Behind the Numbers


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Behind the Numbers

One of the things I get to do as president of Central College is ride on the college float in the Tulip Time parades each spring. The three-day festival celebrates Pella, Iowa, as a community rich with Dutch heritage, complete with vintage costumes, traditional dances and incredible treats. Tens of thousands descend on this small community each day of Tulip Time in a celebration ornamented with more than 100,000 tulips.

This year as the parade route unfolded before us something unexpected happened. My eyes became fixed on the faces of people. It was no longer a crowd. The sounds of music and laughter faded in the background, time slowed and for a moment all I could see were faces. My mind began processing a complex mosaic. I was looking desperately for a pattern – the very old…the very young…families of different shapes and sizes…racial, ethnic and linguistic differences…some running and jumping…some needing assistance in wheelchairs…people of obvious means…others in need. The rush of the moment returned, but left me with a strange feeling that everything is changing.

The results of the 2010 U.S. Census are now emerging as data analysts are providing clues to the changes in our demographic make-up and insights into an evolving society. The data suggest changes in our population are occurring more rapidly than experts projected some years ago. Here is a 20-year summary from a recent USA Today article, “1990-2010: How America Changed.”  (Wednesday, August 10, 2011)

The USA is bigger, older, more Hispanic and Asian and less wedded to marriage and traditional families than it was in 1990. It is also less enamored of kids, more embracing of several generations living under one roof, more inclusive of same sex couples, more cognizant of multiracial identities, more suburban, less rural and leaning more to the South and West.

The end of the first decade of the 21st century marks a turning point in the nation’s social, cultural, geographic, racial and ethnic fabric. It’s a shift so profound that it reveals an America that seemed unlikely a mere 20 years ago – one that will influence the nation for years to come in everything from who is elected to run the country, states and cities to what type of houses will be built and where.

The metamorphosis over just two decades stuns even demographers and social observers.

A few dimensions of these changing societal patterns interest me most as I think about the college student population of the future. Our students will be coming from a wide variety of household settings as they transition to college. As a society we are having fewer children. Only about one-third of American households have children under the age of 18. The number of single parents has continued to increase. Grandparents are more involved than ever. Since 1990 the percentage of births among unmarried women has increased from 26 percent to 41 percent. The census tells us 52 percent of the adult population is now married, compared to 57 percent in 2000. The never-married population among 25- to 34-year-olds is now larger than the percentage married. In general, families are being formed later in life, composed of multigenerational members and are becoming increasingly multiracial.

The “idealized” traditional family living on “Leave-it-to-Beaver” Street still exists, but in rapidly decreasing numbers. Too often we, as educators, assume students are coming from stereotypical family backgrounds. What we find as we spend time with individual students, however, is a growing complexity of family relationships and backgrounds now being manifested broadly in the rewriting of societal patterns. The underlying assumptions we hold about the students walking our campus must change as we collectively navigate a very different world.

Coupled with the redefining of families is a significant change in cultural and linguistic diversity. The increasing population of Hispanic residents in the U.S. (regardless of race) is breathtaking. I remember some years ago when the projections were that the non-Hispanic, White/Caucasian population would begin to trail the population of Hispanics overall in our society by about 2050. According to the census, that projected date is now closer to 2042 and could be further accelerated by immigration and fertility rates. The Asian/Pacific Islander population, while smaller in number among other racial/ethnic categories, continues to grow and is now outpacing the increase in our Black/African-American citizenship. These trends suggest over time we will experience a rebalancing of American society that will greatly diversify culture and language. That is not to suggest English will be spoken less, but my bet is that other languages will be spoken more. Cultures and subcultures will continue to flourish locally, regionally and nationally as technology provides a platform for affiliation that defies distance. The “American People” in this emerging society may be more accurately described as the “American Peoples.”

This motivates me to concentrate more on the world our students will encounter in the future and focus less on the world they are coming from today. I may live to see the year 2050, at which time I will be 90 years of age. Our 20-year-old students, however, will be at the peak of their leadership as family members, citizens and professionals. This is a global society I can only imagine, but one they will be responsible to lead at every level.

My ride on the parade route was a fresh wake-up. It’s not that I have been unaware of these changes, but seeing the emerging society in a gathering of citizens drives the point home. Societal change is inevitable. How do we then continue to evolve our understanding of humanity in the face of such rapid change? In what ways should we respond today to a shifting mosaic that has been placed before each generation since the founding of this nation? How do we once again move from tension and tolerance, to embrace the human difference and diversity that will be the new normal for American society?

Census tracks 20 years of sweeping change, USA Today, Haya El Nasser and Paul Overberg, Updated 8/10/2011, 12:48 PM,

U.S. Bureau of the Census, United States Census 2010: It’s In Our Hands,

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P60-203, Measuring 50 Years of Economic Change Using the March Current Population Survey, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1998.

Census: Hispanics Are 16 Percent Of U.S. Population, NPR, Alex Kellogg, March 25, 2011,

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2 responses to “Behind the Numbers”

  1. mark truth #2 says:

    How do we make a difference in society? How can we shift the focus back to the family?
    Do we just accept what is happening and continue to live our life the way we are?
    How is Central shaping the lives of the students today?

    Just think of what could happen:

    If every family would spend a vacation together once a year with no other agendas other than family time(i.e. kids have a sporting event there so that is our vacation)….

    If every family would spend at least 4 nights a week around the dinner table for an hour….

    If every family would volunteer once a month at a charitable organization…

    The list goes on. What choice are we going to make? Watch another TV show, put kids in more activities, spend more money than our budget allows OR make a difference with our family in this world!!

  2. Retired faculty member says:

    Dear Mark,
    Thank you again for a thoughtful and useful blog. It is helpful to think back to those experienes with family and colleagues, and to remember how well many of our graduates and colleagues have served both Central and their own communities and their chosen professions.I think immediately of many former students who have contributed in unusually productive ways in their lives, and it is equally pleasant to look forward to the Central grads who will positively influence our changing society.
    It is these memories and thoughts which make life worth living and one’s work worth doing.