A decade-long stagnation in the number of U.S. high school graduates is setting in, and the number of students receiving diplomas in 2017 is expected to drop significantly.

The stagnating number of graduates breaks nearly two decades of reliable increases and comes as significant demographic changes reshape where students live and from what backgrounds they come. The pool of high school graduates is projected to become less white, more Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander, and increasingly located in the South over the coming years, according to a new set of projections in a report released Tuesday by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

WICHE’s projections, typically released every four to five years, are closely watched as a window into enrollment trends across the United States. The trends carry significant implications for policy makers trying to align educational priorities with job markets -- and with colleges and universities attempting to plan their classes of the future. The new projections mean higher education systems will have to change, according to Joe Garcia, a former lieutenant governor of Colorado and former campus president who is president of WICHE.

“We’re simply going to have fewer students in our K-12 system, and we’ll be producing fewer graduates,” Garcia said during a conference call to discuss the report’s findings. “That has significant implications to our institutions -- our colleges and universities -- as well as to our employers and our work force.”

The decade of stagnation is projected to run from 2013, when enrollment hit 3.47 million, through 2023. During that time, the annual number of high school graduates in the country is expected to slot in between 3.4 million and 3.5 million. However, a substantial drop is expected in 2017. The number of high school graduates is projected to fall by about 81,000, or 2.3 percent, that year.

It looks like a big decline. However, it’s not so huge that colleges and universities will need to brace for large disruptions, as long as they reach out to more students, Garcia said.

 

“They will need to brace if they’re not embracing the new student population,” he said, referring to the expected increases in Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander graduates. “They do need to be going after those populations that are increasing.”

Experts said the projections indicate that higher education institutions will need to increase pathways to college for minority students while also making an effort to help those students stay on campus and graduate with degrees. That’s true for institutions recruiting Hispanic students, according to Deborah A. Santiago, co-founder, chief operating officer and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, a Washington-based nonprofit group focusing on Latino student success.

“Some could see this demographic and geographic shift as a threat to their status quo,” she said in an email. “It is. We should collectively acknowledge traditional efforts to serve traditional students have not sufficiently closed achievement gaps in high school or in college attainment for posttraditional students (those who do not fit the majority profile). If they had been effective, we wouldn’t currently have gaps in achievement and attainment. Identifying new ways and new categories of students to recruit is a clear opportunity to be proactive in positioning to serve a wider profile of posttraditional students.”

Colleges and universities will need to recruit and keep students who traditionally have not completed college at high rates, according to William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College, in Texas.

 

“It’s imperative upon our institutions of higher ed to increase the college-going rates of all students, but in particular the students who are low income, first generation and students of color,” Serrata said during the conference call on the projections. “This is really a road map for us in higher education to really change our strategies to focus on increasing college-going rates amongst those populations and then facilitate their success once we have them.”