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Population changes: what can community colleges expect?

A persistent assumption about our population characteristics is that the Baby Boomers occupy the largest slice of our population. Due to its size, this generation, comprised of individuals born between 1946 and 1964, disproportionately impacts all aspects of our society. Following the Baby Boom, birth rates declined and the population is now top-heavy with older Americans. As a result, overbuilt school systems – and even community colleges – are failing for lack of students. The “population problem” is migrating to colleges and universities. Sound familiar?

Let’s take a look at population numbers for each currently active generation.

The Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation is comprised of individuals born before 1928. The youngest of these individuals is 93 years old. Today, the Greatest Generation makes up less than 1% of the population in the United States.

The Silent Generation

The Silent Generation is comprised of individuals born between 1928 and 1945. Today, these individuals are between 75-92, and make up about 7.5% of the US population. At its peak, the Silent Generation consisted of about 47 million people. Many of these individuals were born during the Great Depression, or as the country struggled to recover from it.

The Baby Boomers

The Baby Boomers are those individuals born between 1946-1964 – all 76 million of them. They are between the ages of 56-74. They currently make up 22.1% of the US population.

Generation X

Generation X are those individuals born between 1965-1980. They are between the ages of 40-54 and they make up 20% of the US population. At 55 million people at its peak, Generation X is smaller than both the generations that preceded and followed it.

The Millennials

Seventy-two million Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. Currently, Millennials are between the ages of 24-39 and they make up 22.1% of the population. Yes, the Millennial Generation is currently the exact same size as the Baby Boomers. Because the Baby Boomers are aging and dying at an accelerating rate, demographers now state that Millennials are the largest generation in the workforce. This qualifier – “in the workforce” is important because there is a generation that is even larger than the Millennials.

Generation Z

Generation Z are those individuals born between 1997 and 2010. Currently, the oldest individuals in this generation are 23 years old. Numbering more than 90 million individuals, Generation Z is substantially larger than either the Millennial generation or the Baby Boomers. This is important because the oldest members of Generation Z are just beginning to graduate from college. In fact, the majority of this generation has not yet entered college.
Yes – the largest active generation in the United States is the “school age population.”

Generation Alpha

These individuals are the youngest members of our society, and are those that have been – or will be – born between 2011 and 2025. Generation Alpha are the children of Millennials. Unless something remarkable happens in the next five years, Generation Alpha will definitely be smaller than Generation Z. (In all fairness, Generation Z is the largest generation in history.) Size-wise, Generation Alpha resembles Generation X. Unlike Generation X, however, which featured highly variable birth rates from year to year within the generation, the birth rate for Generation Alpha is relatively constant from year to year at about 4 million individuals.

What happens next for community colleges?

So what can community colleges expect? Until 2034, Generation Z will be their largest cohort – that is, students between the ages of 18 and 24. Following 2034, they’ll still be enrolling Generation Z as their second-largest student cohort – students between the ages of 25-34.

The size of a generation isn’t the only thing that impacts enrollment at community colleges. The economy also plays an important role in whether (and when) adults enroll. One condition community colleges will have to work with is shifts in an area’s population. People may not remain concentrated in existing community college districts. (This is another reason to reconsider district boundaries carefully over time.)

Regardless of the condition of the economy, Generation Z provides a huge opportunity to stabilize – or even grow – community college enrollment. This opportunity includes dual-enrollment of high school students, first-time enrollment among high school graduates, and later enrollment of adults already in the workforce.

If community college administrators aren’t planning for – and figuring out how to take advantage of the largest school-age generation in history – they’re not doing their jobs.

Photo Credit: Larry Ziffle, via