In a University of St. Thomas tradition since 2000, members of the freshman class gather on Summit Avenue at the start of fall semester and "March Through the Arches."
Filled with hope and plenty of first-year jitters, the new students enter a flower-filled quadrangle to music and the welcoming applause of faculty and staff.
These colorful, joyous marches have been getting longer in recent years thanks to a string of larger freshman classes. The university welcomed record-breaking first-year classes in 2004 and 2005, and was expecting another large class this fall. Not only are the numbers looking good, so are the students' academic credentials.
But troublesome clouds are gathering on the horizon for St. Thomas as well as all Minnesota colleges and universities. You can't see them out your window just yet, but the clouds are building on the long-range demographic radar.
Any one of those clouds might not be cause for alarm, but together they are forming a storm front that is being tracked closely by St. Thomas administrators. They are analyzing a projected, overall decrease in the number of high school graduates and a sharp increase in the number of high school students of color.
Some clouds aren't related to changing demographics. One that's a little surprising is that more women than men are enrolling in college. Not that anyone expects it to happen, but if recent trends continue, there won't be any men enrolling in college by the 2030s.
Another cloud often is referred to as "affordability," but a good street term might be sticker shock: the ever-increasing cost of tuition, room and board coupled with increases in the cost of borrowing. Sticker shock is even more of a concern to high school students, and their families, who come from demographic groups that historically have not gone to college in large numbers.
And finally, competition among colleges and universities for this dwindling pool of potential students is going to be stiff, if not fierce. This especially will be the case for top students. It's no secret that post-secondary schools hope for the highest-possible ratings in surveys like those published by U.S. News and World Report; the path to those good ratings is paved in part with the academic credentials of your student body.
A critical juncture
The Minnesota Private College Council, a 17-member group that includes St. Thomas, has been watching these trends unfold for some years now.
"Minnesota is at a critical juncture for its economic and social future," said Dr. David Laird Jr, council president. "Demo-graphic changes are radically altering the age composition of its population and work force, the ethnic and preparatory characteristics of its school-age population and the future supply of educated citizens and workers.
"The public's understanding of the nature and extent of the nation's real competition for leadership and success in the future is incomplete and not rooted in reality. In many respects Minnesota's specific challenges reflect those that the nation must address in general."
Trustees zero in on access
What kind of numbers are we talking about? How do you prepare not only for a smaller pool of potential students, but different students? What will the St. Thomas freshman class look like when it marches through the arches 10 years from now? How will they pay for their education? How do you compete for brightest students? How do you attract students from racial, ethnic and economic groups that aren't normally a large part of the St. Thomas community? How does all of this fit with the university's mission?
Those questions all fit under the heading of "access," which is one of three priorities that have been studied intently over the past year by the university. The St. Thomas Board of Trustees, at its spring meeting, approved a resolution accepting the priorities of access, excellence and Catholic identity as a platform for developing a strategic plan for the next five years and for fund-raising efforts.
The board's decision coincided with a presentation by Marla Friederichs, associate vice president for enrollment services, on the demographic challenges that St. Thomas and other schools will face over the coming decade.
Delving into the demographics
Like peeling the layers of an onion, Friederichs presented one graph after another to demonstrate what St. Thomas is up against.
Her first graph was simple enough. It showed that nearly nine out of 10 U.S. students enroll in colleges that are within 500 miles of home. For St. Thomas, that's certainly the case. While St. Thomas students come from 47 states and 61 countries, 87 percent come from Minnesota and 75 percent come from the 11-county metropolitan area of St. Paul and Minneapolis. No big surprises there.
The next graph predicted the change in the number of public and private high school graduates between 2003 and 2013. Every region in the country expects an increase except the Midwest, which showed a 3.3 percent decrease.
Friederichs' next graph packed a wallop. In the Midwest, the number of white high school graduates between 2003 and 2013 will drop 18.3 percent. However, the number of Asian American students will increase 16.6 percent, the number of African American students will increase 18.9 percent and the number of Hispanic students will increase 143 percent.
In Minnesota, the trend is even more pronounced: white students down 18.7 percent, Asian American students up 24.9 percent, African American students up 40.6 percent, and Hispanic students up 173.4 percent.
In recent decades St. Thomas has weathered, and even prospered, through other downturns in the pool of high school graduates. For the first time, though, the approaching downturn will include that well-documented shift in the pool's racial and ethnic mix.
Greg Forster, author of Education Myths, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that 37 percent of the white population, 26 percent of the black population and 15 percent of the Hispanic population enrolled in four-year institutions when they reached college age.
Friederichs also presented recent statistics that linked enrollment trends to such factors as ACT entrance exam scores and family income.
The number of low-income and students of color is rising in public schools, but less than half graduate from high school on time, and less than 5 percent receive a bachelor's degree from a Minnesota college within 10 years of their freshman year in high school.
The average ACT test scores of recent freshman classes at St. Thomas has been 25, on a scale from 1 to 36. Last year, the U.S. average was 20.9. For whites, it was 21.9; for Hispanics, it ranged from 18.4 to 18.9; for African Americans, it was 17; for Asian-Americans it was 22.1; and for American Indians it was 18.7.
Family income, meanwhile, is dramatically linked to college enrollment. In families with incomes lower than $30,000, only 20 percent of the dependents enroll in four-year colleges. In families with incomes higher than $75,000, 54 percent attend college.
Another article in the Chronicle of Higher Education cited research by Thomas Mortenson, who found that "roughly one in two students from families making more than $90,000 obtain a bachelor's degree by age 24 compared with one in 17 students from families making less than $35,000 a year."
"A phenomenon that began unfolding in the United States in the 1980s and has been accelerating since 1999 is the sorting of higher education enrollments by family income and social class," Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, told the university's faculty last fall.
Dease cited research showing that students from low- and lower-middle-income families are increasingly concentrated in two-year colleges, while students from upper-middle- and high-income families are increasingly concentrated in four-year colleges.
And while affordability and the state's changing demographics are major factors that will influence undergraduate enrollment in the years ahead, another factor - globalization - already is being felt by the university's graduate programs.
"We are also facing a whole new set of challenges resulting from globalization," Dease explained. "Students who just a few years ago were coming here from Pakistan and India by the hundreds for master's degrees are now taking those same degree programs in places like Bangalore.
"Our graduate programs in software have felt the impact of competition from these new players," Dease said. "As our graduate faculty and deans have known for some time, to be enterprising is no longer a luxury or an option. It is how we will survive."
Access and affordability
How students and their families pay for a college education is critical to the question of access. The rising cost of tuition, according to a survey by the Education Writers Association, was the most-written-about higher education story in the United States last year.
"As our 2003 Self-Study articulates so well, serious challenges will confront the University of St. Thomas in the years ahead," Dease told the faculty last fall. "We will need to find new ways to assist students to overcome what Microsoft founder Bill Gates has called one of the greatest barriers to a college education: the inability to pay for it.
"Indeed, one of the major challenges we face at the undergraduate level is to maintain the affordability of a St. Thomas education."
"The minute high school students and their parents see the cost of a year at St. Thomas, they are concerned," Friederichs said. "We are asking them to pay in tuition, room and board more than some of their families earn in a year. In essence, it's like buying a new car every year.
"The reality is that we shape our freshman class with financial aid," Friederichs explained. "We use it to attract a class with strong academic credentials, one that's diverse, one that has a balance of men and women, and one that has a broad mix of economic backgrounds."
Traditionally, students have paid for their education through a combination of personal and family savings, state and federal grants, loans and "institutional aid," which is a combination of scholarships, grants and student employment.
What is changing about this funding formula for most students is that state and federal sources aren't keeping up with rising costs. Students are taking on higher levels of debt, and colleges have to tap deeper into their resources or raise new funds to provide more grant aid. More students are facing what financial-aid counselors call "unmet need," or that difference between the cost of a year in college and the grant and loan package.
On top of that, families are saving less money and are less able to pitch in and help. In 2004, Americans saved just 1.2 percent of their disposable personal income. That was the lowest since the Great Depression. Last year, they saved a negative 0.5 percent.
What about summer jobs and part-time work during the school year? The Center for Economic and Policy Research has calculated that in 1981 a student who worked in the summer could earn enough to pay about two-thirds of a year in college. Now, that student would have to work full time for a year to earn that much.
Students don't just select a college based on its reputation or ranking. More and more are comparison-shopping for their bachelor's degrees.
"We calculate a financial aid package for each student who applies," explained Friederichs. "Sometimes they'll call back and say, 'You've offered us $4,000 in aid, but the college down the street will give us $10,000. If you increase your offer, we'll come to your school.'
"We don't negotiate," Friederichs said. "We give them the best offer we can, but sometimes it's not enough."
Competition could get tough
The top 10 competitors for St. Thomas, based on the number of accepted students who eventually chose another school last fall, are the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, College of St. Benedict, University of Wisconsin-Madison, St. John's University, Gustavus Adolphus College,University of Minnesota-Duluth, St. Olaf College, and Marquette, Hamline and Creighton.
St. Thomas' undergraduate tuition and fees this year total $24,808, or ninth highest of the 17 members of the Minnesota Private College Council. That compares to about $9,400 for an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, which is by far St. Thomas' biggest competitor.
Lessons from the Hispanic Pre-College Project
St. Thomas gained firsthand insight into the challenges of recruiting students from ethnic groups when it launched an effort designed to bring more Hispanic students to campus.
That effort, called the Hispanic Pre-College Project, began with a four-year study in the 1980s that found that career aspirations for Twin Cities-area Hispanic and white students were similar. Like most kids in junior high and high school, both whites and Hispanics hoped to attend college someday and become business leaders, teachers, scientists, lawyers and doctors.
But too often those plans would hit the skids about the time the Hispanic students reached the junior and senior years of high school. That's when they would confront the reality of the college entrance exams and the cost of a college education.
On top of that, they didn't have a crucial support system of peers and family members who already had attended college. According to the Minnesota Private College Council, Minnesota students whose parents did not attend college are only about half as likely to enroll in higher education as their classmates.
The St. Thomas study found that the Hispanic students needed better academic preparation, starting in grade school, and a clearer understanding of the higher education system.
Based on its research, St. Thomas in 1990 developed Academia del Pueblo, an after-school and summer program designed to raise the students' expectations, aspirations and success in school, so that one day they might seek a college education. At the same time, it launched a companion program for the students' mothers and fathers, called Parents as Partners.
The project received national awards and recognition for its efforts, and while it was successful on many fronts, it wasn't very successful in realizing the long-term goal of eventually sending its participants to St. Thomas. Academia del Pueblo, meanwhile, has evolved into a thriving St. Paul charter school, Academia Cesar Chavez. The school, started in 2001, continues to be sponsored by St. Thomas.
Access and college rankings
These are tough times to be college administrators. What worked in the past might not necessarily work in the future. They are asked to keep the costs down and quality up, not only in the classroom, but in the arena of student services. They are asked to recruit a highly diverse student body, yet maintain sterling academic reputations and top rankings in U.S. News and World Report's annual college guide.
In an interview published in Lawlor Review this spring, Dr. Richard Veddar, an economic historian and author of Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, noted that "The most prestigious schools haven't increased their willingness to educate students.
"Rather than saying, 'We're going to educate more kids,' most, not all, are saying, 'We want to be more selective. We want to move up on the U.S. News and World Report ranking,' and the way they do that is to turn more kids down. The way to success in higher ed is to deny access. That's the way you gain brownie points with U.S. News. Some people think that is a little perverse."
Denying access, of course, is not what the St. Thomas Board of Trustees had in mind when its members approved access as one of the university's top priorities.
Access and the St. Thomas mission
According to the university's strategic priorities document, "St. Thomas is committed to improved access to its graduate, undergraduate and community outreach programs.
"St. Thomas' history and its self-understanding as a Catholic institution call for service to a wide range of students. As a Catholic university, in and of the city, it seeks to find ways of being educationally relevant and responsive to the changing needs of our community.
"While it is impossible to be all things to all people, there are important reasons to support and enhance access for all qualified students.
"First, it is a matter of social justice. A second and equally compelling reason is the need to further develop a learning community in which students grow and thrive as a result of contact with others of differing backgrounds, experiences and characteristics."
The access document lists two main priorities:
Attract a community of students committed to community service
Attract a diverse student body, graduate and undergraduate, by "reducing financial barriers and improving the environment for under-represented groups on campus."
To achieve those priorities, Dease said the university has begun the exploratory phase of a capital fund-raising effort that "will advance St. Thomas to a whole new level of access and excellence."
The campaign, he said, will focus on assuring that St. Thomas will remain affordable to future students, while addressing several bricks-and-mortar needs and deepening the quality of the faculty and programs.
One way of doing this is through the undergraduate "Community Builder" scholarship program. The university is planning to raise tens of millions of dollars for scholarships designed to attract students committed to serving society.
"The objective is to make a St. Thomas education available to those who are most likely to use their skills to advance the common good and work toward the betterment of society," Dease said.
The scholarship program would be one of the largest of its kind in the country. The scholarships would be awarded to up to 10 percent of each entering freshman class. They would not be need- or merit-based, in the traditional sense, and would not be restricted to a particular major field of study.
Rather, they would be awarded to students based on their records of community service and involvement, and a commitment to use their St. Thomas educations in the service of society.
The scholarships connect the idea of greater access and the university's mission statement, which in part calls for the education of students to "work skillfully to advance the common good."
At the graduate level, meanwhile, plans are in the works to raise tens of millions of dollars for fellowships that would be awarded to students in fields such as law, business, education, social work, professional psychology, engineering, computer software, art history, music and Catholic studies.
Beyond scholarships and fellowships, the strategic priorities statement calls for programs that increase campus diversity, improve the campus "climate," simplify the process for transferring to St. Thomas from other colleges and universities, and especially help students who are immigrants or are the first in their families to attend a college.
St. Thomas, meanwhile, is continuing its research on demographics and is developing a long-range enrollment plan that will be presented to the Board of Trustees at its October meeting.
The University of St. Thomas, Dease feels, has arrived at a critical moment in its history. "We know who we are. We know our strengths. We know our challenges. We know where we want to go."
Speaking of the campaign that will underwrite many of the strategic priorities, Dease noted, "Each of our previous campaigns has changed the institution dramatically. I have no doubt that success in this new effort will result in an even more remarkable transformation, impacting this university in ways we can yet scarcely imagine."