Yes, even elite schools should be concerned about declining student populations

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Yes, even elite schools should be concerned about declining student populations

Big shifts in state-level demand are likely for elite colleges and universities

Demand for higher education is predicted to plummet sharply starting in 2026.

But for selective institutions, our Enrollment Management Forum’s analysis of Nathan Grawe’s Higher Education Demand Index shows mixed messages. The big-picture view shows a bleak overall outlook for undergraduate enrollment, with a silver lining for the most selective institutions. But a closer look reveals that the picture isn’t quite as simple as it looks.

Elite colleges and universities attract students from across the country—and the world. But despite their widespread appeal, most elite schools still retain some regional focus. Even for high-profile colleges and universities, a disproportionate share of their students will come from their home regions, illustrated by the gray portions of the graph below.

Graph of student data. Even for elite schools, the majority of students come from a regional area

Related: How to recruit students in your own backyard →

Higher growth for elite Western universities

While overall demand for elite universities is expected to rise as demand for other types of institutions drops sharply, this growth is uneven. Our data suggest that demand for elite universities and colleges will go down substantially in the Northeast and Midwest but rise by at least 11% in all but two of the 22 contiguous states west of the Mississippi.

Map of projected enrollment growth and declines in the USA.

This tension will resolve in one of two ways: elite institutions in the eastern part of the country will have to do a better job recruiting from the West, or there will be a shift in the makeup of the institutions at the top end of the college rankings.

We have already seen evidence of both phenomena. Elite colleges and universities in the eastern half of the country predicted where the demographic growth would occur and started recruiting in these states many years ago. They should continue to invest in these efforts—and many are.

The growth means that western universities have made gains as well. Every one of the University of California’s nine undergraduate institutions has added at least two points to its median ACT score since 2010.

Direction of shift will become clearer over time

The current landscape has meant that both outcomes—Western universities getting more selective and Eastern universities expanding recruitment of students from the West—can occur simultaneously.

But a steep decline of high school graduates in the East, including those likely to attend elite universities, will make the challenge more acute and could result in a greater shift in either of these directions. At the present pace, there simply won’t be enough students for both trends to continue.

Fundamental change in the traditional student pipeline is on the horizon. However, there is opportunity in these impending challenges, and those institutions that are prepared to think strategically about secondary and tertiary market recruitment will stand the best chance of success.