I want to try out this hypothesis as a way of thinking about many current trendlines. Readers and listeners know I have been tracking a large number of grim developments in the American higher education world. Synthesizing them is what I’m currently addressing.
Peak higher ed means we’ve reached the maximum size that colleges and universities can support. What we see now, or saw in 2012, is as big as it gets. After two generations of growth, American higher education has reached its upper bound.
Consider recent news and data:
Student population: The number of students enrolled in American higher education dropped by more than 400,000 from 2011 to 2012, according to Census data. The number of graduate students also dropped over the same period, falling 2.3% after a decade of growth. Note that the number of American grad students fell even more sharply, 3.2%; foreign students alone made up the difference. Falling birthrates are likely to keep these populations low for some time.
Admissions: College and university admissions officers report that it’s harder than ever to make enrollment targets. For instance, “29 percent of admissions directors admitted that they recruited applicants — after May 1 — who had committed to other colleges.” * Schools have been increasing their discount rates to chase a smaller population of students.
Finance: JP Morgan decided not to expand its student loan portfolio. They hinted at this last year, when USBancorp made a similar decision. Only one lender, Wells Fargo, stepped up to address supposed slack in the market, and they don’t think they’re going to make any money on the deal.
Meanwhile for the first time since the mid-20th century American families have not increased the amount they spend on higher education. This is partly due to the stagnation and decline of family income over the past few decades. That, combined with cuts to state support of public institutions, has led families to borrow more. But that has led to ballooning student debt which Americans now dislike, and see also the preceding paragraph.
Research: adjunct faculty have little or no research expectations, and less support thereof. Adjuncts currently represent the majority of American faculty, and that proportion continues to grow.
If this adjunctification process continues, it follows that the number of tenure-track faculty conducting research will top off, then decline, taking with it the amount of research being conducted and published. Bonus points if the commercial scholarly publication ecosystem collapses without open access being able to fully take up the slack.
The general sense of crisis: There’s a qualitative aspect to all of this, namely that a lot of Americans think higher ed is in crisis. Increasing numbers of us are skeptical of its value, terrified of student loan debt, don’t think college is needed for many jobs, etc. While anti-higher education feelings used to be a specialty of the political right, they’ve now crossed over into Democratic territory (cf Paul Krugman’s recent complaint, among many other examples). This is not an atmosphere likely to send rising numbers of people to campus. Compare with the 1990s, or the 1960s.
Taken separately, each of these items suggests that times are hard for higher ed. But seen together they form a pattern.
I’m not happy with this hypothesis. For one thing, it’s depressing! For another, I’m open to countervailing interpretations of the evidence.
What comes after a peak? That’s for another blog post.
Caveat1: this peak could be temporary, as demographics and economics change after a decade or so. American birthrates might rise once more, sending children into the generational pipeline. The US economy could return to growth, encouraging childbirth. If that’s so, what we’re experiencing now is not a terminal peak, but a long-term pause after a long growth period. A major wave of immigration could boost population, but that probably depends on the relative stature of the American economy compared with immigrant nations’.
Caveat2: foreign students may mitigate or conceal peak higher education. Non-US grad students kept graduate school enrollments from decline this year, as noted above. Undergrads recruited abroad help fill classes, while often meeting diversity goals. “Peak American higher education” should be understood to mean both the geographical location of institutions and this nation’s population.
*IHE adds: “The Statement of Principles of Good Practice of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling bans such efforts”.