Access, collaboration and (especially) retention

Those are the stars college administrators should steer by as they navigate rough demographic seas, Eye of the Hawk lecturer Nathan Grawe said at UND

Nathan Grawe,, the Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Social Sciences at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., delivered the Eye of the Hawk Lecture at the North Dakota Museum of Art at UND on Oct. 12. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

There’s good news and, well, very sobering news about the population challenges facing higher education in North Dakota.

So let’s get to the good news first:

Where demographics are concerned, North Dakota actually shares a favorable outlook with some pretty august institutions: namely, selective universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

In North Dakota’s case, that’s because the past decade’s population surge means the state’s high-school graduation classes are likely to keep growing, at least through the 2020s, said Nathan Grawe, the economist who delivered Tuesday’s Eye of the Hawk Lecture at UND.

In the selective schools’ case, the upbeat projections result from the huge draw that institutional prestige continues to be in attracting students.

But in neither case should the schools rely too heavily on those favorable trends, Grawe stressed.

“If we think that because the projections are positive in our little area of the world, we can just coast, that’s probably incorrect,” said Grawe, whose home institution – Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. – is ranked among America’s top liberal-arts colleges.

“None of us is going to be immune to the effects of a 17 percent decline in the number of babies nationwide.” Instead, colleges and universities will have to be agile as never before; and that’s what Grawe’s talk was all about.

UND President Andy Armacost chats with Nathan Grawe, economist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., before Grawe’s Eye of the Hawk Lecture on Oct. 12. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

Hawk’s-eye view

The Eye of the Hawk Series brings perspectives from visiting scholars or experts in a given field to UND. The idea is for the expert to offer an overview of the landscape from 10,000 feet, exactly as a hawk would see, series organizers say.

Grawe, the Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Social Sciences at Carleton, spoke before an audience of about 100 at the North Dakota Museum of Art. He’s a labor economist who has published extensively on how recent demographic shifts are likely to affect demand for higher education.

And in fact, that work so impressed the UND faculty leaders who are grappling with those shifts that the leaders decided to invite Grawe to campus, said UND President Andrew Armacost in introducing Grawe.

Armacost first thanked the event’s sponsors, who include Jim and Barbara Williams and Rick and Jody Burgum, as well as Bank North.

“And let me also thank Professors John Shabb and Jeff VanLooy,” the president continued.

“It was John and Jeff who, through their work on UND’s Task Force on the Future of Higher Education, set in motion today’s lecture. They had recommended that their group dig into Nathan’s most recent book, and it had a profound impact on the members of that Task Force.”

Higher education in America has undergone demographic shifts before, and not only survived but thrived, said Nathan Grawe in his Eye of the Hawk Lecture at the North Dakota Museum of Art. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

A higher-ed ‘apocalypse’?

In his talk, Grawe didn’t hesitate to deliver the demographic bad news. How bad? This bad: A Washington Post story describing demographic trends and their possible impact on higher education used the term, “apocalypse.”

“Now, I don’t think that’s apt, and I think I can give you a better analogy by the time we’re done,” Grawe said. But it’s vital to understand the depth and nature of those trends so that effective solutions can be designed.

At the heart of the challenge is birth rates. As a PowerPoint slide displayed, a chart of the number of births in America over the past 45 years describes a parabola, with the arc passing upward though 3.6 million in 1980, peaking at about 4.3 million in 2007 – and then plummeting back to 1980 levels last year.

“We’re seeing birth numbers we haven’t seen in four decades,” he said. And “it’s not even clear that we’re anywhere near the bottom. … I remember the ‘good old days,’ roughly 2000, when I found it humorous to read about how the Russian government was encouraging people to take off work to go have babies – or at least do the activity that leads to that.

“Well, it’s not so funny anymore.”

But tectonic shifts have challenged higher education before, Grawe noted. Think of the “birth dearth” of the 1970s that followed the Baby Boom, as well as the switch to online learning that the pandemic forced on colleges as recently as last year.

Higher education weathered those storms – and could very well do the same through this one, Grawe said. “Because I think campuses are filled with really smart, creative people who are going to look at this problem and say, ‘Let’s adapt.’ “

Shown here is Nathan Grawe, Carleton College economist, delivering his Eye of the Hawk Lecture at the North Dakota Museum of Art at UND. Grawe is the author of The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Change,” among other works, Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

Learning from others

Here are three promising ways in which forward-thinking institutions are adapting nationwide.

• Access: One strategy that many universities already have embraced is to reach out to different student populations, including adult students, international students and – importantly – underrepresented minorities. The latter group, as evidenced by the changing student populations in North Dakota and every other state, already is becoming a much bigger share of the U.S. population overall.

And where access is concerned, here’s a useful point from Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts: Remember that accommodating new student groups can often require rethinking everything you do.

“One example Pam gave me was the orientation process, which required on-campus activities for two whole days,” Grawe said. “So with an adult learner market, that’s just not sensible.”

• Collaboration between institutions and even systems is another approach. “Here’s an example from North Carolina, where private four-year institutions are collaborating with two-year institutions on major-specific articulation agreements,” Grawe said.

Rather than having students navigate the two-year college to four-year college process alone, “by partnering with institutions, we can make it more seamless for students so they can be retained at a higher rate.”

• And speaking of retention, that’s the third and likely most important strategy, Grawe said. Because “in American higher education, a lot of students enter, and then don’t come back.”

Given the dramatic drop in birth rates, keeping existing students and helping them graduate seems a much more promising approach than does attracting whole new populations, Grawe said.

Consider the two-year college to four-year college transition. “Some 80 percent of two-year enrolling students say they intend to get a bachelor’s degree, but only 30 percent will transfer to a four-year institution within four years, and only 13 percent will earn that bachelor’s in six,” Grawe said.

That’s a lot of “lost students” along the way – and with better approaches, good numbers of those students could be retained.

The next 100 years

So:

At St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, a quick survey in the third week of classes identifies students who are academically capable, but at risk because of low social belonging. Armed with that information, faculty and staff can help draw those students into the community.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, they’re training student work supervisors in mentoring, thereby making students’ work experience another point at which students can be connected with supports.

At Wheaton College in Massachusetts, the institution is offering compensation that’s based on meeting institutional goals. “That’s a way of making this problem something that we all own, rather than simply turning it over to, say, an enrollment management office,” Grawe said.

These and other creative approaches may help higher ed not only avoid the apocalypse, but also emerge better equipped and more respected than it is today, Grawe said. “Like your body, when you put it through a workout: It’s a system that actually gets stronger when placed under stress.”

With such strategies in place, “when we get to the year 2040 or 2045, perhaps we’ll look back – like me at my workout – not saying, ‘Wow, that was fun,’ but maybe, ‘It was worth it.’

“It spurred us on to changes that made us stronger and better situated to fulfill our missions for the next 100 years.”