On Campus Soon: More Empty Seats

The number of 18-year-olds is expected to drop by almost 10 percent by 2016.

These college fair attendees may want to wait a few years to apply.

These college fair attendees may want to wait a few years to apply.

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Colleges are enjoying the deluge of applications from the biggest class of high school seniors in history this year. Next year, however, the tide could begin to turn as a baby bust that started in 1991 is expected to reduce the number of 18-year-olds by almost 10 percent by 2016, according to the Census Bureau.

The impact of the demographic changes is already being felt in central and northern states, where the baby bust started earlier. For example, in Oklahoma, where the number of 18-year-olds has fallen by almost 8,000, or about 14 percent, since 2002, enrollment in many of the state's colleges has started to plunge. Eastern Oklahoma State University saw enrollment drop 16 percent in 2007 alone.

Adding to colleges' worries: growing evidence that the smaller crops of future 18-year-olds also will be from families that are less able to afford college than those of the past decade. "There's a potential for a real train wreck," warns Tony Pals, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

But Pals noted that although the number of teenagers dropped even more dramatically in the 1980s, college enrollment still rose. A higher percentage of teens enrolled in college, and American adults and foreign teenagers filled the remaining lecture hall seats in the 1980s. That's inspiration college officials can turn to as they figure out how to populate their campuses in the next decade.