Even as some analysts sing the praises of America’s economic recovery, colleges and universities across the country are girding for a major aftershock of the 2008 recession, one that may not be felt until sometime around 2025.

“Recessions tend to have a big impact on birth rates,” said Pam Watts, executive director of NIRSA, during a talk at NIRSA’s annual Directors Institute, which took place last week in Tucson, Ariz. “That means we can expect a dramatic decline in high school graduation rates right around the 2025 to 2030 mark.”

Watts was presenting research from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which projects that the United States is headed into a period of stagnation in the overall number of high school graduates it produces. Specifically, the data suggest a gradual increase in private school graduates through 2018, followed by a potential decline of up to 12 percent by 2025. Meanwhile, white public high school graduates are expected to decrease in number by 17 percent by 2030. Those kinds of numbers could mean a big dent in revenues for colleges and universities across the country.

Watts explained that her biggest worry are regions of the country, such as the South, which are still on a projected upswing in graduation rates. “My fear is that some of these areas are going to see great growth between now and 2025, build out facilities and services and then crash because of a steep decline in graduation rates.”  

WICHE’s projections set the tone for an event that provides college rec directors with tools and education to help them anticipate and address future challenges. To that end, the picture that emerged last week was of a higher-education environment that will be forced to reimagine itself over the next decade if it is to survive. Among numerous topics covered, discussions focused on the need for more personalized education plans, the demand for online offerings, and how to implement available data and technology to better understand the current student population.

Not surprisingly, rec directors and the facilities and programming they oversee will be at the heart of the changes coming to college campuses, as universities increasingly put holistic wellbeing on par with academic rigor. Tracking ID swipes around campus and correlating that information with academic success has consistently shown that greater numbers of students who regularly visit their campus rec center lead to significantly higher retention rates. 

Todd Misener, chief wellness officer at Oklahoma State University, discussed retention data his school had collected on first-year, fulltime freshmen. “People who never came into our facility — the longer they went without entering our facility — the lower their retention rate,” Misener said. “Retention rate is money. Retention rate is real people.”

Perhaps the most important lesson from the event was also the most obvious, which is that college students come to their education destination in need of more than just academic instruction. They are still growing and maturing and need an environment that will nurture everything from social skills to sound eating habits, which is why college rec is so important to campus life. “These students think they’re more connected because they’re on their devices all the time, but they’re not," said Patty Perillo, vice president of student affairs at Virgina Tech, who also spoke at the conference. “We’re wired for connection, but they don’t have the social skills. They don’t know how to do it. We need to help them. It’s irrefutable that when students are well, they are successful.”

Watch for a more in-depth look at insights gleaned from the 2018 NIRSA Directors Institute in the September issue of Athletic Business.

Andy Berg is Executive Editor of Athletic Business.