American higher education enrollment has declined for the past half decade. My readers know this well, as it’s a theme I return to frequently, yet it’s surprising how few college and university discussions really take this trend into account. Combined with and contributing to financial pressures, enrollment decline poses a major thread to colleges and universities.
Some people see this clearly, and are taking steps in response. In this post I’ll pick some sample writing from the past month to demonstrate some of their analysis and especially strategy.
ITEM: Catherine Hill, a former university president and now Ithaka S+R director, reflects on the situation and calls it a long-building crisis. An economic by training, Cappy notes as well growing anxiety about student loan debt. As she puts it, in recent years
[i]nstitutions operated with an if-we-build-it-they-will-come mentality. But for today’s students that truly is a field of dreams.
Many colleges and universities are in desperate need of reform. They face challenges with high sticker prices, higher discount rates and even higher financial need from students. Combine these with increases in faculty salaries, the cost of benefits, and deferred maintenance, and the current equation for many institutions is irreconcilable.
For Hill, trying to revise that equation runs smack into two challenges: how to not reduce educational quality, and how to maintain or expand college access for the non-rich. I remain impressed by her focus on economic inequality:
The question is how to reduce costs while maintaining quality, so that more students from low- and middle-income families can afford an education that improves their opportunities. Increased state and federal support seems unlikely in the current political and economic environment. Therefore, innovations that reduce costs while maintaining educational quality are needed.
In response, Hill identifies a series of strategies:
- curricular reform
- implementing some technologies to save costs
- interinstitutional collaboration to control costs and share classes
- lobbying the federal government to keep loans and aid intact
Each of those is very challenging and controversial.
Curricular reform can meet faculty resistance. Faculty members can also generate their own curricular ideas which may simply go in a different direction than what Hill suggests. There’s also the problem of shaping relatively slow-moving college curriculum to the fast-moving labor market, not to mention the ideological issue of letting business drive non-profit education.
New technologies for cost saving: as most technologists and senior administrators know, technology usually costs money. Many of its benefits are non-financial, such as improving access to content, spurring creativity, improving learning in ways that don’t necessarily impact tuition revenue. Distance learning generally costs more than many anticipated. This is a hard one.
Inter-campus collaboration is something I’ve worked on for decades, and know just how challenging it can be. Colleges and universities generally prefer to work with predatory companies rather than with
the enemy other schools, and the double whammy of enrollment and financial stress makes collaboration even more tricky to build up.
Lobbying governments: the federal government is rapidly approaching madhouse status, to put it generously. Approaching Congresscritters and officials now must surely be more difficult than in recent years. Meanwhile, many state governments continue to grapple with politically more powerful competitors for funds, like health care, pensions, and crime.
Taken together, Catherine Hill offers a challenging four-fold path to follow. I think each of these are worth doing, and can be done the right way.
ITEM: The Washington Post and Hechinger Report profile Ohio Wesleyan University, and finds those enrollment and demographic pressures again at work.
It’s in the dead center of the region where the student population declines are among the steepest—the number of high school graduates in Ohio, from which it gets more than half of its students, has fallen 8 percent since 2011—and the college is responding with a singular sense of urgency.
“Ground Zero turns out pretty much to be Delaware, Ohio, in the heart of Ohio,” said [David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities], himself a previous president of Ohio Wesleyan. [hyperlinks added]
In response, OWU has deployed some interesting strategies, which readers might recognize from their own institutional histories.
Boosting sports, because gender: “one group of [student] prospects was dropping faster than others: men. That’s one reason the university is adding sports.” I’ve heard this from many, many schools. Usually college sports at residential campuses lose money or at best break even. That’s not the point. Attracting male students is, now. Recall the gender balance favors women in numbers.
Revising curriculum to meet anticipated demand: “The university also uses labor statistics to see what fields are in greatest demand, then tailors new programs to meet it.” For example, “Faculty at the 175-year-old liberal-arts school, which has about 1,700 undergraduates, are preparing new majors in high-demand fields including data analytics and computational neuroscience.” Note the polite discussion of faculty ignorance of or resistance to this, too.
Improving connections to work: “The data also showed that students wanted internships and international study. Both have been expanded.” Internships can be tricky, since many employers freely exploit students, and we can also see the problem mentioned above of giving business demands further sway in the nonprofit education environment. Note the international study angle here.
Going after international students: “Admissions officers are back from scouting out prospective students in China, India and Pakistan” – a job made more difficult in this first year of Trump.
Taken together, these two articles point to a range of strategic options for colleges and universities to attempt in order to staunch the bleeding from enrollment and financial pressures. We might well be seeing the first signs of a general administrative toolkit.
If we take these strategies into the future, we can imagine how campuses might differ. A greater proportion of students are drawn from abroad (unless Trump kills this). More on-campus sports. Classes and majors tied closely to jobs and current topics. Campus IT focused more on cost control and savings. Some political science students graduate, then get jobs working as lobbyists in Washington or their state capital.
Is this a portrait of a college that’s more business oriented than before, or a savvy nonprofit navigating a rising storm?