College Matters | Big trends drive many decisions

This article was originally posted in the College Matters column of the Times-Standard.

Thursday, March 28, 2024 - 1:04pm

Higher education, like many sectors, is facing an array of changes. Many societal factors outside our control are impacting how we may operate and are driving changes our University must now make or consider. Old standards are evolving with new expectations.

But isn’t that what universities stand for — innovation, change, new ideas, adaptability, and a focus on the future?

Unlike many sectors, however, higher education is notoriously resistant to changing itself or even experimenting with different approaches. Few who work in universities would deny it.

We share this by way of introducing some challenging trends that have emerged as we make important decisions about the future of Cal Poly Humboldt. We’re trying to take steps that make this institution more adaptable and more competitive.

Cal Poly Humboldt is similar to many state universities throughout the state and the country. We must constantly balance resources, enrollment, curriculum, and expectations. And while we may want to believe we are unique in this regard, we are far from it. When California faces budget challenges, we face them. When statewide enrollment declines or when the number of college-aged students drops, we feel it. And, like any organization, when specific costs rise, we have to adjust.

As a campus, we are pushed by larger trends to adapt. That said, below are four big trends in higher education that drive many decisions today.


According to many experts in several different organizations, world population is projected to peak sometime around 2055 and then decline somewhat through 2100. In the United States, the peak is expected in 2060, followed by an 8% decline by the end of the century.

Closer to home, the California population boom seems to have ended, or at least slowed significantly. Two decades ago, the Department of Finance expected the state to be headed to 59 million by 2040, and it is now projecting more like 43 million. Our current population is 39 million.

For colleges and universities, the number of 15- to 19-year-olds is particularly interesting, as you might guess. It’s a sign of the number of potential students. Well, in the United States, that age cohort is expected to shrink more than 6% over the next 10 years. Looking ahead much further, it is projected to decline about 20% by 2100.

Only 20% of the Cal Poly Humboldt students come from the North Coast or North State, while 10% come from out of state and 25% come from the Los Angeles area. We are a Hispanic-serving university and nearly a minority-majority institution. We are not the same campus as we were five years ago, yet alone 30 years ago.

Mental health

Another major trend impacting universities is the concerning rise in mental health challenges. Levels of anxiety and depression have nearly doubled over the past decade, with 41% of students reporting some level of depression. We know the pandemic contributed to a long trend and made things worse. There are many theories about this, but no matter the reason, we as a society are challenged to find a way to respond effectively. This is not limited to students, as students eventually become members of a campus workforce. Employees also are facing increased anxiety and stress.

Disrupted learning

The pandemic also had a big impact on student learning at all ages. Fully 2 of 3 high school students reported struggling with coursework due to home disruptions and mental health concerns. Today, chronic absenteeism has reached 33%, double the level before the pandemic.

We now see some students opting out of college after the COVID disruptions. The rate of recent high school graduates enrolling in college dropped from 66.1% in 2019 to 61.8% in 2022 — the lowest in over 20 years. In fall 2022, there were 1.23 million fewer undergraduate students in college than just before the pandemic, according to estimates by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. While this may appear to impact enrollment, what it really impacts is student success and progression toward a degree. Completing college is not easy. It was never easy, nor was it ever intended to be. A college degree must be earned, but earning that degree depends on having foundational skills and knowledge prior to starting college. This is where disrupted learning has its most negative impact.

Perceptions about college value

I went into some detail about this in my last column, but it bears repeating here: Higher education is an amazing investment, no matter the chatter or social media. We need all professions lifted, whether a degree is needed for it or not. The reality is many people will be far better off with a college degree. In addition to many quality of life measures, a college degree makes you much more competitive in the job market. The “wage premium” for those with bachelor’s degrees is near a decades-long high, with these individuals earning 88% more than high school graduates.

The North Coast is an amazing place with special people. However, we are not an island. We are often pushed and pulled by factors outside our control. Especially for large private and government organizations in our region, there is a constant need to change, adapt, adjust, and be able to compete. Our shared responsibility is to do all we can to shape that change in a positive way, creating the community and the future we desire. Be well.

Dr. Tom Jackson Jr. is the president of Cal Poly Humboldt. Frank Whitlatch is the vice president for university advancement at Cal Poly Humboldt.