Liberal arts in limbo: Sewanee prepares for expected decrease in potential students in 2026

By Anna Mann
Editor-in-Chief 

Lee Ann Backlund, dean of admission and financial aid, pulled out her copy of Nathan Grawe’s Demographics and Demand for Higher Education. Covered in post-it tabs and conveniently located on her desk, it had obviously been pored over several times. Why? Because Grawe’s book details the impending crisis that those working in higher education face in roughly six years. Namely, the steep drop in college-aged students beginning in 2026. 

Dubbed “the demographic cliff,” by economic forecaster Harry Dent, Backlund explained that high schools are currently facing the consequences of the low fertility rates that began in the Great Recession.

“Other schools are dealing with it earlier,” explained Backlund. “But colleges can’t sit back and wait. We’re all going to be competing for the same number of students.”

The 2008 recession was the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, and according to data collected by The Pew Research Center, this resulted in a national drop in fertility. Naturally, the change varied by state, but the birth rate declined by about 4.2 million births in 2008, two percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

As stated in Grawe’s book, many couples delayed having children until after the recession, meaning a loss of about 15 percent of the typical college population in 2026. This is terrifying news, especially for niche schools such as Sewanee. 

Backlund states that national trends show an increased importance in college affordability. She stated that just this summer alone, the number of students that placed a deposit and then chose not to enroll in Sewanee doubled. 

“It was mostly about affordability,” she explained. “The idea of ‘I could go to so-and-so for less money,’ or ‘some university has offered me more merit…’ it’s going to be hard enough to meet the need based on FAFSA, but you can’t meet the want. The arms race in merit [scholarships] has gotten out of control.” 

So how is the University adjusting? According to Backlund, by adding curricular changes such as neuroscience and finance, hiring two new regional representatives in Texas and the mid-Atlantic states, as well as focusing on physical improvements. These physical improvements include the construction of a new wellness commons and the improvements to the Sewanee village. 

Additionally, Backlund stated that the University is placing emphasis on reaching high schools with a “high percentage of diversity” in order to expand the student body. This effort includes a focus on recruiting a greater number of international students.

“We have to make sure we have support systems in place for a more diverse student body. Students of color need to see themselves here,” said Backlund. “We still have a ways to go, but we’ve made great strides in diversifying the faculty in the past year… [faculty is] who students spend time with. When they come to campus [they want to know], who’s going to teach me?” 

As to the expansion of downtown Sewanee, Special Assistant to the Vice-Chancellor Frank Gladu stated, “What I’m working on in the village was never intended to be a strategic project, but it’s aligned with that. The whole idea of the village project is to attract and retain students, faculty, and staff. So I would say it’s even more important with the coming demographics to create greater competition.”

According to Gladu, the changes to downtown Sewanee will ideally draw more tourists from surrounding areas including Nashville and Atlanta. The hope is that a more vibrant downtown will create a draw for students who aren’t sold on Sewanee’s rural location. 

Backlund agreed with Gladu’s statement, stating that depending on the year, students will either want a small college community, or a more urban setting. Right now, urban colleges are more popular. In response to this, Sewanee admissions is attempting to market the region, it’s proximity to Nashville and Atlanta, rather than the close-knit community of Sewanee. 

In charge of deciding what attracts and retains students is the Strategic Enrollment Planning Council, co-chaired by Eric Hartman, vice president for risk management and institutional effectiveness, and Provost Nancy Berner. This group looks at enrollment through the lense of keeping the curriculum relevant for students and employers, keeping tabs on the ways students thrive from recruitment to graduation. 

According to Berner, the council pulls members from admissions, marketing and communications, finance, institutional research, college faculty, as well as student and academic affairs in order to cover the full realm of university experience. 

Berner cited the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s website to explain that “actually, the number of high school graduates is projected to increase between now and 2025 by about 5 percent. Then, starting in 2026 the U.S. is expected to experience a 12-15 percent decrease in the number of high school graduates through 2031.”

Despite the numbers, both Backlund and Berner were optimistic about Sewanee’s future, and Gladu explained that “Sewanee is self-fulfilling. Either you love it or you don’t. It’s so unique and there’s nothing camouflaged about it.” 

“Right now, demographics are growing ever so slightly,” said Backlund. “It’s not anything to cheer about; they start dropping off the cliff pretty quickly. 2026 is right around the corner. We’ve just got to keep thinking about what can we offer… You’re not [at Sewanee] to train for a job, you’re here to have a well-rounded education that you can build on in whatever career path you decide to take.”

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