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The Impact of Demographics on Connecticut Public Colleges and Universities

For nearly two decades, the nation’s higher education community has watched with some trepidation the shrinking number of Americans of traditional college-going age (18 to 24 years old). As baby-boomers aged, the pool of potential college-age students diminished significantly. Now, in the mid-1990’s, the “demographic curve” has begun to turn back up across the nation, causing a collective sigh of relief among the country’s college admissions officers. For Connecticut, however, the demographic picture is not nearly so bright, particularly for its public institutions of higher education.

Connecticut demographics, in many important ways, do not match those of the nation. The state’s population is older, with fewer child-rearing families and, thus, fewer children in the educational pipeline. Consequently, the number of persons in Connecticut between the ages of 25 and 34 is more directly linked to enrollments in public colleges and universities than is the number of persons 18 to 24 years of age. In addition, in the last five years, the state has lost population while other states have grown. These demographic differences portend little opportunity for enrollment growth at Connecticut public colleges and universities for years to come. Some pertinent facts:

  • Well over 90% of Connecticut’s public college students are state residents: 84% at the University of Connecticut; 93% at Connecticut State University; and 98% at the community-technical colleges. Thus, what happens to Connecticut demographics directly impacts Connecticut public college enrollments.
  • Only 35% to 40% of Connecticut’s annual high school graduates attend Connecticut public colleges. Therefore, the impact of any upturn in the numbers of traditional college-age students will be less pronounced for Connecticut public colleges than for institutions elsewhere.
  • More than 35% of all public college students in Connecticut are 25 years of age or older: 15% at the University of Connecticut; 31% at Connecticut State University; and 58% at the community-technical colleges. Traditional-age students still represent the core of full-time undergraduates. But full-time, degree-seeking undergraduates now account for little more than 40% of all public college enrollments, underscoring the importance of the 25 to 34 year old age group to public institutions.
  • Recent population projections of the future size of this crucial 25 to 34 age group in Connecticut, done by the Department of Higher Education, show a decline of almost 33% from 1990 to 2008. Official population projections by the Office of Policy and Management show a similar decline in this group of about 35% from 1990 to 2005.
  • Nationally, the college-going rate for 18 to 24 year olds has grown over the past 20 years. In contrast, the college-going rate of persons 25 and older has remained virtually constant, making it increasingly difficult to recruit a significantly larger proportion of older students in the near future.
  • Urban minorities will make up increasingly larger proportions of Connecticut’s high school population during the next decade. The high school graduation and college attendance rates of Blacks and Hispanics, however, are considerably lower than those of white and Asian-American high school students. This leaves little opportunity for institutions to substitute younger minority persons for the shrinking pool of 25 to 34 year olds.

These realities do not necessarily doom every Connecticut public college and university to a decade or more of declining enrollment. Other factors such as the college-going rates of Connecticut residents, the proportion of those who attend college in-state versus out-of-state, the attractiveness of Connecticut institutions to students from other states, the condition of the state’s economy, tuition and fee charges, and net costs to students all will impact enrollment of individual institutions. Yet, if the past linkage between demography and enrollment holds, it will not be easy for Connecticut public higher education, as a whole, to grow for some time to come.

(The research report “Demographics and the Future Pool of Connecticut Students Available to Attend the State’s Public Colleges and Universities” is available from the Department of Higher Education. Call (860) 947-1833.)


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