Higher Education and the Census Projections—How the Future of Colleges and Universities Is Tied to Immigration Policy and Flows

William Frey’s recent report, Reducing immigration will not stop America’s rising diversity, Census projections show, which analyzes the new census projections for the next 40 years, is a must-read for higher education leaders. Frey’s analysis shows that a reduction in immigration flows will not impede the trend of the United States—and especially college campuses—“becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.” But, it's his conclusions on the reduction of the under-18 population that should be our focus. Frey’s analysis provides greater urgency in light of Nathan Grawe’s excellent 2018 study, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, which outlined future declines in enrollment and the demographic challenges facing many colleges and universities. His analysis underscores why inclusive immigration policy reform is a national necessity and must be a higher education priority.

Robust immigration flows drove population growth in the United States over the past 40 years. As referenced in Grawe’s study, that growth also helped fuel enrollments on our college campuses. In this report, Frey analyses the newly released census projections for four scenarios: (a) the “main” scenario, which “assumes that immigration to the U.S. will follow trends from 2011 to 2015;”(b) a “high immigration” scenario, which “assumes a 50 percent increase in immigration going forward;” (c) “low immigration,” which “assumes a roughly 50 percent decrease;” and (d) “zero immigration,” which “assumes no new immigration to the U.S.”

Frey analyzes how the new projections across the four scenarios, even in the “high” and “main” scenarios, will translate into slower population growth—from a high of 33 percent to a -2 percent decline—in the next 40 years as compared to the higher growth rate of the past 40 years (see Frey’s figures 1 & 2 below). By way of context, Grawe, in his study, assumed the general continuation of immigration flows, akin to the “main” Census scenario.

For higher education leaders, the census projections of the under -18 population is of special concern. According to Frey, “Immigration is essential to counter sharp declines in growth, especially in sustaining the younger population.” Frey states bluntly that “immigration will make an important difference in how much the nation’s youth (under-18) and primary labor force (ages 18 to 64) populations grow.” Frey’s figure 6 below lays this out in stark terms.

The demographic challenges illuminated by Grawe could reach new crisis levels if we cannot reverse the current anti-immigration policy trends. What does this mean for higher education? Under this administration, these policy trends are already leading to a reduction of immigration flows, harsh prospects for many first generation immigrants, including Dreamer students, arbitrary and unwelcoming barriers for international students and scholars, and collateral damage to many second generation immigrant students, whose parents and family members are directly impacted.

The projected population changes vary across race and ethnic groups (see Frey’s figures 3 & 5 below).

For higher education leaders, paying attention to these differences is crucial. For example, Grawe highlighted how the growth of the Asian-American population helped spur enrollments. In fact, first- and second-generation immigrant students make up more than 30 percent of undergraduate students nationally, with proportions significantly higher for Asian and Latinx populations and lower for Black and White students. Still, first and second generation immigrants make up at least a quarter of all Black undergraduates nationally (2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16), which does not include undocumented students).

Bottom Line. The existence, institutional viability, and future flourishing of many higher education institutions are intertwined with future immigration trends. The prospects of positive immigration trends are more dependent than they have been in many decades on achieving inclusive and commonsense immigration policies and on understanding how to address immigration as a “cultural and identity issue” (Brooks Masters 2020).

The harsh impact of current immigration policies on our immigrant and international students and alumni, and on staff, faculty, and their families, propelled the launch of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration a little over two years ago. The challenges of the current policies have led many higher education leaders to recognize the moral imperative to speak out and stand by their students. Higher education leaders rightly call out the multiple cultural gains, immense intellectual talent, and strong economic benefits that our immigrant and international communities bring to all students on campus, to local and state regions beyond campus, and to the nation as a whole. College and university presidents recognize that the talents, investments, and innovation of our existing communities are strengthened and not diminished by the presence of immigrants. We now need to redouble our efforts at inclusive, bipartisan policy reform and recommit to reaching across divides to make this the story of America’s future.