It's a Demographic Shift, Not a Cliff
Disclaimer: The title of this article isn’t a slight to Liz’s SXSW presentation proposal. As a matter of fact, our stances are similar and I wholeheartedly believe every single current and future higher ed pro across the entire country needs that presentation.
At best, the “demographic cliff” is an oversimplified, incomplete, and misleading phrase for the very real and inevitable demographic shift happening in the United States. The world is not ending; this isn’t going to deplete the value of higher education; and even if there are less “traditional college students,” there will still be humans who need and want postsecondary education. Those folx are just going to look different; come from different backgrounds; have different needs and experiences; and be different people than they have been historically. Despite those whose fear is attempting to stop or slow it down, the make-up of this country is changing and that’s not a bad thing.
So why is the higher ed industry (that claims to provide opportunity for all) branding this as a jump into a bottomless pit instead of embracing and planning for the shift? I think a portion of the answer is something many either don’t realize or refuse to say out loud: this demographic shift means that for the first time in U.S. history, campuses won’t be able to depend solely on young middle- to upper-class cisgender heterosexual (cishet) white people for their survival, let alone success. People of color are becoming a higher percentage of the population, especially Asian, Latine, and Hispanic folx; queer existence is becoming decreasingly taboo in mainstream society, specifically when thinking of 13- to 23-year-olds; people are choosing to forgo marriage, kids, and home ownership (or struggling to afford any/all of the above); the adult learner landscape is changing; and so on.
It’s counterproductive and dangerous to respond to these realities with panic or doom and gloom; see them solely as a harmful disruption; or consider “moving recruitment to the South” a viable response. To hold these perspectives is to acknowledge that young middle- to upper-class cishet white students are your priority and the rest of us are disposable. That’s systemic racism, white supremacy, classism, and gatekeeping in real-time.
It directly opposes all written equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) statements and values. This isn’t about protecting a brand, meeting enrollment goals, or maintaining financial health—it’s about taking a humane approach to serving your campus community by evolving with them. It’s about moving beyond performative support for marginalized people and actually integrating EDI into all levels of your strategy and everyday work. It’s about embracing the current and future reality as well as acknowledging the past influencing it all.
The shift is underway and you’ve had more than enough notice to prepare your campus. If the way the industry is addressing these early stages is any indication of what will happen when it comes to full fruition, many campuses and higher ed pros will struggle to cross the bridge and some will slip through the cracks.
So what can you do to avoid falling behind? I never pretend to have all the answers and it’s not my job to find them, but I have a few suggestions for those brave and thoughtful enough to do something about it.
Focus on Systemic Change
As Lily Zheng explains in this article "Backlash from all directions is often due to DEI initiatives being frames as solutions to individual problems to be fixed rather than to correct for systemic issues at play in an organization."
Collect and Act on Feedback from Marginalized Members of Your Campus Community
Reposting years old campus climate survey results without addressing the feedback doesn't count. Engage with students, staff, and faculty of color to find inequities. Maybe leaders and influencers will be willing to participate and encourage others to do the same. Whenever possible, allow for the option to remain fully anonymous. The opportune word is act. Address the feedback directly with transparent communication before, during, and after. Build trust by addressing what you can immediately, making a plan for what will take time, and then execute, evaluate, and update.
- Example: Here are 10 years worth of very realistic and actionable demands from Black and Native students at Colorado State University. These issues, experiences, and concerns aren’t unique to this campus or yours. Your solutions and policies don’t need to be identical to theirs but you have to start somewhere to take action.
Empower Your EDI Experts to Be Actual Decision Makers and Directly Influence Decisions
In this context, decisions = policies, programs, processes, and whatever else is happening on your campus. Hire folx with lived and learned experience, trust them, provide them with resources, stand by their decisions, allow space for trial and error, and reward their success.
Directly Invest In and Work with Marginalized Communities
This suggestion is broad because community needs vary by many factors including race, ethnicity, class, and location—meaning there’s room to get creative, collaborative, and specific. Here’s the constant: the thriving communities that traditional college students historically come from are those with the most resources and access (e.g., financial stability, affordable housing, job training, fresh foods, safe water, education, healthcare services, etc.). Those who have everything they need and clear pathways to college, while many in marginalized impoverished communities struggle to survive, let alone succeed academically. Campuses across the country have the power, influence, and capital to improve those conditions, especially in your local area. So find a gap and fill it with long term solutions.Examples:
- Miami University (OH) is repairing relationships with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma through educational partnership and student support.
- An Insight Into Diversity article shares three universities demonstrating how African American male students earn better grades and graduate at higher rates if they participate in peer-support programs.
- An Oregon school district breaks down how equity has helped close the graduation gap for Latine students
Educate Yourself, Your Team, and Your Campus Consistently
Even the most knowledgeable EDI pros with lived and learned experiences have room to grow and can’t do it all alone. They can be an essential champion and decision-maker but this work takes an educated and sincere village that’s constantly learning. That means one annually optional diversity symposium or mandatory diversity training session isn’t enough.
- Myself and other Sonarians are educating ourselves on the racist history of higher ed because it plays a direct role in the current and future state of the industry. Join us by reading The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal—And How to Set Them Right and engaging with the work of experts like Dr. Sydney Freeman Jr (just to name one).
- Bring in external anti-racism and anti-oppression educators.
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