A new study predicts that West Virginia will see smaller high school graduation class sizes and slightly more racial diversity in the coming years.
The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education predicts that by 2032, public high school graduation class sizes nationwide will decrease due to the declining birth rate that started during the recession in 2007. WICHE also predicts a more racially diverse student body driven in particular by the increase in Latino students in the country. Both of these trends could impact the college enrollment and the workforce.
"We're simply going to have fewer students in the K-12 system, and we're going to have fewer graduates," said Joe Garcia, president of WICHE. "That has significant implications to our institutions, our colleges and universities, as well as to our employers and our workforce. As you know, we’re entering a period where we need more and more employees to have post-secondary credentials."
West Virginia will also see a slight decline in students, but its student body will remain overwhelmingly white. The number of students of color graduating in 2032 will make up 9 percent of all graduating students, as opposed to seven percent in 2013. Garcia said that means West Virginia will need to focus on engaging its at-risk white students.
"That’s how (West Virginia) can increase the number of college-educated workers and boost their economy. And that takes a change and a collaboration between the K-12 students as well," he said.
But other states - especially those in the Midwest, where the decline in students will be the greatest - will need to focus on preparing students of color, who statistically have less resources than their white classmates and major in low-paying fields, for college and the workforce. William Serrada, president of El Paso Community College in El Paso, Texas, said that colleges and policy makers need to prepare for more students who can't pay full tuition and find a way to make college more affordable.
"60 percent of all students in K-12 in Texas are on free and reduced lunch. That means that 60 percent of graduates in the future are going to be eligible for Pell Grants," said Serrada. "As state appropriations continue to decline, tuition and fees unfortunately will continue to rise, and the buying power of the Pell Grant will continue to diminish."
Demaree Michelau, one of the report’s authors, said learning to work with a diverse student body will help all students succeed, and that the next few decades present a great opportunity to bring nontraditional students into the picture of higher education. "It will help adult students and traditional students. If we think about it like that, it will be more appropriate framing," she said.
The South is the only region in the U.S. that will see an increase in public high school graduation numbers in addition to students of color by 2032. The Midwest will see the greatest decline in graduation numbers.