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The Boomlet Goes to College

By Published on .

As the baby boomlet ages, colleges and universities nationwide have been expecting higher enrollments. But compared to the baby boom, a smaller number of states are responsible for a greater proportion of the boomlet's births.

The baby boom was spread fairly evenly throughout the nation, with almost all states reporting a rise in births. In 1965, the number of births declined, bottoming out at only 3.1 million births in 1973. Slowly, the number increased until, in 1980, there were 3.6 million births, roughly equal to the early years of the baby boom.

Despite speculation that a baby-boom echo effect was imminent-thanks to the large cohort of women in prime childbearing years (15-to-49), the rise in births, and an increase in the total fertility rate (TFR)-the boomlet hasn't followed the same pattern. One reason: Many boomer women postponed their first births until after age 30, and thus, the overall TFR has remained at about replacement level.

Shifting shares also contributed to the shifting state-birth patterns. Minority and foreign-born women have higher fertility rates than non-Hispanic whites. In 1993, the TFR for minorities and foreign-born women varied from a high of 3.0 children for Hispanic women to a low of 1.9 for Asian women. At the same time, non-Hispanic whites' TFR was only 1.8 children. Minorities and foreign-born women are not equally distributed around the country, thus boomlets are larger in states where they reside.

Internal migration provides yet another dynamic. States that had heavy out migration, particularly in the late 1970s and late 1980s, have boomlet populations far below the national average. Consequently, the states receiving the domestic migrants experienced larger than average boomlets.

Further, the assumption that the baby boomlet began on the heels of the baby bust is not necessarily true. Significant nationwide increases in births didn't begin until 1980. Thus the boomlet's starting point has had a dramatic impact on its expected influence on college enrollment in the 1990s.

Many administrators expected to see enrollments rise beginning in the fall of 1992, corresponding to the upturn in births that started in 1974. Not necessarily so. While in most states, births did increase from 1974 to 1979, they did not exceed those of the early 1970s. In many cases this created birth cohorts that were actually smaller than those of the early 1970s, the baby-bust cohorts. In fact, many states that saw a dramatic increase in births during the 1980s first experienced a decline from 1970-74 to 1975-79. Three prime examples are Virginia, New Hampshire, and Georgia. Each state experienced at least a 4 percent drop in births during 1975-79, followed by at least a 10 percent increase in the 1980s.

Birth trends in the 1980s were also quite varied among the 50 states, and will translate into variations in state-specific college enrollments. The two birth cohorts-1980-84 and 1985-89 -represent most of the students entering college over the next ten years. Here the boomlet's effect can be seen. States with high foreign immigration, domestic in migration, and large minority populations most likely will see an rise in college-age populations. Arizona, Maryland, and Nevada should see approximately a 2 percent average annual increase by 2006. But states with little foreign immigration, small minority populations, and domestic out migration are most likely to see falling college-age populations. West Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana will have an approximate average annual decrease in college-age population of 0.4 percent over the next decade.

Most states began to see the effect of the boomlet after 1980: the pattern and magnitude were quite varied. An examination of 1980s birth trends reveals a four-part designation:

* Substantial boomlet: large, continuous increases in births throughout the 1980s.

* Abbreviated boomlet: substantial increases in births 1980-84, followed by reduced increases 1985-89.

* Boomlet, then bust: a noticeable increase in births 1980-84, followed by a net decrease in births 1985-89.

* No boomlet: negligible increases or continuous drop through the 1980s.

Substantial boomlet states should see enrollments increase in the fall 1998 semester (at press time, final figures were not released) and continue through 2007. Abbreviated boomlet states should have noticeable increases in college-age populations through 2002, but will then see their growth rates slow between 2003 and 2007. Colorado, for example, recorded a 23 percent increase in births during the 1980-84 period. This could translate to a similar rise in college-age population in 1998-2002. However, between1985-89, births there rose by only 2 percent, greatly slowing the growth of the college-age population for 2003-07.

States in the boomlet-then-bust category saw a noticeable increase in births 1980-84, but then saw a decrease in 1985-89. Wyoming recorded a 28 percent rise in births during 1980-84, which should substantially increase college enrollments in 1998-2002. But during the 1985-89 period, births declined 25 percent, so Wyoming must face the issues of an increased college enrollment over the next five years, but the solutions need only be temporary.

The no-boomlet states had average annual increases in births of less than 0.5 percent or even outright declines in births between 1980-89, and won't experience any noticeable increase in their college enrollments over the next ten years. And selected states will see net enrollment declines. West Virginia is one: Births in the 1980-84 period fell 7.4 percent compared 1975-79, and another 15 percent in 1985-89. Mississippi saw a 2.4 percent increase in births in 1980-84, but from 1985-89 births dropped 7.4 percent, so the state should see negligible changes in college enrollment over the next ten years.

Three states-California, Florida, and Texas-accounted for a disproportionately high percentage of boomlet-induced birth increases: a combined increase of 859,900 births from 1975-79 to 1980-84, some 49 percent of the total U.S. increase for the same time period. From 1980-84 to 1985-89, their combined increase was 672,616, or 64.5 percent of the total U.S. births between these time periods.

Additional factors can affect the magnitude of the changes, such as the growth of the nontraditional student sector, the growth of community colleges and vocational training schools, domestic migration, foreign immigration, and the proportion of students attending schools in their home state. Older Americans are going back to school to meet the demands of a post-industrial economic structure, and more students desire job-specific training programs found at the community college and vocational training level.

Changes in the college-age population are determined by the birth trends in each state 18 years earlier. The uneven distribution and duration of the baby boomlet means every state needs to scrutinize its own demographic trends when planning for their college and university systems.

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