Some college, no degree update: an enormous swath of higher education

What do we know about people who take some college classes, then leave the institution without any kind of degree?

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center just published new data on people who have some college, no credential (SCNC).  It’s vital information for American higher ed.  Here I’ll follow my usual practice of identifying what I see as key findings, then will add some reflections.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoi

To start with, the number of people who once enrolled but never got a degree is immense: “today’s SCNC population is 41.9 million students, 36.8 million of whom are between the ages of 18 and 64.”  That’s a nearly 3% increase since last year.  For broader context, “[t]his represents 18.1 percent of the total United States population between 18 and 64 years old”  or about 13% of everyone who lives in America.

In demographic terms, SCNC people are spread across all ages:

National Clearinghouse some college no degree by age_2024 June

There is a skew older in terms of increase: “the rate of growth was considerably smaller for students currently aged 25-34 (+15,100, +0.1%) compared to the rest of the population, which saw increases ranging from 2.9 percent (for those aged 35-44) to 5.1 percent (for those aged 45-64). ”

More men than women are stopping out.  The racial mix is more nonwhite than the rest of the student population: “Hispanic, Black, and Native American students are disproportionately represented among the overall SCNC population.”

There are strong differences by institutional type.  For-profits saw the largest share of stop-out increases by far:

National Clearinghouse some college no degree by institutional type_2024 June

…followed by primarily online institutions (think Western Governors, SNHU, Liberty, etc.). Those are more likely to lose students, but at the same time these institutions are also more likely to attract them.

Where do students enroll when they return to higher education after an absence?  Here community colleges play the biggest role:

National Clearinghouse some college no degree_returning students by institutional type_2024 June

And note that most students don’t return to the school they left: “In the 2022-23 academic year, nearly 63 percent of re-enrollees attended a different institution than the one they were previously enrolled at.”  Setting aside externalities (see below) this is not a good commentary on the original campuses.

The number of re-enrollees is tiny:

In the 2022-23 academic year, more than 943,000 SCNC students re-enrolled in higher education and 134,800 formerly SCNC students earned their first credential. This is positive news for these students. However, our report suggests there is still much more work to be done. These students represent only a small fraction of the 36.8 million adults who make up the working age SCNC population.

So what does this mean for higher education and its future?

On the face of it, the phenomenon of tens of millions of people not attaining certifications looks like a massive failure for American colleges and universities.  We often celebrate degrees for a range of reasons, including their powerful meaning on the job market. To the extent that we see academics as responsible for students’ educational experiences, this appears to be a clear assessment that American higher ed is doing wrong by a *lot* of students.

Yes, we can identify a positive or neutral aspect to this data. For some people, taking some classes without winning a degree is sufficient for their purposes.  As an example, think of a person who just wants to improve their French language or computer coding skills; having done so, they see no need to go further. I think we are satisfied with that kind of limited continuing education.  There are also cases whereby someone leaves higher education for unrelated reasons: a family crisis, a move out of the area, a new job. These external reasons can leave us off the hook.

Yet how many students exit our campuses short of a degree because of the way we structure their experience?  There are so many points of failure: advising, in-class support, sheer bureaucracy, the cost and debt.

Moreover, American higher ed inherits two commitments to seeing students through more classes and certification.  First is the idea of “college for all,” the concept that the more post-secondary experience we have, the better everyone is.  Second is the economic sustainability issue. Since we effectively privatized colleges and universities, enrollment is key to keeping these institutions open. Setting aside the neutral and positive reasons noted above, this population nearly 42 million strong appears to be a huge recruitment target.  As the Clearinghouse puts it,  “Re-engaging those who stop out remains a persistent challenge and a priority for the forty states that have set ambitious postsecondary attainment goals.”

Since nearly two-thirds of students who left one school return to classes at a different institution, there’s clearly an opportunity for campuses to recruit from others.  Inside Higher Ed’s article on the report focuses on this aspect.  Another article thinks this is a great opportunity for community colleges.

I would add to this: to the extent an institution is concerned about education more nonwhite people and/or men, recruiting from the SCNC population is aligned with that goal. It might also be an ethical imperative.  As the report notes, “States and institutions could look to the Potential Completer population to help reach their re-engagement and attainment goals in equitable ways. Hispanic, Black, and Native students are well-represented in this group, which is almost twice as likely to complete credentials within two years of re-enrollment as their other SCNC peers.”

The Clearinghouse urges academics to take this problem seriously, and I can conclude with their advice:

Re-engaging with the SCNC population has broad benefits for states, institutions, and students. For states, seeing additional SCNC students earn credentials can help to increase the attainment levels of their workforces and make their economies more competitive. For institutions, SCNC students can help address enrollment shortfalls amid a shifting demographic landscape. Perhaps more importantly, helping SCNC students through completing their first credentials can advance institutional missions to drive social mobility for students of all backgrounds.

Posted in enrollment | 3 Comments

More academic cuts: May 2024 edition

How are colleges and universities responding to financial and other pressures?

This year I’ve been tracking a series of institutional budget crises, spending cuts, layoffs, mergers, and campus closures. They seemed to spike in March (12, 3) and continued in April.  Now that May is over I can share what I observed in that month.

tl;dr version – closures, cuts, layoffs continued.

Today I’ll reuse the headers I set up in those previous posts, except for mergers, as I didn’t find any in May 2024.

1 Closing campuses

Eastern Gateway Community College (Ohio) (community college), founded in the 1960s,  will close this October 31.  Causes are a mix of a terminated online program, financial “irregularities” (federal search warrants, two leaders indicted in 2023), and running out of funds.

The Delaware College of Art and Design (DCAD) (private art school) is closing nowReasons given included “a shrinking number of college-age students, rising operational costs, unexpected issues surrounding FAFSA.” Note the role of FAFSA in their explanation.

Philadelphia’s College of the Arts (private university) lost its accreditation and thereby decided to close.  The official reasons are financial in a classic sense, revenue shrinking and expenses growing:

UArts has been in a fragile financial state, with many years of declining enrollments, declining revenues, and increasing expenses. We have worked hard this year alongside many of you to take steps that would secure the University’s sustainability. The progress we made together has been impressive. Unfortunately, however, we could not overcome the ultimate challenge we faced: with a cash position that has steadily weakened, we could not cover significant, unanticipated expenses.

I was struck by the next sentence: “The situation came to light very suddenly.”  That suggests some communications problems, at least, within the institution.  The president added that enrollment was a problem.

The Oriental College of Medicine (OCOM: private graduate school in Chinese medicine, in Oregon) will close, citing declining enrollment, among other factors.  One of the latter is the local community:

The increase in crime, drug use, and people living unsheltered in Portland and, especially, in Old Town, due to the pandemic led to a steep decline in enrollment and gutted the college building’s value.

2 Campuses cutting programs and jobs

St. Cloud State University (public) announced plans for a major queen sacrifice, calling for shutting down programs and laying off faculty.

St. Cloud State University _Flickr photo by Ted Sherarts

Programs on the block:

SCSU administrators recommended discontinuing 46 of the university’s 136 degree programs, including criminal justice, Spanish, gender and women’s studies, sociology, physics, environmental science and economics.

They also proposed cutting 50 of 85 minor degrees, including African American and American Indian studies. Fifty-seven faculty positions would be cut, or 13 percent of the total.

13% of the faculty to be cut.  And why?

In an interview Monday evening, acting president Larry Lee said the cuts are necessary to address a structural budget deficit. The university lost $18 million last year and is projected to lose $5.5 million this year — a deficit made smaller by one-time state funding. Without it, SCSU’s net operating loss would have been $15 million, Lee said.

Notice that’s acting president Lee.  The previous president left just days before the university announced these cuts.

Albright College (private liberal arts college, Pennsylvania) is offering its own queen sacrifice, “cut[ting] 29 current staff and faculty positions, in addition to 10 staff positions and 14 faculty positions left vacant from resignations and retirement.”  That same report described the rationale solely as the campus being in a “challenging” time.

Interestingly, as with the case of St. Cloud, Albright’s president “stepped down” just before these cuts:

Fetrow has come under fire in recent months as students and faculty expressed concern over the school’s future, culminating in campus protests and growing calls for transparency.

Last month, the faculty of Albright held a vote of no-confidence in Fetrow and provost Karen Campbell, citing a lack of transparency regarding the school’s future and a lack of raises for faculty. [link in original; I removed bold font]

California State University-Monterey Bay (public university; Hispanic-serving institution) is making a series of cuts and related moves. Job cuts include “four management employees and 12 unionized staff.” 86 people took early retirement buy-outs.  Other actions include “restructuring departments, eliminating open positions and increasing the student faculty ratio to 28 students per faculty member.” The reason? “a roughly $12 million structural deficit the university has been working to decrease over the past two academic years. That deficit has been reduced to $4 million.”

Columbia College Chicago (private, art-focused) is revamping its entire curriculum, including the core curriculum, in the face of a financial crisis.  Higher Ed Dive estimates that process “will result in around a dozen faculty job losses.”  On top of that, “Columbia is reviewing 28 academic programs of concern,’ and resulting cuts could lead to additional faculty layoffs.”

More on that financial crisis:

Tasked with assessing the college’s financial situation, Columbia President Kwang-Wu Kim, who is set to step down in July, found that the state of its finances met the threshold for an “adverse circumstance” under its policy guidelines, which allows for the termination of tenured faculty members.

“A failure to address this Adverse Circumstance swiftly and comprehensively could become an existential threat if the college does not act now,” Kim said in the report.

The president cited falling enrollment, which is down 36% since 2013, with a student headcount of 6,529 in fall 2023. He also pointed to dwindling reserves and projected deficits of over $30 million annually in the years ahead if it takes no action on its budget. Fiscal 2024 has a projected $37.9 deficit.

Again, another president leaving around job cut announcements.

Northland College (private, Wisconsin) (which I wrote about in April) cut nine professors, or about 15% of the total, according to my estimate.  Northland made the cuts based on “program needs, tenure and seniority amid a revamp of the college’s curriculum.”  A key institutional note: “Leading the recommendation process was the college’s faculty ad hoc committee on financial exigency, which consulted with program directors and Northland officials.”

The reason?  Financial crisis.  Here’s the Wikipedia narrative:

In the spring of 2024, the college’s administrators publicly declared that the college was experiencing severe financial distress. In their call for donations, they declared that the college lacked the funding to remain open beyond the current academic year.[5] In the accompanying press release, administrators said that $12 million was required to keep the institution running.[6] On the day after the original fundraising deadline on April 3, the college declared financial exigency and delayed the deadline by two weeks. By that point, the college had raised US$1,500,000 from 900 donors.[7] On May 1st, the college officially announced that it would remain open under a restructured model to be implemented in the Fall 2024 semester.[8]

Don’t miss that declaration of financial exigency. The term gives administration much more latitude to act, including axing tenured faculty members.

Monroe Community College (upstate New York) is gearing up for faculty layoffs.  The reason?  Fiscal pressures.

St. Catherine University (private, Catholic; Minnesota) laid off 11 staff.  They include “six staff positions with the closure of its early childhood center and another five in various other units.”  They didn’t cut faculty, but:

St. Catherine said the employment of “a few” faculty members ended when their temporary contracts lapsed, but asserted it did not terminate or choose not to renew any contracts.  It also said “a number of” faculty retired this year and others have left for new jobs.

The reasons are a mix of finance and enrollment, typically:

The institution posted an operating deficit of $19 million for the fiscal year that ended May 2023 after racking up a $9.5 million deficit the year before, according to its latest financials. Total revenues decreased by about $6.5 million year to year year while expenses rose by $3 million. Tuition revenue, specifically, fell 7.7% from fiscal 2022 to fiscal 2023.

St. Catherine had 3,577 students in fall 2022, down 24.3% from 2017 and about a third from 2010 levels, according to federal data.

In addition, courts charged a former St. Kate’s dean with embezzling nearly half a million dollars.  “Not helping financial matters,” as Higher Ed Dive puts it.

Columbus State Community College (Ohio) is cutting 14 positions.  According to a cited statement, none of those people were instructors, so presumably they are – were – some kinds of staff. They are also reviewing searches for open positions.  The rationale?  “Administrators say the college is running on a $6.8 million dollar budget short fall for fiscal year 2024. They point to several factors, including lower-than-expected enrollment.”

3 Budget crises, programs cut, not laying off people yet

Alverno College (private, Catholic, women’s college; Wisconsin) is preparing layoffs.  “[W]ithin the next two months, it anticipates recommending to its Board of Trustees program changes and a reduction of its faculty and staff ‘to safeguard our financial sustainability.'”

Alverno College by Dave Reid

The Pennsylvania State University system (public universities) (all 24 campuses, or 20, or 19, depending on your count, not just the one with football) offered buyouts and early retirements to faculty and staff.  The rationale: to “attain a sustainable financial operating model.”

This could be a prelude to cuts.  As the official FAQ notes: “Involuntary layoffs and non-reappointments could occur in the future and could include people who are eligible for this Program.”

The president of the University of New Orleans (public research university) asked departments to cut their respective budgets by 15%.  No word on job cuts, but the president “said she believes UNO can make cuts without impacting student experience while maintaining the university’s goal of providing a student-centered research facility.”

Drake University (private university, Iowa) will cut three academic programs as part of an effort to balance its budget.  The programs are an East Asian studies minor, a graduate certificate program in evidence-based healthcare, and a religion major.  Note that closing these problems is the flip side of starting others, namely “an artificial intelligence major, cybersecurity minor and accelerated nursing program.”

Whitworth University (private, Presbyterian; Washington state) seems to be preparing to cut instructors.  A spokesperson emailed Inside Higher Ed:

“In light of our current student population size, university administrators, faculty and staff have evaluated program offerings, operations and employment budget lines… In order to achieve budget alignment, we have selectively reduced the size of our teaching staff for the next academic year.”


One more story: the Higher Learning Commission accreditor is reportedly “working to more quickly identify signals of a college in distress.”  It sounds like HLC is doing some important research on this score.

What can we learn or deduce from these stories?

I’ve written about this kind of thing for years and don’t want to repeat myself too much, so today I’ll add only a few notes:

I think it’s clear that the queen sacrifice strategy continues to be one at least some administrations find useful in financial crises.

None of these institutions are among the post-secondary elite.  Their names will often be unfamiliar. They don’t have grand endowments to draw upon, nor national reputations to use in requesting gifts.  This will reduce media coverage and academic attention, which is massively unfair.

I note that some of these stories involve presidents exiting. I’d really like to learn more about this kind of thing.  How often does a president refuse to make cuts, and their board kicks them out as a result, hiring someone to wield the ax?

I am curious that one campus cited the FAFSA debacle as a reason.  How many other institutions view their enrollment woes in this light?

Note the importance of curricular overhaul in many of these stories.  Changing what’s taught and, perhaps more importantly, reflecting on how many instructors and staff are involved in offerings various programs, can be a straight line to reductions as well as new hires.

Note, too, that for most of these institutions the financial problems are chronic.  Enrollment declines stretch over years. One semester’s cuts don’t always solve the fiscal problem.

Final observation: I’ve cited a lot of statistics here.  I’ve pointed to many institutional structures. But these are all also human stories, concerning people whose careers are damaged, whose livelihoods are endangered. These are narratives of personal blight.  We cannot lose site of this essential truth.

I’ll stop here.  Please let me know if I missed any incidents.  And I welcome the stories of any individuals or groups impacted in these sorry events.

(thanks to Jay Sieling, Len Warner, Lee Skallerup Bessette, and more friends.  Also, bravo to Inside Higher Ed and Higher Ed Dive who do great work on this sad score)

Posted in economics, horizon scanning | Tagged | 11 Comments

A futurist decarbonizes his professional travel in 2024: problems and options

How can we travel without contributing to global warming?

I’ve been considering this problem for a while at the institutional and macro levels, as I researched climate change and higher education’s future.  I’ve also mulled it for myself, thinking of how to decarbonize my professional travel, mostly recently in 2022.  Since then I’ve made some changes and also hit some obstacles, and want to share where things have ended up today.

Two quick introductory notes: first, for context, I live in Manassas, Virginia, right near Washington, DC. I have traveled extensively for professional reasons, heading to locations to give presentations, lead workshops, facilitate or be in meetings, work conferences, conduct research, and so on.  This has led me throughout the United States and to every continent except Antarctica.  I am also a very busy person who does a lot of work online, which means I need to travel quickly and/or with opportunities to work.

Second, some people have told me not to bother analyzing and redesigning my travel, the main argument being I’m just one person with a statistically infinitesimal impact on the globe. This is true on the face of it, but I’m otherwise unconvinced. The obvious counterargument is that the climate crisis is a civilization-wide thing, an all of the above, all hands on deck kind of event. Everyone gets to participate and should.  Moreover, and perhaps vainly, I hope I can stir some discussion with this work, and perhaps even convince others to decarbonize.

The problem is complicated, so I’ve broken it down into three levels of increasing difficulty.

DALL-E imagines decarbonized travel.

DALL-E imagines decarbonized travel.

1 The local situation is quite doable

Walking doesn’t get me to most places, as we live in a residential district.  There is a shopping cluster about one mile away, complete with basic grocery store, drugstore, urgent care, and public library branch, so that’s doable on foot, depending on weather.  The town of Manassas proper is about an hour’s walk each way.

So I bike, and that’s fine.  My current range is about 5-6 miles out since I restarted biking a couple of years ago. I can carry some stuff in panniers and a backpack, which lets me do a good number of errands involving moving objects to and fro: groceries, our gym, library book club, medications, a bookstore, some clothes shops, medical clinics, two post offices, the DMV, even the nearest hospital. I wear bone conducting headphones so I can listen to podcasts and ebooks while hearing the immediate environment – i.e., listening for cars.

Yet none of this is professional travel. Ranging further afield for that purpose requires a mix of bike, trains, and some cars. Virginia’s commuter rail line actually ends 3 miles from our house, and there’s another station in town just 2.5 miles away, so I can easily bike to that and ride into Washington, DC. The only problem is that the VRE has extremely limited hours, basically brief early morning and later afternoon slots, and those only on Monday-Friday. This is an issue when my schedule doesn’t fit; for example, many of my Georgetown classes are evening ones.

Washington’s famous Metro is another option, and works brilliantly except for one problem. In my experience it’s pretty reliable and low cost. Best of all, I can do work while I’m riding. The problem is that the nearest station is about 22 miles away. It’s a two hour+ bike ride through some difficult roads.

home to Vienna biking Google Maps

That’s beyond my biking abilities so far, but I’m working on it, pushing myself to extend my range. If I can make it work, it might yield a new problem in terms of spending 4-5 hours on the road for each Metro trip, basically adding a commute to a commute.  I can get a little work done on the bike, but only through listening to podcasts and audiobooks. In the meantime I have to drive or Uber to the Vienna station.  From there it’s good.

How does this work professionally?  For one, Washington is a magnet for meetings, due to its importance. Throughout the year I head into town to meet with clients, some of whom even have a DC office for this kind of thing.  For another, I can reach other transportation mechanisms this way.  Let me explain…

2 The medium-scale situation is challenging

In many ways trains are the among the least bad carbon generators in the transportation world.  They don’t spew as much CO2 into the air as jets do. Per person they can have a smaller impact than cars.

Unfortunately, I live in the United States. The reason this is a problem is because our national passenger rail provider, Amtrak, is… not great.  For reasons of time I’ll skip over how and why this came to pass, and instead sketch the present situation.

To start with, its coverage is quite limited for the sheer size of the United States.  Consider this official map:

Amtrak network

You quickly see big swathes unserved, including entire states. Some of the routes are strange, too. For example, to travel from New York City to Detroit requires a ride which skips right past the entire state of Michigan, heads west and north to Chicago, then switches back to reach Detroit from the other side. As a result we have to build in significant car travel to train rides, which returns us to the carbon problem.

Then there’s the ride quality issue.  I don’t mean comfort. I do enjoy having electrical outlets and a far easier boarding process than airports provide.  What is an issue is timing and reliability.  Most of these trains are *slow*. They also often experience delays.  I’ve had four-six hour trains delayed by 1, 2, 3+ hours.

Don’t take my word for it.  Amtrak’s own data doesn’t look good:

Amtrak delays 2023

When the very best train only scores 75% on time and a bunch are under 50%, this is an issue.

The reasons for this awful quality problem are well known.  Freight trains often muscle passengers out of the way, hogging lines and slowing traffic. The train ecosystem is a complex one with many essential parts; America’s refusal to take infrastructure support seriously means that engines, cars, rails, and other parts fail more than they should.  And climate change is now making things worse, as tracks can become too hot for smooth travel.

As a result, this is a major problem for business travel.  I can’t just pop across several states for a meeting.  Instead I have to allocate at least two full days for travel, there and back.  Worse, riding trains isn’t a great working experience.  Amtrak’s WiFi is laughable, so we can use hotspots (either phone or separate hardware), but cell phone coverage is patchy along train lines.  My current practice is to have a stack of ebooks and pdfs on my laptop for reading when the internet just stops working.  And to avoid video meetings and even phone calls.

Worse, there’s a range problem.  Let me explain:

3 Long range travel is unsolved

In my work I travel across the United States, as said earlier.  Surely I could take Amtrak across this broad nation, right?

Wrong.  Let’s start with the problems mentioned before, of slow speeds, frequent delays, and an iffy working environment.  These are multiplied once we look at traveling not hundreds but thousands of miles.  To pick a very long trip, Amtrak posts a schedule for traveling from Washington to Los Angeles of 67-88 hours.  DC to San Francisco?  77-78, involving three separate trains and two bus rides.  That’s the posted timeline; the reality of delays means even longer rides still.

Worse, we hit the problem of missed connections.  Air travelers are all too familiar with challenging layovers.  Amtrak somehow manages to make this worse. If the first leg of a trip falls behind schedule, and we’ve seen that this is likely, then it’s easy to miss the second.  Unlike air travel, American passenger trains have very few runs, meaning a broken connection can add another day to your trip.

I’ve experienced this myself too many times.  One DC-to-Ohio trip routed through New York City and had a two hour layover.  My first train started off late, then hit another delay, and then another.  Conductors assured me I’d be fine, but when I leaped out of the door at Penn Station the second train had already departed.  Amtrak staff baldly told me I blew it and had to wait 24 hours for another chance.  (I ended up having to take a plane, since my client needed me there the next morning.) For another example, I nearly booked a DC-to-Maine train, only to find a 16 minute connection in Boston. Not only was that layover comically short and easily broken, but switching between trains involved a more than 1 mile run between two different stations.  For business travel, I think the only way to handle this realistically is to add in an extra day of travel each way.  Which is not good.

Worse, from a purely climate perspective, Amtrak outside of the eastern seaboard tends to run on diesel, rather than electrical power.  So this decarbonizing effort ends up recarbonizing.

My conclusion now is to take trains as far as they practically go, which means a chunk of the United States’ eastern region.  That means not taking trains for long distance.

How else can we travel long distance?

I’ve been starting to look into ships and haven’t had much luck so far.  Crossing the Caribbean, the Atlantic, or even the Pacific isn’t easy.  Passenger ships are slow, expensive, have uneven internet access.  Cruise ships might be more comfortable but are CO2 nightmares. Freighters might be better on this score, but lose out on comfort and, again, connectivity.

Hybrid and electric vehicles would follow the classic American love of cars. The country is designed for that.  I also have a personal reason to consider road trips, which I don’t feel ready to divulge at this moment.  Yet the time is immense in driving across this huge country, and doing work while driving is basically a nonstarter.

Which brings us to air travel.  This seems to be the only way I can reach destinations beyond the United States and eastern Canada. Yet it is a CO2-spewing machine.  So what to do?

Carbon offsets have been one solution since the 1990s. They involve paying someone to promise to sequester CO2 in a safe location to balance out someone else’s emission of the same. It’s a tradeoff based in market logic, so very much a post-Cold War kind of plan.  It has a lot of adherents, including a large number of non- and for-profits purporting to set aside that carbon.  I’ve been to conferences where vendors have offered to purchase attendees’ measures of travel-generated CO2.

Offsets have not turned out well in practice.  The market is not well regulated or even supervised, allowing for all kinds of mistakes and scams.  Sequestered carbon is vulnerable to not being sequestered – i.e., someone can set aside a splendid forest, only for it to suffer a fire. CO2 storage may be located in marginalized communities. Then there’s the moral risk of people happily flying around the world, consciences assuaged by offsets, as the climate crisis worsens, when instead we should be reducing emissions at top speed.

At the very least we have the issue of trying to determine the best, or least problematic, offset.  In a market lacking transparency, standards, and regulation, this is a significant lift.

Here’s one video diving into the problems:

 

Perhaps there’s an alternative to offsets.  I could fly, then ask my hosts to donate money to good groups working on climate change. Doing so would also take some research. It might be tricky to convince clients to help fund certain groups, especially if they seem politically unpalatable. (Think about asking a state institution to support Greenpeace, or a private campus with significant oil industry investments to give to Scientist Rebellion.) Such donations leave the CO2 on the table – or, more precisely, lofted into the atmosphere.

Here’s my current set of options for travel beyond basic train range:

  1. Fly. Argue that the good work I do outweighs the carbon cost.  I don’t know how to quantify the former sensibly.
  2. Fly. Spend a good amount of time researching offsets and pick the least bad one, such as Gold Standard.  Build that cost into my fees.
  3. Fly. Select a good and effective climate action group, then build donations to it into my fees.
  4. Refuse to fly. Instead, do video, either synchronous or prerecorded, depending on time zones.

Honestly, #4 strikes me as the most ethical option at this moment. It takes the climate crisis the most seriously and I am seriously considering it.  It’s an extreme position, and so entrails risk.  It could burn bridges.  It might also be a major blow to my work, as many paid engagements have required air travel.  Virtual engagements have yet to make up the difference.  But I can double down on them and perhaps, seen as an alternative to high carbon emissions, people will accept them. Who else is doing this?  Is there a name for it?

“At this moment”: the situation is changing. These options might be temporary.

4 Looking ahead

There has been tremendous research and development in decarbonization.  Solar power has become a world-winner, as Bill McKibben keeps reminding us.  Hybrid and straight up electric vehicles have become consumer vehicles, although the US-China Cold War 2.0 seems to make that both easier and harder at the same time. Shouldn’t we expect more transportation progress?

Another DALL-E decarbonization vision.

Another DALL-E decarbonization vision.

Americans trains seem, alas, stuck.  Improving and expanding Amtrak would be a massive, massive undertaking, requiring huge cash investments, obtaining permissions for thousands of miles of track, switching out trains, and more.  Politically this has reliably proven a failure.  President Biden, a long-time Amtrak rider, apparently tried to do something along these lines, but lost the chance in negotiations.  Making Amtrak more viable sounds like at best a long term strategy.

There’s a lot of work going on to decarbonize air travel.  People are working on alternative fuels, lighter batteries for electric planes, solar-power aircraft, and new fuselage designs including “shark skin.” These are all in the earliest stages for now, and we should expect years before they roll out.

As a Kim Stanley Robinson fan I love the idea of airships, if they can become consumer-accessible and also internet-equipped. This hasn’t transpired, sadly, and I’m not sure if the helium supply problem will block this.

For working while traveling, there are various reasons for poor connectivity to exist in the United States, starting with financial incentives and continuing with ISPs being fundamentally disinterested in expanding access.  Perhaps trains will contract with Starlink to improve access coverage.  Maybe cell phone network reach and speeds will incrementally improve enough to spill over onto railroad lines.

How might offsets get better?  We could see parallels from other fields.  A trusted, third-party source might appear which vets offset quality. International agreement could set up standards or even certification.

Back on the car front, I’m curious about when self-driving hybrids or EVs become available.   Riding one of those vehicles from, say, Washington DC to South Dakota might be appealing.  Being freed up from having to be at the wheel most or all of the time lets me get work done (I’ve found better cell phone coverage on roads than rails) and being hybrid/EV could reduce the CO2 footprint.

Looking ahead in other areas, will people in the academic space change their attitudes?  For example, how willing will clients be to pay for offsets or climate action groups?  Right now I can see the former being popular, but perhaps colleges, universities, governments, companies, nonprofits, etc. will turn against them unless quality improves.  For the latter, will some groups become popular in the academic space?  How many are prepared to do blended/hybrid meetings in a competent, or even excellent way?

For another example, will such entities become interested in chaining several events together in order to minimize travel?  Already we have the precedent of professional associations co-locating events back to back when they have a common audience. Many people use conferences to stage meetings.  Perhaps we can expand to have, say, a week of meetings.

Or will academics and the academically-adjacent become more accepting of virtual events?  Perhaps I can lean into this, calling for, and helping establish a top level standard for synchronous video.

At a bigger, more civilizational level, will we become accustomed to lower levels of travel?  Some visions of the Anthropocene see us as a more localized species, visiting neighbors but going farther afield less often. Perhaps in-person events will become more rare and thereby more special, reserved not for annual conferences or ordinary meetings but for the extraordinary gathering.

That’s where things stand for me.  What do you think?  How are you considering your own travel in light of climate change?

(many thanks to friends on Patreon, Facebook, and the Association of Professional Futurists for conversation on this topic)

Posted in climatechange, travel | 2 Comments

Spring enrollment data: a surprise upward curve

Greetings from the road.  This post is a bit sketchy, as I’ve been riding Amtrak for nearly 10 hours through multiple delays and seriously spotty internet access.

Amtrak window seat on Carolinian train

Some nice views, though.

Let me pose one of my standard questions. How is American higher education enrollment changing?

This week we have new enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  It contains some unusually good news.  It is, as the report’s lead commented to me, “surprisingly good.” I’ll summarize and reflect on it here.

The key tl;dr finding: after a decade of enrollment decline, spring 2024 numbers actually rose.  They ascended by 2.5% and showed improvement across the board.

1 Summarizing findings

By sector, community colleges experienced the most growth, and owe most of that to dual enrollments (teaching high school students), which grew by 10%; high school students at community colleges accounted for nearly one third of the total post-secondary enrollment rise.  Vocational/technical programs also played a major role.

enrollment 2020-2024 spring _National Student ClearinghouseAll degree types rose. Bachelors’ went up 2.3%.  Associates’ degree jumped 4.5%, which is twice the increase we saw in fall 2023. Certificates increased by 3.5%.  Graduate enrollment rose by 3.0%.

All regions of American higher education enjoyed growth, even the northeast, which has suffered enrollment pressures harder than others.

In terms of fields of study, familiar patterns maintained.  The health professions rose 3.4% in four years institutions and by 4.4% in community colleges.  In the lead for growth: “Computer and Information Sciences logged another year of high growth (+9.9%, +57,000 at four-year institutions).“  In terms of total students, business (which includes marketing and finance) was the biggest population and grew by 3.2% over spring 2023.  In contrast, education shrank by the smallest amount, 0.1%.

In demographic terms, women and men both increased, and the ratio of roughly 60%-40% continued.  The Clearinghouse didn’t have race breakdowns this time, but did identify that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) enrollment grew by 3.5%, all in the undergrad population.

2 Reflecting

Why does this matter?  One professor told me enrollment only counts for bean counters, so I should quickly explain. The overwhelming majority of American colleges and universities depend primarily on student revenue for their budgets.  Tuition, room and board, plus fees keep the doors open, generally.  Shrinking enrollment is a problem, obviously and simply; expanding classes, on the other hand, are financial good news.

So what does the new data portent? Clearly this is a big break in a long-running trend of enrollment decline.  We saw the first glimmer of an upward direction finallt in fall 2023, but this week’s numbers are higher still.

What caused this reversal?  I asked director Shapiro to speculate about the reasons for spring 2024’s growth.  After demurring that his focus was on providing data, he thought we could find some changes in student attitudes, which seemed more focused on economic ROI (return on investment), shorter terms of study (hence the health of associates’ and certificates), plus attention to career focused programs.  If this is right, it’s an important explanation, as it describes only parts of higher ed being healthy, at least in terms of student numbers.

Just to hammer that point home: the engine behind overall enrollment growth is community colleges, the most marginal, least resourced swathe of higher education.  They’re the ones which get by far the least media attention.

The relative success of short term credentials: perhaps we’ll see four-year institutions do more on this score, pushing for additional certificates and microcredentials.

Now, is this the start of another longer term rise, like the long boom which started in the 1980s?  Should we expect the next few years to see enrollment build up, before the demographic cliff smacks into us?  I’m skeptical, starting from the FAFSA debacle, which looks likely to depress classes to some degree. I’d add the general demographic pattern, low unemployment (for now). and the darkening cultural attitude towards colleges and universities, which I’ve written and spoken about.

One element I haven’t seen much discussion on is international students.  American academia has relied on this population for decades.  Canada’s decision to seriously cut international students, combined with Australia considering same and Britain not doing well on this front suggests an opening for United States campuses. Unless Trump returns.

I am curious how state governments will react.  How many legislators will hold back funding, being able to claim their public universities are economically healthier?

One more point: enrollment is still before pre-COVID numbers, and far below the peak of 2012-2013.  It’s going to take a *lot* of enrollment growth to return to peak, millions of students for year upon year.  I think that’s unlikely.  We’re still in my peak higher ed model, at least for some years.

Posted in enrollment, trends | 2 Comments

News from me: two media updates

Greetings from a very harried May.

There’s a lot going on here – too much, really.  I finished my spring class and am now redesigning and reorganizing fall seminars.  In other tabs, I’m working on the new book.  Producing the Future Trends Forum. Traveling a lot (typing this from an Amtrak heading south south-west) and doing many virtual sessions for clients. Blogging and newsletteringMaking videos. And also caring for my poor wife.

Two *more* things happened, which I’d like to share here.

First, the Future Trends Forum just passed a big milestone.  After publishing last Thursday’s excellent session about the information environment of young people, we now have four hundred (400) YouTube recordings in our YouTube archive.

Future Trends Forum hits 400 recordings.

That’s not 400 little Tiktoks, by the way. Nearly every one of those recordings is about one hour of discussion, conversation, argument, connection: solid, extensive, content.

I know 400 is just an integer, but it strikes me – as the Forum’s creator, producer, host, interlocutor, fund-raiser, and cat-herder – as an indicator of a huge amount of live video work involving tens of thousands of people and a galaxy of ideas. It sometimes dizzies me to think we started in February 2016, and how far back in the past that is from May 2024.  We’ve been doing these weekly sessions ever since.

I am so grateful to everyone who has made the Forum succeed: the hundreds of great and brave guests. The more than 10,000 participants. The excellent Wessom Radomsky. Our supporters, like NYSERNet.  And Steve Gottlieb plus his whole Shindig crew.  My heartfelt thanks to all of you.

Sofanauts logoSecond, I’ve joined a new podcast.  Sofanauts is about technology, science fiction, and the future, and it’s a lot of fun.  The host is Tony C. Smith, creator of the famous Starship Sofa science fiction podcast, the first podcast to ever win a Hugo award (in 2007).

In every show Tony and I go through a mix of science news stories and science fiction, looking for signs of the future.  I bring in my futures work to tease out implications and possibilities.  Yet it’s not an academic podcast.  Instead, Tony is a delight, a genial host making for a rollicking, wild conversation each time.

Please give us a listen, and feel free to suggest stories (fiction or non) for us to consider.

That’s all for now.  Back to tracking this train, finishing a Substack, writing a chapter, and planning tomorrow morning’s panel…

Posted in Future Trends Forum, podcasts | Leave a comment

When will the first college or university charge six figures per year? A 2024 update

When will the first American college or university charge $100,000 or more to attend? What might that mean for higher education?

I first posed this question, a little wryly, back in 2018.  My intent six years ago was to scope out a symbolic marker, a milestone in higher education finance.  It was an extreme idea, given that the overwhelming majority of campuses wouldn’t charge anything like that amount, and because the widespread practice of tuition discounting meant a lot of students at those most pricy institutions wouldn’t pay that amount.  Besides, there’s nothing objectively different about charging $100K over 99K over 98; these are increments, margins. Yet the eye-popping six figure amount has the virtue of drawing a bead on the economics of elite campuses.  Considering it might also reveal something of how our culture responds to them.

I blogged this idea, like I said, back in 2018, and have followed it up fairly regularly ever since, as in 2021, 2022, and 2023.  I roughly forecast the most expensive universities crossing over the $100,000/annum barrier around the 2026-2027 academic year. Last year’s inflation adjusted my speculation a bit, nudging the crossover to 2025-26 for at least one university.

How do things stand now?

100000 on a speedometer

Here are the published prices for the most expensive American colleges and universities, for the upcoming (2024-2025) academic year, ranked from most expensive downwards.  These are undergraduate prices, not graduate ones, which tend to be higher.  They also do not reflect higher fees charged to international students, which also tend to be higher.  I’m using official figures as published on campus websites.

Let’s start with the colleges and universities charging more than $90,000 for total cost of attendance:

University of Southern California $95,225

Northwestern University $94,878 ($86,397 for resident assistants; $76,674 if living with relatives and commuting)

Colorado College $94,866 ($91,154 if students waive campus health plan)

Vanderbilt University $94,051 (my calculation; page doesn’t publish total)

New York University $93,184 ($74,932 for commuters)

Harvey Mudd College $93,131

Wesleyan University $92,994 (“(frosh)/$92,694 (continuing students)”)

Stanford University $92,892

Vassar College $92,580

Washington University in St. Louis $92,523

University of Pennsylvania $92,288 ($91,474 for living off campus; $76,076, living with family)

Cornell University $92,150

Wellesley College $92,060

Amherst College $91,930 (not including personal expenses or transportation; assuming the health care and tuition insurances aren’t waived)

Brown University $91,676

Claremont McKenna College $91,510

Dartmouth College $91,312

Wake Forest University $91,266

Kenyon College $91,010

Yale University $90,975

CalTech $90,822 (off-campus is higher, $94,380; living with parents is lower, $82,878)

Barnard College $90,928

Boston University $90,207

Franklin & Marshall College $90,079

A note for the record: that’s around two dozen (at least) American colleges and universities with sticker prices of more than $90,000 per year right now.

Just behind those is another tier of campuses charging in the upper $80K range:

Haverford College $89,568

Duke University $88,938

Boston College $88,632

Tulane University $88,266 (“$88,266+” is how it’s stated)

Lewis and Clark College $88,015 ($84,128 if health care insurance waived)

Reed College $87,010

Sarah Lawrence College $86,758

Carnegie Mellon University $86,812

Carleton College $86,478

Princeton University $86,700

Williams College $85,820

Swarthmore College $85,802

Oberlin College and Conservatory $85,496

Harvard straddles the tiers, publishing this qualified figure: “Total billed and unbilled costs $86,366-$91,166.”  Colby College does something similar with this bracketing: “$89,240 – $90,490.”

Some currently very expensive campuses haven’t published fees for next year, or none that I could find.  The University of Chicago’s bursar page lists “Tuition and Fees 2024-25 College (not available).”  Columbia University only displays this year’s. Tufts University is a tricky one.  Their website seems to only post data for 2023-2024 (for example) (another example), except for one page on international students.  There are figures out there for Tufts’ upcoming academic year, like $92,167, according to a recent article in the student paper. A Boston station thought the figure was higher, $95,888, but for international students.  CNN cited that figure as well.  A Tufts staffer confirmed to me in email that they haven’t yet posted the new numbers.

Moving on, and based on the other figures, what might we expect from the next several years?

Let’s do some basic, first order extrapolation.  We can assume that campus operating expenses will rise.  Consumer inflation now stands at 3.5% over the past year, according to official figures. In previous posts I used a rough 4% increase for institutional price rises. I upped that number to 5% last year, based on what I saw of price rises.  Using that number, the leading campus – USC – would charge $99,986.25 in 2025-2026, or just about as close to the 100K mark as one can get.  Using the same basic formula, Northwestern would set its price at $99,621.90, Colorado College $99,609.30, Vanderbilt $98,753.55, and so on.   Academic year 2026-2027 would see USC crack the boundary at $104, 985.56, along with Northwestern at $104,603, Colorado College at $104,589.77, and Vanderbilt $103,691.23.

Like I said, that’s a very simple extrapolation. I’ve smooshed together a lot of variables. For example, note how expensive medical costs are as part of total cost of attendance. Those will likely rise much faster than consumer inflation, especially if allied health continues to have problems attracting staffing.  Politically attuned readers will recognize some of the first- and second-tier campuses have been in the spotlight due to Gaza protests. Their administrations might find donations weakening, and thereby feel the need to raise prices at a faster pace in order to keep their finances healthy.

As I’ve said before, breaching the six figure barrier might prove to be a symbolic step too far for some of these colleges and universities. They might fear looking too greedy or expensive and take steps to hold the line at $99,999.  Alternatively, administrations might decide that the symbol either doesn’t matter – it’s just another number – or that they can benefit from the perception of offering an elite, de luxe service.  One might seek to be the first one the year after next, taking up a kind of leadership role.

And after that?  Perhaps we will grow accustomed to the six figure bracket, much as we accepted campuses charging above $90,000 without much complaint. Fees of $104,000 and up will simply express value.  Alternatively, six figures will become the new lazy river, a much-cited figure, then a cliche, symbolizing academic greed, waste, fecklessness, or whichever other feature the speaker wishes to evoke.

…and then we’re heading to a new milestone: campuses posting a total cost of attendance of $150,000 per year.


Let me offer a coda to this update. After posting about the idea for years, it seems that the thing has drawn some attention, possibly because we’re drawing close to the six figure boundary.  Last month Josh Moody wrote a fine article for Inside Higher Ed.  The piece includes commentary by me, along with links to my blog posts, as well as discussions with Sandy Baum and Julian Treves.  Moody covered a lot of ground.

The New York Times then followed up (gift link) and I admit to being ambivalent about the piece. On the positive side Ron Lieber focused on Vanderbilt University, digging deeply and getting a good mix of data and campus feedback.  I was glad to see economists Robert Archibald (a fine Future Trends Forum guest) and David Feldman cited.

On the other hand… the Inside Higher Ed piece appeared April 3rd.  The Times published their article two days later, on April 5th, then updated it several days later, on the 8th. There’s no mention of Josh Moody’s article, which is easily discoverable by search. IHE is also one of the two leading higher ed journals, widely known to everyone in the field.

Speaking of search, Googling for “six figures higher education total cost” and related strings also turns up this 2019 Atlantic article.  In it Alia Wong cites this contemporary Hechinger Report article and offers this forecast:

By 2025, the University of Chicago’s sticker price is predicted to pass the $100,000 mark, which would make it the first U.S. college where attendance costs six figures, according to new analysis by The Hechinger Report, an education-news outlet. The analysis suggests at least a handful of other U.S. colleges will follow suit soon after Chicago hits that milestone, including California’s Harvey Mudd College, New York City’s Columbia University, and Texas’s Southern Methodist University.

And given the way American higher education has been going, it likely won’t be long after that before six-figure prices are common among selective colleges and universities.

Further, and as you might expect, I am a bit irked that the Times piece didn’t mention my series of posts on the topic, as quick Googling brings them up.  In short, I wish the NYT had recognized that other people had been working on this topic, some of us for years.

/coda

(speedometer photo by Casper Kongstein)

Posted in economics | 8 Comments

Health care nation appears in some high schools

As a futurist I study and produce scenarios.  These are short stories about possible futures, visions of what might come to pass and within which participants might see themselves.  They are a classic forecasting method.  (Check Wikipedia for a good introduction.)

Several years ago I offered once called “Health care nation,” wherein allied health becomes the leading sector of the American economy.  In it I imagine how colleges and universities might change. “Health care nation” has appeared in some of my presentations, in a blog post, and a chapter in Academic Next (2020).  Audiences usually appreciate it, but without much excitement, seeing it as simply very likely to occur.

I regularly check in on the world to see if “Health Care Nation” is starting to appear.  So far so good, as American allied health (i.e., everything in medical and public health, from surgery to psychotherapy to electronic medical records and hospital administration) continues to expand in scope and financial size.

Last month I found a very interesting datapoint for this scenario.  It looks like a major donor is trying to make one part of it happen.

DALL·E 2024-05-06 15.23.36 - A vibrant, futuristic cityscape showing healthcare as the leading sector of the economy. In the foreground, there is a large hospital with a prominent

There was an interesting presentation at the 2025 ASU-GSV summit about pre-med high schools.  I couldn’t be there, so here’s the description:

Currently, there are an estimated two million open healthcare industry jobs and an additional two million expected by 2031. These healthcare jobs provide a clear path to economic mobility and are resilient to automation or outsourcing – and many do not require a four-year degree.

In January, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $250 million initiative to create new high schools around the nation that will graduate students directly into these high-demand healthcare jobs. This first-of-its kind initiative pairs public education systems and hospitals in 10 communities across the country. These high schools will offer students robust academic programming, specialized healthcare classes, work-based learning at the partner health system and the opportunity to earn industry-valued credentials and certifications. Immediately upon graduation, students can directly enter healthcare jobs within the partner healthcare systems.

In my scenario I imagined something like this.  My focus was on colleges and universities, but I expected demand for such jobs would pile up in K-12:

we can envision secondary school students participating in more pre-pre-med classes than there are in 2018.  Indeed, we can expect high schools to offer more and new classes in such fields.  Perhaps some teens will hold well known medical figures to be aspirational heroes.  A growing number of them may already be familiar with eldercare practices, given demographics and housing trends.

It’s gratifying to see Bloomberg act on this and for New York City schools to participate.

I can see these high schools sending graduates into colleges and universities for health care study. What I didn’t anticipate back then was the idea of having high school graduates go directly into the allied health workforce without going to college (“Immediately upon graduation, students can directly enter healthcare jobs within the partner healthcare systems”).  That does fit into more recent developments about tearing “the paper ceiling” by reducing postsecondary requirements for jobs.

This Bloomberg-New York partnership is the first one I’ve seen along these lines.  Has anyone else seen others, or spotted further signs of our world becoming “Health Care Nation”?

Posted in scenarios | 2 Comments

Academic cuts, mergers, and closures from April

April has brought more academic cuts, mergers and closures.  I noted examples of this trend in last month (1, 2, 3) but as they used to say on radio, the hits keep coming.  A Hechinger Report article claimed one institutional closure per week, and I recommend the piece for its humanity.

In this post I’ll be brief, as I have a week full of travel, meetings, and iffy broadband.  I’ll also reuse my previous categories, starting with…

1. Closing campuses

California’s University of Saint Katherine (private; Orthodox Christianity) will shut down, despite enrollment gains.  The cause: running out of money.

Across the country, Ohio’s Sinclair Community College (public) announced it would shut down two campuses.  The reason: declining enrollment.

2. Mergers

The Vermont College of Fine Arts will become “an affiliate” of the California Institute of the Arts (a/k/a CalArts). VCFA will retain trustees, some leaders, and offices in Montpelier, but will start holding in-person classes at CalArts starting next year.  According to VCFA’s official announcement:

In legal form CalArts will be our “parent,” but under the terms of our affiliation agreement VCFA will retain its academic independence, administrative offices in Montpelier, and its unique form and mission.

And about those trustees: “The college’s board of trustees, he said, would be reconstituted with a split of membership between CalArts picks and VCFA appointees,” according to VTDigger.

Nearby, a state-appointed commission published a report calling for New Hampshire institutions to merge. Well, perhaps “merge” is too strong a word. It never appears in the report. Nonetheless, the report calls for all kinds of syntheses between the state’s public universities and community colleges: making their respective administrations share offices; creating a common admissions system between the two; ditto for ERP systems; unifying the accreditation process for all institutions; increasing student transfer between campuses; cut review current space usage to ” identify partnership opportunities”; setting up “a centralized online support group and investigate initiatives to meet student needs”; coordinating scheduling across the two systems.  Also, to “[s]tudy the possibility of having the two systems under one governing board and one chancellor.”

New Hampshire enrollment 2019-2023_from a state commission

The reason for this: decreasing enrollment, which the charge assigned to demographics.

I do wonder what happened at the commission’s tail end.  Check out their last two meetings:

March 22, 2024: The Task Force convened at NHED in Concord and discussed edits to the content of the executive summary, organization of appendices, and categorization of recommendations in the report template.

March 27, 2024: The Task Force convened an emergency meeting at NHED in Concord to review and accept that the report accurately reflected the work of the Task Force.

Emergency meeting, eh?  I do wonder why someone called that and what changes they made to the document.  And why it was so urgent.

3. Budget crises, not laying off people yet

This time I don’t have involuntary cuts to report, for which I’m grateful.  Instead:

Wisconsin’s Northland College (private; liberal arts) faced a financial crisis, and a fundraising campaign failed, leading to a declaration of financial exigency with a threat of impending closure.  This stirred some wealthy people into making large if unspecified donations which seem to keep the college afloat for now.  Cuts remain on the table:

Since [the new gifts] leadership has held meetings with faculty and others to explore restructuring, likely layoffs, and other changes to try to bridge the college’s deficit, in the face of what the Board has described as a “severe financial crisis.”

Trustees say they plan to continue to meet with faculty and others to continue work to try to develop a sustainable, long-term plan for the school, which was founded in 1892 and enrolls around 500 students.

“This will continue to require a strategic academic re-prioritization and the need for serious decisions,” the Board said in its latest announcement.

The University of Arizona (public; land grant) prepared layoffs, and some academics protested while faculty called for a delay.  The cause: a massive deficit, which now seems to be marginally less bad.

Cleveland State University in Ohio (public; research university) is preparing buyouts for faculty and staff with at least a decade of experience.  The cause: a major deficit.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a major accreditor, put Pittsburgh Technical College on probation at risk of losing accreditation.  Why?  Problems alleged concern financial control, teaching quality, and governance.  There aren’t any statements about cuts yet, although mergers – sorry, partnerships are in the air.

Faced with financial problems, St. Norbert College in Wisconsin (private, Catholic; liberal arts) cut faculty and staff earlier this year, and is now expanding programs, rather than cutting them.

Note the kinds of degrees they are adding:

Engineering Physics Major:

Robotics Minor

Sustainability Minor

Management Major

Finance Major

Marketing Major

Supply Chain Management Major

Digital Marketing Minor

Project Management Minor

Data Analytics Minor

Game Development Concentration

Certificate in Arts Management

A strong emphasis on technology and business, in other words.

One more datapoint to add: Inside Higher Ed published its latest survey of university presidential attitudes.  I’d like to draw attention to the views on campus finances as shown in this slide:

Presidential attitudes towards finances

That’s a positive picture, overall.  Yet don’t miss the sting in the tail:

16% say that senior administrators at their institution have had serious internal merger discussions in the last year; most of these presidents support merging

16% are seriously talking about mergers!  That’s around 600 colleges and universities, by my rough math.

So where does this leave us?

One way of assessing these stories of 2024’s cuts is to view all of these schools as institutionally weak.  They are suffering from hits to their reputation, sometimes from corruption or mere mismanagement.  They tend to be too small or brittle to withstand pressures which other campuses can endure.  These are outliers in the post-secondary herd and their fates don’t reflect much on the rest.  Perhaps we’re better off without them, if they are that incompetent.  Let the death spiral whirl, as a Slate columnist once urged.

I’m persuaded that other factors are in play here, factors – trends – which press on the entirety of higher education.  The enrollment decline afflicting the entire sector appears most sharply in these edge cases, but isn’t going away, especially as the demographic transition continues.  The flight of students away from the humanities and towards STEM, allied health, and business is widespread. And the difficulties in maintaining a nonprofit based primarily on enrollment are ones I’ve heard from a wide range of campus leaders, including those working at well-endowed colleges and universities.  Rising skepticism about higher education, rising costs for operating these institutions, the potential threat of AI, the intractability of students debt – all of these are generally in play.

That’s it for now.  I’m on the road this week and have other topics to write about.  I hope the season of cuts and closures is fading – but I’m not betting on it.

Posted in economics | 5 Comments

Demographic update: American births continue to decline

How are demographics changing, and what does that transformation suggest about the future?

Recently the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published new data on American birthrates. While the results are not surprising to people who follow the topic, they are very useful.

The first and major takeaway is that the number of children we have continues to decline.

American birthrates 2000-2023_CDC

Note that I’m referring to two numbers here: the absolute number of births and also the number of children per 1,000 women. We’re having fewer children, in other words, and fewer women are having them.  The peak was in 2007.  Things slid down afterwards, starting with the Great Recession (this is where Nathan Grawe’s demographic cliff comes in), really dropping for COVID’s first year, ticking up a little right after, then following the overall downward trend.  Which brings us to the latest item: “The total fertility rate was 1,616.5 births per 1,000 women in 2023, a decline of 2% from 2022.”  That’s about 1.62 per woman.

CDC identifies some interesting if slight differences between racial groups:

The provisional number of births declined 5% for American Indian and Alaska Native women, 4% for Black women, 3% for White women, and 2% for Asian women from 2022 to 2023. Births rose 1% for Hispanic women and were essentially unchanged for Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander women…

I’ve written about what this means before – on this blog, in articles, in a book – so I’ll briefly summarize here what I see as the implications.

Generally speaking, America’s population is pointing towards contraction.  Listen carefully to the CDC’s observation:

The total fertility rate in 2023 remained below replacement—the level at which a given generation can exactly replace itself (2,100 births per 1,000 women). The rate has generally been below replacement since 1971 and consistently below replacement since 2007…

“Below replacement.”  That means the population will shrink.  This is what Japan and South Korea, among others, are going through now.  So why is America’s population still growing?  Partly it’s the people already in the mix, but the main reason is immigration.  Immigration brings a lot of folks, and they tend to be younger. If we were to Trump the borders shut and end immigration tomorrow, fairly quickly our total numbers would start to dwindle, incrementally yet steadily.  This demographic fact underpins our fractious immigration politics.

Declining birthrates is a long-running trend, too.  Note that “below replacement since 1971.”  This demographic trend is a condition of modernity, in my view.  That is, once a society goes through industrialism and beyond, building up enough wealth, improving health care and public health, then giving women more access to education, jobs, and reproductive control, your fertility rate falls.

There are all kinds of civic implications to this.  The flipside of fewer children is older folks living longer, so there’s the growing support problem inherent in that dynamic. There’s the issue of having enough workers to keep the whole system going, even after productivity improvements. I wonder about national identity, especially for a youth-crazed culture like America’s.

There is pushback to this, unsurprisingly, as some people call out for more births.  Usually any resulting efforts flop, but that shouldn’t mean we won’t see more.  Already some Americans champion neonatalism.  As I’ve said, this could become a major national debate.

In case that sounds too grim, let me cheer you up with a hilarious Danish pro-childbirth ad campaign:

Back to the point: what does this trend (demographic transition, not Danish media) mean for higher education?  Clearly the trend pinches the K-12 pipeline for traditional-age undergraduates, which increases competition between institutions serving that population.  It might incentivize colleges and universities to seek more from other populations, like adult, online, and international would-be students.  Failing such a successful transition, we may expect academic programs to shrink and institutions to merge or shut down.

I do wonder if we’ll see more academics call for more births.  I’m not seeing a lot of this yet, but we might expect some professor or administrator to take up a neonatalist position for the reasons just cited.

Let me conclude by noting one additional feature in the CDC report, which seems weirdly unremarked upon, but for me stands as a clear sign of progress.  Teen births have fallen off a cliff, plummeting since 1991:

American teen birthrates 1991-2023 _CDC

They’re kind of leveling off now, but wow!  From the 90s to around 30, from nearly 40 to around 5. Older readers will recall social anxiety, even panic over teen motherhood back in the 1980s and 1990s.  It looks like we largely solved that problem.  Good news.

What might that mean for higher education?  More teen women will have a better chance at post-secondary schooling, primarily.

To sum up: nothing shocking in this report.  America’s birthdate, like that of every society which has gone through modernity, is shrinking.  This shapes our future powerfully.

Posted in demographics, trends | 6 Comments

For Earth Day 2024

Today is the 54th Earth Day, a holiday generally aimed at raising global ecological consciousness.

It began in 1970 as a UNESCO project and I can’t help but hear Earth as system and Spaceship Earth from that origin then. earthday.org is the organizer now, and declared this year’s theme to be “Planet vs. Plastics.”  They explain what that’s about:

Earth by NASA Goddard

advocat[ing] for widespread awareness on the health risk of plastics, rapidly phase out all single use plastics, urgently push for a strong UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, and demand an end to fast fashion. Join us as we build a plastic-free planet for generations to come!

American Climate Corps logoPresident Biden chose this day to launch two things.  His American Climate Corps opened up for applications.  He also announced more solar power grants.

Great environmental journalist and activist Bill McKibben used the day to share nothing but good climate change stories.

Elsewhere, there’s been a flurry of news articles and opinion pieces.  There are some holiday-themed sales (a feature on technology price savings was the first hit on the New York Times).  I haven’t seen too  much in the higher ed space, at least from Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.  One fine exception is in upstate New York, where Cornell University and Ithaca College people are seeking to reclaim Earth Day.

As a futurist who’s been working on climate change and higher education for several years, I find the day a good one to step back and think about the bigger picture at a larger time scale, at a larger social level.  This year what comes to mind is… being unsettled.

I don’t mean the anxieties about global warming, at its worst wrecking the Earth and trashing civilization, although readers know this is something which gnaws at me daily, as it does many people.  Instead, I’m thinking about the fading of one human attitude towards the Earth and how something new is succeeding it gradually.

In 2016 Amitav Ghosh argued that western society grew used to a benign, controlled sense of nature.  It started with the industrial revolution – in a later book, I think Ghosh backdates this to the rise of colonialism – and came from the practical achievements of science and modernity. We gradually fought back a lot of nature’s cruelties, from diseases to weather.  This yielded a sense of the Earth as a resource for us to use or steward, not a terrifying place of danger.  The Earth became not a roaring landscape red in tooth and claw, but a manicured lawn or industrial farming.  Compare, say, the raw and fearsome nature seen in Beowulf with the nature in Jane Austen’s novels.

Climate change undoes this sensibility. That benign world is now capable of lashing back at us. The resources are problematic. Our controlling efforts have backfired. The Earth is no longer the lovely garden but a source of escalating chaos.

The late Bruno Latour developed this into a political theory in his later works, like Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018). That changing sense of our relationship to the Earth leaves us unmoored and adrift. “All forms of belonging are undergoing a metamorphosis.” (16) We are then vulnerable to authoritarian politics, as seen in Europe and the United States.

I’m not sure where the rest of us stand, if we refuse the authoritarians and still feel the Earth sliding away under our feet… which might be precisely the point.  If the Earth is no longer the trustworthy resource pool we thought we’d achieved, what is it?  What is our relationship to it?  Exploring that question is one function of climate fiction.  I think of those works as shards from emergent futures.  We can also see that new relationship arrive democratically, through folkways.

Yet how does academia change in response to this unsettlement?

To a significant extent we helped make the benign nature model Ghosh describes happen.  We did that through our research and teaching in the natural sciences, as well as how we developed generations of professionals from finance to psychology who implemented that vision.  To what extent is academic research and teaching developing the new relationship?

Our campus grounds, of course, literally represent that old model. Our lovely lawns and quads, our stately or simply official buildings, the carefully controlled watercourses show nature as firmly under human control.   How might the physical domain of a college or university change as the unmoored Earth relationship takes hold?

These are my thoughts tonight as I look at the orbital vision of the planet on Earth Day. There’s a lot more to say, but I’m running out of time.  Still: a planet so solid, and yet so uncertain once we consider what we’ve done to it.  What civilization will appear next to rethink its Earth?

(Earth photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Posted in climatechange | 5 Comments