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The Shortage of Young Americans Should Be a Significant Strategic Concern for All in Education

by David Wyld 4 months ago in list
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There has been a marked decline in the number of young people in the United States and in their share of the American population. Here’s why this demographic trend is a strategic threat that all in charge of any educational entity - from daycare to universities - should be aware of and act on today!

The Shortage of Young Americans Should Be a Significant Strategic Concern for All in Education
Photo by Colin Maynard on Unsplash

Introduction

Pop quiz. What is the one thing that every business needs? If you said “customers,” ding, ding, ding, you are right! While we in the education business talk about students, in effect, students are proxies for our customers. And let there be no doubt, every educational entity, from daycare to school districts to private schools to colleges and universities, needs a steady supply of students (i.e. customers). Whether they are a private business (such as a daycare), a nonprofit organization (such as a private school or university), or a public agency (encompassing everything from a school district to a state university), every educational institution does have a “bottom line.” As such, the administration of any educational entity, public or private and from the smallest school to the largest university has to be concerned with how they will generate revenue and stay in business over time. And what is absolutely necessary for these entities, from local primary and secondary schools to colleges and universities to stay in business? The answer is students - again, customers - as they, and the revenue that flows from them (whether that comes from the students themselves and/or from public funding that is tied to students) is what ultimately they depend upon for their growth and yes ultimately, for their very survival.

And that is why university presidents, school district superintendents, private school principals, and even those who manage private educational entities, from daycare centers to tutoring centers and more, should be very concerned about a key demographic trend in the country today. In short, the 2020 Census has revealed that there is a dearth of young people today, and that means that there is - and will be for some time - a historical shortfall of students in the educational pipeline. In this article, we will explore what is a very real shortage of young people in America today, and what this portends for the future of all American educational institutions - at every level - in the years ahead.

By Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

The Facts on the Shortage of Young People in America Today

One of the more valuable sources of factual, statistical information on the changes taking place in American society today is USA Facts, created by Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO, which seeks to be “a nonpartisan, not-for-profit civic initiative (that) provides a data-driven portrait of the American population, US governments’ finances, and governments’ impact on society."

Recently, USA Facts launched a new data portal, Our Changing Population: United States. With this site, the organization seeks to provide accurate and actionable information upon which both ordinary citizens and corporate/civic leaders alike can intelligently act today based on Census data. It is a treasure trove of information that should prove helpful to anyone - researchers, students, businesses and more - needing a “go to” source for data on the population of the United States as a whole and for data on each of the 50 states. If you are looking to “go deep” in looking at the changing demographics of America, this is definitely the site for you.

To tout their new data portal, the organization released a report entitled, “Our Changing Population: How demographic data helps tell national, state, and local stories.” In it, USA Facts highlighted a number of interesting findings based on the changes in the U.S. population from the 2010 Census to the most recent one conducted in 2020. According to the 2020 Census, the U.S. population is now almost 330 million people (well, 329,484,123 to be exact). As can be seen in Figure 1 (U.S. Population Growth, 2010-2020) below, this represents a population increase of just over 20 million people over the past decade! The report demonstrated

Figure 1: U.S. Population Growth, 2010-2020

Source: USA Facts, Our Changing Population: How demographic data helps tell national, state, and local stories, 2022 (Used with permission)

some of the capabilities of the data portal in conveying just how much the American population is changing. As can be seen in Figure 2 (Population Change Between 2010 and 2020), the population growth in the United States has been concentrated not just in the Southern United States, but in a surprisingly few metro areas in just a handful of states! The report went on to show graphically and to discuss how the country is becoming more diverse (with growing minority populations) and becoming older (with a significant increase in the share of the population that is over 65).

Figure 2: Population Change Between 2010 and 2020

Source: USA Facts, Our Changing Population: How demographic data helps tell national, state, and local stories, 2022 (Used with permission)

From my perspective as a strategic management consultant and yes, a university professor, to me the most important demographic trend coming out of the 2020 Census is, in fact, the “age issue.” However, it is not the age issue that has received the most attention to this point, that being the fact that the U.S. population is getting older - by a lot. As can be seen in Figure 3 (Population by Age in the United States, 2010 vs. 2020), Americans who are aged 65 and older grew far faster than any other age group, rising from 40.5 million in 2010 to well over 55 million by 2020! Yes, this growing elderly population has huge implications for almost every sector of the economy. And yet, the even bigger story, especially for those involved in any way not just in the “education industry,” but in any field or industry that depends on young people for “customers,” is that we have seen a very real decline in the American population of those 19 and younger. The truth of the matter is simple and it is stark: We have a very real shortage of young people in the United States at the moment!

Figure 3: Population by Age in the United States, 2010 vs. 2020

Source: USA Facts, Our Changing Population: How demographic data helps tell national, state, and local stories, 2022 (Used with permission)

Consider the raw numbers. As can be seen in that same Figure 3, there was a decline in those aged 5-19 (typically the ages of both primary and secondary school students), falling by over a million young people, from 62,994,714 in the 2010 Census to 61,953,063 in the 2020 count! And the picture is much the same for those aged 0-4 (yes, a much smaller age cohort), as that population fell from 20,189,578 in 2010 to 19,301,292 in 2020 - a decline of almost 900,000 individuals!

And remember, the significant decline in the younger population was concurrent with the overwhelming rise in the senior population, which makes the transformative power of this demographic shift in the nation all the more important across a whole spectrum of areas - social, political, business, and yes, health care and more! As can be seen in Figure 4 (Age Makeup of the U.S., 2010 vs. 2020), this means that the relative share of the total U.S. population that is composed of younger Americans has fallen significantly over the past decade. In fact, the relative share of the U.S. population that is between 0 and 4 years old (the fuchsia-colored slices in the donut hole graphs) decreased from 6.5% in 2010 to 5.9% in 2020. In like fashion, the percentage of the American population that is between 5 and 19 years of age (the dark blue-colored slices in the donut hole graphs) fell from 20.4% in 2010 to 18.8% in 2020.

Figure 4: Age Makeup of the U.S., 2010 vs. 2020

Source: USA Facts, Our Changing Population: How demographic data helps tell national, state, and local stories, 2022 (Used with permission)

So again, while much of the media, and indeed many in business, smartly focus on the quite significant expansion of the senior (65 and older) population (the medium blue-colored slices in the donut hole graphs), which indeed rose from comprising 13.1% of the U.S. population in 2010 to being 16.9% of it in 2020, because of the many opportunities (think the marketing of incontinence products and every prescription drug available) - and yes, problems as well (think long-term care issues and the looming crisis with Social Security) - that come from the huge growth in the senior population and concomitant decline in the younger population, the real story for those of us in the “education business” is that the dearth of young people is - and will continue to for some time to come - posing a significant strategic challenge to every entity - and person - in it. We will outline just some of these in the concluding section of this article.

By Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Analysis

How should education leaders view these numbers? Well, from the offices of university presidents to school superintendents to public and especially private school principals, more than a few might have spit their coffee on their screens after seeing the charts and reading the narrative presented above! These demographic changes should be “red alert”-level statistics to not just anyone who leads an educational entity, but indeed by all of us who might be employed by one. In short, the Census numbers can’t be spun, can’t be “sugar coated,” and no matter what your level of graphics skills, can’t be turned into a positive picture. The long and short of it is this: American educational institutions - those charged with educating the youngest of children up to and including colleges and universities - are seeing fewer students in the pipeline today, and for at least the foreseeable future - at least for the next two decades, the problem may indeed only get worse! While many may focus on the significant decline in the number of kids in the immediate “customer group” of 5-19 year olds for primary and secondary schools (many of whom then become the “customers” for colleges and universities), the even more marked decline in the 0-4 age group of the youngest Americans shows that the demographic problems for educational institutions may only be accelerating. This is because there has been a significant decline in birth rates in the United States, spanning more than a decade. Even though the number of births actually increased for the first time in seven years in 2021 (an increase many attribute to COVID), the birth rate in America has declined from over 4.3 million babies being born in 2007 to just over 3.6 million being born in 2020 - that translates roughly to 700,000 less future students, yes, customers, for the American education industry being born each year!

Now, the decline in young people is not uniform across the country by any means. As Figure 5 (Change in Under 10 Population, 2010 to 2020) shows, many states did stay stable in their youth population, while others fell significantly, including California and Illinois, which each saw declines of over 200,000 in their population of individuals between 0 and 10 years of age! At the same time, two states, Texas and Florida, actually saw gains of approximately 200,000 people in this age range! Thus, the effect of lower birth rates in not just American society, but globally, is not the same across the 50 states, as the population - and the age of the population - of every state and really every locale is the result of a complex equation of forces, including economic, societal and even technological and environmental changes that impact the demography of a specific area (a topic well beyond the scope of this article and well above my pay grade as a management expert!).

Figure 5: Change in Under 10 Population, 2010 to 2020

Source: USA Facts, Our Changing Population: How demographic data helps tell national, state, and local stories, 2022 (Used with permission)

So in the end, just how alarmed you should be today as an educational leader will indeed vary based on where you are located in the United States. However, the bottom-line is this for every leader of an educational institution in America today: There is indeed a dearth of future customers (i.e. students) today, and the decline in student populations almost everywhere around the country will only become a more critical issue in the years ahead.

School districts and private schools across the country will likely see enrollment “challenges” in the years ahead, exacerbated by the increasing competition between public and private schools as school choice grows across the country. As students - and their revenue (whether the funding comes from the government and/or from parents) - become ever-more prized as the number of available students (yes, customers) in an area that is stable or - more likely, as the state-level statistics shown in Figure 5 demonstrate - in decline, such competition will grow ever more fierce, as schools - and even entire school districts - will face not just a critical strategic challenge, but in some cases, existential-level threats!

While almost all primary and secondary schools have a limited, practical geographic range from which to draw from, and by definition of their missions, a limited age range of people to draw from, the same cannot be said for colleges and universities. The shortage of traditional college-aged students in the pipeline has been a topic of interest for some time among higher education leaders, as enrollment in American colleges and universities has been on the decline for a decade. And today, with COVID challenges changing how we learn and many people questioning the value of a college education like never before, every institution is facing intense pressure to compete for every possible student - yes, to be their customer! In the years ahead, as the demographics squeeze becomes even more pronounced, we will only see this competition intensify. Institutions will be locked in a constant battle with one another over what is a shrinking pie of young people, who are the traditional target market for colleges and universities. We will indeed see institutions having to compete not just nationally for these traditional college students, but globally as well, albeit hindered by some very negative perceptions of the United States that have already had an impact on the number of international students coming to America for their educational pursuits. Institutions of higher education will, across the board, have to broaden their appeals and strengthen their efforts to recruit non-traditional students and strive to increase interest in their graduate programs - and dual-education program offerings with high school students - as a way to prop-up their enrollment numbers. And yes, colleges with the best “brands” with higher reputations, both academically and increasingly in sports (call it the “ESPN Effect,” and like it or not, it is a very real phenomenon today!), will be best positioned to succeed in this new, hypercompetitive environment for students. Ultimately, as is already happening, some institutions will either cease to exist or have to severely curtail their operations. And so the shortage of traditional college students, arising from the shortage of young people in America today, will be a severe, even existential threat for all colleges and universities for some time to come.

So in the end, the coming decade or two will be times of unprecedented challenges not just for educational institutions at all levels, but for all the people who work for them and for all the businesses that depend on their business coming from schools and colleges (from suppliers of technology to your local pizza joint!) and the businesses (like daycares and tutoring centers) that help support both teachers and students alike. The demographic crisis facing education is very real! And yes, the decisions educational leaders make today on how to address the lower number of students (yes, for a final time, customers) available to them will go a long way in determining not just what the future of their institutions looks like, but what American education will look like collectively going forward.

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About David Wyld

David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.

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About the author

David Wyld

Professor, Consultant, Doer. Founder/Publisher of The IDEA Publishing (http://www.theideapublishing.com/) & Modern Business Press (http://www.modernbusinesspress.com)

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  • Call Me Les4 months ago

    I really enjoy these. It's like sitting in a lecture or reading a paper from my uni days. Well done! Subscribed.

  • Babs Iverson4 months ago

    Interesting facts.

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