattern for out-years reflects the uncertainty of the forecast (like that common to hurricane forecasts), dependent on estimates of fertility rates, cross-border migration, mortality rates, government policies, etc. The important point is that there is some consensus in the estimates for a decline in the population, starting between 2030-2040.
That’s the forecast globally, but US universities are most directly affected by our own in-country population. What are the equivalent forecasts for the United States population? The chart below provides that forecast. There is a well-established agreement of a dip in the coming few decades, followed by a little jump. In short, however, there is a similar form, albeit a shallower decline than the global forecasts. Again, the forecasts have larger ranges of uncertainty as time proceeds. But the US figures suggests a drop in this decade followed by a small jump up around 2040, followed by a slow decline. How these number translate into enrollments in higher education, of course, is complicated by all of the drivers of whether young people seek to enroll in college (e.g., parental guidance, costs relative to income, cultural supports for the value of higher education).
The US has a disproportionate share of the world’s higher education universities, and some of them are the strongest in the world. Because of that, many US universities have welcomed students from other countries to their student bodies. Two large countries, China and India, have formed a major part of this student population coming to the US for their education. Indeed, for decades the United States has enjoyed great benefits of the strong students from these countries who, upon graduation, stay to enrich our society and economy with their talents. But the demographics of these two countries are changing also.
These graphs show expectation that both China and India will experience declines in the youths 15-19 years old in the 2030-2040 time period. At the same time, both countries are investing in developing their own strong higher education sectors. It is logical to expect declines in students from these countries over this period.
If there is an area of the world that appears to have different trends, it is Sub-Saharan Africa. There the forecasts suggests growth in the youth population through about 2060. Following that, there is a decline, given the model assumptions. Africa’s population will remain a growing source of youth for about 20 years later than the other countries described above.
What does all this mean for universities? For the US, while declines in the youth population are forecasted, they are not as dramatic as those in other countries. The fertility rates of immigrant populations are larger than those of populations born in the US. Thus, it seems clear that youth from the populations immigrating to the US will be increasingly important to universities. Much depends on immigration.
While China and India are important sources of students in US higher education, the demographic profiles of the countries suggest that the coming decades will see declines, other things being equal. The radically different age profile of Sub-Saharan Africa suggests that it could become a more prominent source of international students for US institutions, other things being equal.
Finally, but not relevant to the graphs above, it is likely that the youth of today will live much longer lives than those of earlier generations. If the rate of technological change continues at the pace of today, they will encounter the need to retool, the learn new areas, multiple times throughout their lives. The effect of this may be a refocusing of higher education to cohorts of students older than those traditional for residential four-year universities. This might dampen effects of shrinking youth populations.
In short, the supply of young persons eligible for higher education is changing. The future rate of change is smaller in the US than in China and India. Sub-Saharan Africa will be a younger population for a longer time period than China and India. Life expectancy is growing; new populations of potential higher education entrants may emerge. It seems wise for the design of institutions of higher education to reflect these changes in supply and demand.