Demographic Changes will Create Major Challenges for Higher Educational Institutions in the 21st Century

Dr. Bizhan Nasseh
Ball State University
January 2000
(Reprinted with Permission of the Author)

The current culture of higher educational institutions was for the most part developed over 100 years ago based on the experiences and values of a Euro-American population. The Euro-American system of education is designed to serve a uniform student body, but today, America is a multicultural society. As our national status and identity is developing based on the integration of diverse populations, our educational system and programs should be contextualized in wider socio-cultural frames. There are three major changes in the student population in higher educational institutions:

  • A return of adult learners to educational institutions.
  • A constant increase in the population of students with different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  • A significant increase in the number of women in the student population.
Today's student body is characterized by heterogeneity in age (only 43% are under age 25), sex (women account for nearly 55% of all undergraduates), and ethnicity (more than one student in six is nonwhite) (Twigg, 1994). Our enrollments are now characterized by a student population of varying ages and backgrounds, and our traditional assumptions about the student body and campus culture are changing rapidly. For example, in 1998 at Georgia State University, the average age of undergraduate students was 25 years, and the average age of graduate students was 32 years. Students were from 49 states and 106 countries. Minority students accounted for 34.2 percent of total students at Georgia State University (Georgia State University’s Web Site). At the same time, asynchronous education at many universities is attracting more adult learners who have other commitments in life and work in addition to formal education. Research reported by McElhinney and Nasseh (1999) and Nasseh (1999) indicated that 60 percent of students participating in computer-based distance education were over 30 years old.

The United States Department of Education reports have provided the following demographic information about all undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in higher education (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1997 & 1998):





Am. Indian



































The number of white students attending higher educational institutions decreased by 3.8 percent from 1990 to 1995, but the number of students in other racial and ethnic groups increased. For instance, the number of American Indian students increased by 28 percent, Asian students by 39 percent, black students by 18 percent and foreign students by 16 percent. The increase in non-white students continued to grow in 1996.

Along with racial and ethnic changes in the student body, another significant demographic change in higher education has been the constant increase in the number of women at a rate greater than the rate of increase of men. Regarding the total number of students in higher educational institutions, in 1995, men accounted for 6,342,600 (44.47%) and women for 7,919,200 (55.53%); and in 1999, men accounted for 6,365,000 (43.80%), and women for 8,167,000 (56.20%). The number of female students in higher education is expected to continue to grow.

A return of adult learners, an increase in the number of students of different races, and a rapid increase in the number of female students to education have profound effects on higher educational institutions’ missions, objectives, cultures, and structures. Such changes can also affect social, political, and economic aspects of society. Fostering the educational inclusion of different races, cultures, ages, and genders in educational programs and activities, and providing an environment for mutual understanding and respect, can help the nation’s status as a unified and harmonized society in the 21st century.

The more institutions promote multiculturalism on campuses, in programs, and in curricula, the better students can succeed in life, work, and social activities. The key is to develop diversity education that can prepare students to succeed in a diverse society and world. It is the goal of diversity education to provide programs and environments that encourage learning about others and collaboration as teams to accomplish common tasks. Levine and Curreton (1998), in reference to diversity problems, write, “Colleges and universities can not be expected to embrace this agenda alone. Government churches, social organizations, and business can make an important contribution ” (p. 167). The main elements of diversity education include the following:

  • Programs and activities that promote learning about ethics, culture, religion, gender, and other races.
  • Programs that support and encourage respect of current differences in the needs, interests, experiences, and backgrounds of the diverse student population.
  • Programs that provide opportunities and encouragement for diverse student populations to participate and collaborate as a team to accomplish educational and social tasks.
The growing diverse student population in today’s higher educational institutions solidifies the shift from a uniform education system to a diversity education system. Fortunately, most higher educational institutions are conscious of the effects of demographic changes on their educational systems and are developing multicultural educational systems for their diverse student populations. The demographic changes in the student population are encouraging higher educational institutions to do the following:

  • Develop cultures, structures, and programs that support diversity in the student body and among the faculty and staff members.
  • Develop campus diversity initiative teams consisting of students, faculty, and staff members. * Develop activities and curricula that provide opportunities to learn about cultural diversity, race, ethnicity, and gender.
  • Develop processes and programs that encourage diversity and develop a sense of respect, understanding, and responsibility among students.
  • Develop programs that foster social and moral development of students.
  • Develop ongoing assessment of the effectiveness of current programs and structures.
  • Provide asynchronous educational programs, which have a multicultural orientation.
  • Create the understanding that learning is a lifelong activity for all citizens independent of age, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, and religion.
Levine and Curreton (1998) write, “Today’s undergraduates need an education that includes five specific elements: communication, human heritage, the environment, individual roles, and values” (p. 161). An educational system and culture based on the diverse population’s values and experiences can be a major step toward positive social changes, and higher educational institutions can and should play a major role in creating these changes. Institutions can utilize computer and communication technologies that can contribute to the development of diversity education in the following ways:

  • Reduce anxiety of learners with different backgrounds, abilities, and skills.
  • Provide digital communication and collaboration without concern for demographic differences.
  • Place the development of educational programs in a wider socio-cultural frame.
  • Provide asynchronous and self-paced learning opportunities for learners.
  • Provide opportunity for the development of adaptive learning programs and resources.
  • Assist in the development of technology and information-literate citizens.
Demographic changes require higher educational institutions to change their structures, cultures, and programs to support the development of a diverse student body. These changes not only assist higher educational institutions in attracting and retaining more students, but they also support the social and economic development of society in two ways. 1) Providing citizens with a positive educational experience, which encourages lifelong learning, and 2) Educating citizens in a diverse environment, which has the potential to improve work and social interactions among different races, cultures, and ages.

Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac. (August 1997), XLIV.

Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac. (August 1998), XLV.

Georgia State Univeristy Web Site,, Atlanta, Georgia.

Levine, A. & Curreton, S. J. (1998). When hope and fear collide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

McElhinney, H. J. & Nasseh, B. (1999). Technical and pedagogical challenges faced by faculty and students in computer-based distance education in higher education in Indiana. Journal of educational technology system, 27 (4), pp. 349-359.

Nasseh, B. (1999). Are higher education institutions ready for the 21st century? Journal of Distance Education Report, 3 (4), pp. 2-5.

Twigg, A. C. (1994 September/October). The need for a national learning infrastructure. Educom Review, 29 (5), pp. 17-20.