In The News: Demographic Trends In The United States & What They Mean For College Education, Pt. 2

Yesterday, I wrote a response to an article in the New York Times having to do with increasing numbers of Americans attending college. The article included a graph (reproduced at right) that demonstrated that virtually every ethnic group is attending college at a higher rate than in previous decades. Today I want to expound on the message communicated in this graph in light of another article from the Times. As I’ve mentioned before, when I am not blogging, my “secret identity” is a college counselor and American history teacher at Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Despite our school being extraordinarily diverse, featuring students from over a dozen states and a score of countries, the American born students are quite homogeneous racially and economically. As a result, I feel compelled (especially in my history classes) to point out aspects of American society that are indicative of our country’s complex racial history. Obviously “race” is a social construct, but it is still real, and makes a difference in all of our lives. Consequently, I was drawn to an article written by Sam Roberts headlined “Census Benchmark For White Americans: More Deaths Than Births“.


The lede of Roberts’ article is as follows:

Deaths exceeded births among non-Hispanic white Americans for the first time in at least a century, according to new census date, a benchmark that heralds profound demographic change.  

The disparity was tiny–only about 12,000–and was more than made up by a gain of 188,000 as a result of immigration from abroad.  But the decrease for the year ending July 1, 2012, coupled with the fact that a majority of births in the United States are now to Hispanic, black and Asian mothers, is further evidence that white Americans will become a minority nationwide within about three decades.

Overall the number of non-Hispanic white Americans is expected to begin declining by the end of this decade. 

Well that is pretty dramatic, isn’t it?  But isn’t it old news?  I mean, it should come to no surprise that the Census Bureau predicts changes in the racial makeup of the country, after all they predict that whites will only be 43% of the population in 2060.  As Ruy Teixiera noted at ThinkProgress, currently only four states (California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas) and the District of Columbia are majority-minority. Teixiera notes that before 2020 we can expect Nevada (46% minority in 2010), Maryland (45%), Georgia (44%) and possibly Florida (42%) to pass that threshold.  In the 2020’s, Arizona, New Jersey and possibly Delaware and New York should follow suit. And by 2050, we may also see majority-minority populations in Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington and possibly Alaska.

It turns out that Roberts was responding to a new study, which linked demographic changes to the economic difficulties of the past few years:

Nationally, said Kenneth M. Johnson, the senior demographer at the Carsey Institute, a research center based at the University of New Hampshire, “the onset of natural decrease between 2011 and 2012 was not anticipated.” He attributed the precipitous shift in part to the recession, adding that “the growing number of older non-Hispanic whites, which will accelerate rapidly as the baby boom ages, guarantees that non-Hispanic white natural decrease will be a significant part of the nation’s demographic future.”

According to the article, Johnson noted that in 2006 (before the recession), self-identified “whites” had 320,000 more births than deaths, as opposed to 2011, when the number was 29,000. Apparently the white population was even less fecund last year, resulting in the previously noted surplus of 12,000 deaths.  Perhaps it was this rapid drop-off that led a think-tank panjandrum to react with what seemed to be alarm:

“These new census estimates are an early signal alerting us to the impending decline in the white population that will characterize most of the 21st century,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution.


The transition will mean that “today’s racial and ethnic minorities will no longer be dependent on older whites for their economic well-being,” Dr. Frey said.  In fact, the situation may be reversed. “It makes more vivid than ever the fact that we will be reliant on younger minorities and immigrants for our future demographic and economic growth,” he said.

Now it is possible that Frey was referring to the recent study cited in the Times (“For Medicare, Immigrants Offer Surplus, Study Finds“).  But regardless, it seems pretty tacky (at minimum) and offensive to imply that “racial and ethnic minorities” are “dependent on older whites for their economic well-being”. But having chastised Dr. Frey (who does seem overly prone to throw around phrases like “racial mingling“), I think it is worthwhile to take some time and see how these emerging demographic trends may impact higher education.
According to the Census Bureau, it is likely that the proportion of the population younger than 18 will remain the same (about 20%) through 2060. So it is reasonable to assume that a similar amount of them will seek higher education after high school (or more, if the rate continues to rise).  I take for granted that the frequently seen worry that Massively Open Online Courses will destroy higher education is uninformed  fear-mongering by people who should know better, so therefore we should expect that the number of non-white college students will continue to increase in the coming decades.


Most Americans consider themselves “middle class”, and one hallmark of that status is an emphasis on education as a means of economic betterment. (This report from the Dept. of Commerce goes into quite a bit of detail about the American middle class, should you want to read it–it’s 40 pages long, but it has an excellent bibliography). Unfortunately, economic mobility is not what it used to be, and fewer Americans are finding themselves able to improve upon the class status of their parents. Furthermore, an increasing number of people think that they are losing ground; the Pew Research Center undertook a major survey last year, that (among other things), revealed that “85% of self-described middle-class adults say it is more difficult now than it was a decade ago for middle-class people to maintain their standard of living.

Several graphs from the 140 page Pew Report are quite thought provoking. The chart at right is proof that things have been getting worse for poorer people for decades.  While the immediate post-WWII decades saw consistent improvement for everyone, including the lower income quintiles (due to the strength of labor unions and commitment to collective bargaining by manufacturers who relied on domestic employees), the last three decades has seen a massive redistribution, leading to a situation where, as Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) observes:

Today, the wealthiest 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom half of America – 150 million people. Today, the six heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune own more wealth than the bottom 30 percent.Today, the top one percent own 40 percent of all wealth, while the bottom sixty percent owns less than 2 percent.  Incredibly, the bottom 40 percent of all Americans own just 3/10ths of one percent of the wealth of the country.

In light of these figures, it is amazing that anyone has hope for the future, but the Pew Report indicates that it is the young, racial minorities, and the least educated who have the most faith that their children will experience higher living standards. If nothing else, this is an inspiring demonstration of the staying power of the American Dream. Especially in light of another story in this week’s Times (“Discrimination in Housing Against Nonwhites Persists Quietly, U.S. Study Finds“). According to Shaila Dewan, the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development recently carried out a survey with disappointing results:

“Although we’ve come a long way from the days of blatant, in your face housing injustice, discrimination still persists,”Shaun Donovan, the department’s secretary, said in a telephone conference on Tuesday. “And just because it has taken on a hidden form doesn’t make it any less harmful.  

In each of the study’s 8,000 tests, one white and one minority tester of the same gender and age, posing as equally well-qualified renters or buyers, visited the same housing provider or agent. In more than half the test cases, both testers were shown the same number of apartments or homes.  But in cases where one tester was shown more homes or apartments, the white tester was usually favored, leading to a higher number of units shown to whites overall.

Overall, black prospective renters were presented 11% fewer rentals than whites, Hispanics about 12% fewer and Asians 15% fewer.  As prospective buyers, blacks were presented with 17% fewer homes and Asians 15% fewer, but Hispanics saw roughly the same number as whites.  White testers also were more frequently offered lower rents, told that deposits and other move-in costs were negotiable, or were quoted a lower price.  

The article notes that “even subtle discrimination like steering minorities to certain neighborhoods or failing to offer them the homes most likely to increase in value would result in substantially weaker accumulation of wealth.” It is pretty clear from the table at right that minority groups have been among the “biggest losers” economically this century.  While it would be tempting to assume that when their numbers grow (by 2060, when today’s minorities will collectively make up 57% of the population, up from 37% today) their incomes will also increase, it is not clear to me that this is so.

After all, why should we have faith that the economic mobility trends of the past three decades will suddenly reverse themselves?  And if today’s racial minorities stay relatively poorer than whites, how will they be able to afford college?  Higher education costs have consistently risen over time, far outstripping the Consumer Price Index.  To be able to afford college (and graduate and professional schools), Americans have borrowed ever increasing amounts of money: over $1 trillion so far.

If upward economic mobility is limited, and if job options for college graduates are  ephemeral, leading to ever more over-educated minimum wage earners, how will tomorrow’s young people be able to pay off their loans? And what rational person will decide that it makes economic sense to take out such loans?  My wife and I have three graduate degrees among us (which is another way of saying that she has two), and 21 years after finishing our undergraduate diplomas (10 years since earning the last graduate degree) we still have 16 years to go until our student loans are fully paid off. While our degrees provide the main qualifications for our jobs, and no one can repossess our educations, I am not sure that the 18-year old version of me would have signed off on spending the next four decades in debt, especially debt that is very hard to discharge without full payment.


So what have we learned?  The segments of the population that should grow the fastest in the next four decades consists of those who are currently the poorest, and who face many obstacles to economic improvement.  On the other hand, they are the most likely to be optimistic about the future of the country and of their children.  We’ve also learned that America’s future prosperity will depend on this emerging majority, even though it is possible that higher education may be too expensive for them to continue expanding their share of the college population.

As I was preparing this post, Twitter blew up with accounts of a speech by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R).  Bush, the son and brother of former Presidents (and the husband of an immigrant from Mexico) is often touted as a future candidate for the nation’s highest office.  Earlier today, while delivering a speech in favor of immigration reform,  Bush was quoted as saying:

Immigrants create far more businesses than native-born Americans. Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families, and they have more intact families, and they bring a younger population. Immigrants create an engine of economic prosperity.”

While he seems to be on the same page as William Frey, it is pretty clear that he misspoke when using the word “fertile”. But Jeb Bush’s larger point is impossible to argue against:

“If we don’t do it [reform immigration policies], we will be in decline, because the productivity of this country is dependent upon young people that are equipped to be able to work hard.”

Trends are clear that the “young people” of America’s near future are much more likely to be Hispanic, Black or Asian.  And it is reasonable to think that they will have to work hard to survive (and to help support their elders–after all, I will be 90 years old in 2060!).  But will they be willing and able to pay the costs necessary to achieve the higher education that today’s students struggle to afford?  Time will tell…


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