Peak education 2013

peakDid we just experience peak higher education in the United States?

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.

tenure vs other

Not a well-designed chart, but well worth your time to decipher.

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.

Moreover, the federal government has been cutting its research support for various reasons (sequester, animus against political science), and seems likely to keep doing so over the next year.

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”.

(photo by Hamed Saber)

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38 Responses to Peak education 2013

  1. Here’s a comment from Christine Mullins. WordPress blocked it, so it came by email:

    “I think this all makes sense. Enrollment in higher education follows the economy, we are just coming out of a recession that saw record enrollment as people went to college to enhance their job skills. Now they have left college and are back in the work force (we hope!). Also, do these numbers include community colleges, and other types of higher education. Tuition at universities is outrageous and many students have sought cheaper, but also good, alternatives where they can get a good education and not be straddled with debt after four years. I know that enrollment in online courses at community colleges continues to increase, albeit at a much lower rate than a couple of years ago. We saw 22 percent increase in online student enrollment in 2009 and only four percent last year, but it is to be expected. It is kind of like the housing bubble — why were so many people so surprised when it burst? An industry can only go up so high, so quickly for so long. Maybe the universities will lower their tuition rates, and not build so many expensive stadiums, fancy buildings and whatnot, so they don’t drive themselves out of business?”

    • Good thoughts, Christine.
      Jobs and recession: it’s true to some degree that people are now shifting from school to employment. But there are still far too few jobs. More people are simply giving up on the labor market entirely.

      Community colleges: yes, these figures include CCs, who are doing heroic work.

      Bubble surprise: most academics don’t see higher education as a bubble. Instead they see it as a public good, which should be beyond bubble dynamics.

  2. David Taylor says:

    Your analysis seems spot on to me. Unfortunately, I would add one more element: the “Internet of Everything,” in which all people, all machines (m2m) and all objects (with sensors) in the world are connected and education takes place on the level of the individual behind an interface of an intelligent adaptive learning engine using artificial intelligence. In this scenario (envisoned by Cisco, Qualcomm,, etc.) there are no schools and staffs of faculty. Only corporate facilitators and on-call experts.

  3. Pingback: Peak Higher Ed and the Age of Diminished Expectations | Hapgood

  4. Rolin Moe says:

    A few thoughts on your outlook:

    1) despite its use as a pejorative and/or catch-all for liberal hyperbole, what you describe (the maxing out of family spending on HE, discourse of HE’s relative unimportance, decreasing state monies) is indicative of a neoliberal economic paradigm. Education is taken from public sector and privatized, in part because social push is one that views education as a private good rather than a public one. In this model the opportunity for disruptive technology exists because the purpose is entirely consumer-driven, not shared with social and cultural benefit.
    2) perhaps this view better fits Deluze’s societies of control. The factory as a control mechanism of population was replaced by social groups such as the school during the 20th Century. In this lens, school was a false-promise…perhaps it ensured a middle class life, but that was one with a ceiling. Fast-forward to 2013 where leading humanities columnists for the Chronicle of Higher Education are advocating for trades rather than college because the promise of middle class was false, so good money and a blue collar might be a better bet.
    3) one place of bipartisan agreement has been education, to the horror of the establishment, who see bipartisan aims as shots to the bow against professionalism, academe and scholarship for a world of quick standardization and cost-benefit analysis. It’s not surprising to see more centrists and even slightly leftists spilling the same rigmarole.
    4) I find it interesting that most everyone who advocates for the unimportance of higher education has a HE degree, often from a prestiguous university, many with multiple ones. Bill Gates, college dropout, uses his foundation to spur educational programs and policies that are at least designed with supporting HE in mind, regardless of how he views the ideal system. And I don’t see a lot of politicians finding elected office w/ a GED and a can-do attitude. If its unimportant, that’s not across-the-board.

    • Good thoughts, Rolin. Let me nudge each one.
      1) Exactly. If education is being privatized, we should expect it to increasingly follow market rules.
      2) I’m not sure I follow. How do you see Deleuzian control mechanisms appearing here – data analytics?
      3) Bipartisanship is uneven, but also fairly recent. Remember that No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan triumph, the work of George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy.
      4) If college education correlates with income, then yeah.

  5. Pingback: Peak education 2013 « New Images of Education

  6. Hey Bryan,

    I keep thinking this: by the end of the decade, predictions are that five billion will be connected to the Internet, most of them coming from developing countries, thirsty for education and knowledge and learning. I can’t imagine that a hunger for education at that scale isn’t going to create an explosion of new opportunities for a “higher education” that look nothing like the traditonal bricks and mortar, 4-years to a degree experience. No question, some professions will still require the place-based experience. But I’d be curious to know what types of new opportunities you think this influx of global learners will lead us to that our first-world students here in the US might also opt into.

    • Great point, Will. But I’m not sure American higher ed (the putative subject of my post) will be interested.
      Consider:
      1) US colleges and universities are keenly interesting in *wealthy* foreign students.
      2) The international access advantages represented by MOOCs and OER attract very little support from campus academic leaders and faculty.
      3) If this post’s hypothesis is correct about peak higher ed, these schools will be even more hungry for paying students than before. Then they won’t be interested in the overwhelming majority of potential learners from the developing world.

      Low-cost distance learning is one way to approach these learners, I agree. So what would it take to support that? Perhaps more free cMOOCs, or programs making an effort to share content through featurephones.

      • willrich45 says:

        Thanks for the reply, Bryan. Maybe I’m off the rails, but I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not higher ed is “interested” in this type of learning. It will happen with or without them regardless. I’m thinking that the requirement of a 4-year university degree will no longer apply for millions of people who can learn deeply and show mastery of subject and skill in ways that didn’t exist even a decade ago. And that includes learners from first world countries as well. Self-organized, “informal” learning will increase in both scale and value whether the institution accepts that or not. Different forms of accredidation will evolve. Mastery will be achieveable in a number of non-traditional paths. In that way, I think we may well have hit the “peak” of higher education not just in demographic terms but in competitive terms.

        Or not. ;0)

      • That’s a powerful vision, Will. Perhaps we’re seeing the rise of a competitive sector alongside classic colleges and universities, and the latter will watch their share of the .edu pie gradually shrink.
        Perhaps some colleges and universities will experiment with that second sector. After all, with 4500 or so of them in all their diversity, surely we should expect some to get involved. The SUNY system, for instance.

  7. Mark Vickers says:

    I suspect that Christine has a point when she writes, “It is kind of like the housing bubble — why were so many people so surprised when it burst?” Indeed, an education bubble has been predicted in recent years, based largely on the high costs of education and astonishing debt burdens. That said, I suspect we are not at peak education but are, rather, letting air out of a badly inflated system. Just as the housing market will return, so will the education market.

    But it’s worth discussing what we mean by “peak.” Do we mean just the U.S. system? Do we mean just the conventional notion of accredited universities and colleges? Do we include enrollments and/or graduations from MOOCs or other online institutions? And what sort of certifications do we count?

    The data is going to get murkier for now on. Foreign students are, for example, likely to be graduating from a Georgia Tech MOOC program without ever setting foot in the U.S. And eventually U.S. students will be enrolling in non-U.S. online institutions in greater numbers.

    In a way, of course (since I assume you’re alluding to the notion of peak oil), this is like the energy debate. Maybe we will, indeed, produce and use less petroleum, but it’s unlikely we’re anywhere near “peak energy” (globally speaking). The same is likely true for education: we may or may not be near some sort of peak of conventional, 4-year U.S. education, but I doubt we’re near peak education in the larger sense.

    • Good questions, Mark.
      I’m looking at US education in this post (but see my next).
      Yes, the conventional colleges and universities.
      Certifications: conventional ones for now. Although I’m tracking badges and other certifications, they haven’t made much headway.

      My turn:
      -“eventually U.S. students will be enrolling in non-U.S. online institutions in greater numbers.” How do you see this happening? I’ve been watching it, but the numbers seem to be very low. The reasons behind that would be interesting to discern.

      -“Just as the housing market will return, so will the education market.” Are you thinking of eventual demographic rebound, or migration, or more foreign students?

      • Mark Vickers says:

        Thanks for the responses, Bryan. I’m glad you’re tracking things like badges because I think those will often be provided in non-university settings. Codecademy, for example, is doing a great deal to educate a huge global student body in the area of programming, but I wonder if those numbers show up anywhere in education data. If they don’t, that’s unfortunate because some of those students would likely have otherwise turned to more conventional sources of education, such community colleges.

        And so it is that one pile could be shrinking (conventional ed) and another pile could be growing (unconventional ed). If we’re only looking at the former pile, our data and our perspectives will be skewed. It reminds me of the production and productivity measurement problems when economies shifted from manufacturing to services: suddenly, production and productivity seemed to stagnate because our conventional measurement tools were no longer relevant.

        Okay, to your questions. Why do I think U.S. students will eventually enroll in non-U.S. online institutions? Because other nations will suddenly able to compete for these students in terms of price, accreditation, subject matter, and service. I know there are lots of “barriers” here (the accreditation issue will stay a mess for a long time), but consider that some publications are already educating U.S. students about global alternatives. There has, for example, been a nice group of globally focused articles in “MOOC News & Reviews” lately: http://moocnewsandreviews.com/author/sylviamoessinger/

        Now, if I were a smart kid in the U.S. interested in software engineering and the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi were to offer me a free ride, full accreditation, and multiple online services (such as tutors), I might well choose that option over another local option that could put me a 100K in debt just for a less prestigious undergraduate degree. Okay, that’s speculative, but if in 1980 I had said our economy would soon be offshoring millions of service jobs overseas , that also would have seemed pretty crazy.

        Next, you ask, “Are you thinking of eventual demographic rebound, or migration, or more foreign students?” I’m thinking about primarily about four trends, though there are others:

        1) Economic: A college education remains one of the surest ways to succeed economically in the U.S. (though I know it’s not a guarantee of a good job), while a high-school degree assures very little. This trend is unlikely to change anytime soon, so the incentives remain solid. However, due to debt burdens, many students will be looking for high-value, low-cost alternatives to pricy higher ed.

        2) Demographic: In 2025, there will be an estimated (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32701.pdf) 94,200,000 U.S. residents ages 0-19, compared with just 80,500,000 in 2000. Yes, the proportion of younger people may shrink, but their total numbers will rise.

        3) Employment: As the economy continues to change at a fast rate, more and more older people will feel the need to retool their skills, and this will be supported by employers. Yes, internal L&D will be asked to fulfill some of those learning needs but, in a world rife with MOOCs (or whatever MOOCs become), a lot of that learning will be outsourced, with L&D personnel playing the role of curator rather than trainer in many cases.

        4) Technology: Let’s assume the Georgia Tech MOOC-based master’s degree goes ahead as planned. How many of those students will be non-U.S., “commuting” onto campus from overseas? I don’t know, but that number could be substantial. And, for now, the U.S. has the first-mover advantage in this area. I don’t know how long we will retain it, but it should make a difference over the short run, assuming some other universities follow the example of Georgia Tech in certain areas.

        Wow, I probably way “over-responded” to all this, but a liberal arts education will sometimes do that to you.

      • Mark Vickers says:

        Thanks for the responses, Bryan. I’m glad you’re tracking things like badges because I think those will usually be provided in non-university settings. Codecademy, for example, is doing a great deal to educate a huge global student body in the area of computer programming, but will those numbers show up anywhere in education data? If they don’t, that’s unfortunate because some of those students would likely have otherwise turned to more conventional sources of education, such community colleges.

        Therefore, one pile could be shrinking (conventional ed) and another pile could be growing (unconventional ed). If we’re only looking at the former pile, our data and our perspectives will be skewed. It reminds me of the production/productivity measurement problem when economies shifted from manufacturing to services: suddenly, production and productivity seemed to stagnate because our conventional measurement tools were no longer relevant.

        Okay, to your questions. Why do I think U.S. students will eventually enroll in non-U.S. online institutions? Because other nations will suddenly able to compete for these students in terms of price, accreditation, subject matter, and service. I know there are lots of “barriers” here (the accreditation issue will stay a mess for a long time), but consider that some publications are already educating U.S. students about global alternatives. There has been a nice group of globally focused articles in “MOOC News & Reviews” lately: http://moocnewsandreviews.com/author/sylviamoessinger/

        Now, if I were a smart kid in the U.S. interested in software engineering and the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi were to offer me a free ride, full accreditation, and multiple online services (such as tutors), I might well choose that option over another local option that could put me a 100K in debt for a less prestigious degree. Granted, that’s speculative, but if in 1980 I had said our economy would soon be offshoring millions of service jobs to India, that also would have seemed pretty crazy as well.

        Next, you ask, “Are you thinking of eventual demographic rebound, or migration, or more foreign students?” I’m thinking about four basic trends, though there are others:

        1) Economic: A college education remains one of the surest ways to succeed economically in the U.S. (though I know it’s not a guarantee of a job), while a high-school degree assures very little. This trend is unlikely to change anytime soon, so the incentives remain solid. But, because of the high costs, many students will be looking for high value/low cost alternatives. You know what the new American dream is for young people? It’s being debt free: http://abcnews.go.com/Business/american-dream-longer-involves-home-ownership/story?id=20177980

        2) Demographics: In 2025, there will be an estimated there will be an estimated 94,200,000 U.S. residents ages 0-19 (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32701.pdf), compared with just 80,500,000 in 2000. Yes, the proportion of younger people may shrink as part of the overall population, but their total numbers will grow. And that’s without the prospect of more life-long learners.

        3) Employment: In a fast-changing economy, it’s ever more important for people to hone skills or acquire new ones entirely. In corporate L&D, trainers increasingly have a “curator” mind set. That is, they guide employees to good learning sources even if those sources are from outside the company. MOOCs will be amazing job skill sources in the future and much less expensive than tuition reimbursement programs. Count on more life-long learners taking advantage of this.

        4) Virtual immigration: For now, U.S. institutions have a first-mover advantage in the area of MOOCs and distance learning. Though that may shift in the future, for now it’s likely that a significant number of foreign students will be drawn into, for example, the upcoming Georgia Tech MOOC-based master’s program. Sometime have a look on Codecademy and see how many of those students/users seem to be from outside the U.S.

        Okay, I guess I “over-responded” here: such are the disadvantages of a liberal art education, I guess.

      • Mark, I’m replying here, since our conversation became too nested for WordPress to allow more direct replies.

        First, that’s a terrific point about measurement and data. It’s hard to get good stats for much of this.

        Second, that’s a good model for how American students will study abroad. Reminds me a bit of medical tourism.

        Third, that bounce back is complex, unfolding over time in stages. Much will depend on cultural shifts, such as the perceived (rather than statistical, economic) benefit of college education, the role of apprenticeship jobs (think carpenter), and more. If you’re right, this peak is just a staircase landing.

  8. Maria says:

    I don’t think there’s any shortage of people who want/need Higher Ed but there is a shortage of people who can pay the price tag for it. While the numbers of 18-22 year olds may be dropping in the US, there is an entire workforce out there in need of new/more skills every year. I’ve been wanting to return to grad school since I finished an M.Ed. nearly 3 years ago but I’ve put that off until I was able to take advantage of funding through my current employer. I don’t imagine a time in my life where I won’t be in pursuit of new skills (whether or not they have a degree or certificate attached to them). That’s just the reality of the ultra competitive workplace we now have. And while we have many learning resources available at every turn, I find that i learn better, more efficiently, and in a more satisfying way with other learners in a class with a skilled facilitator.

  9. That price tag is a fearsome thing indeed, Maria. That’s one force I lumped together under “General Sense of Crisis”, above. I should have broken it out more clearly.

    Do you think colleges and universities will try any new approaches? Their current strategy is, after some cost cutting, to reassure us that the prices, while steep, are both unavoidable and worth it.

    • Maria says:

      I definitely think they will try new approaches but only because they will have to due to falling enrollments. You don’t readily see too many HE institutions jumping out in front or being able to read the tea leaves clearly. I think, sadly, that there will be more and more people left out of the HE circuit. As foreign options start to open up, as one poster mentioned above, I think we’re going to see an almost reverse immigration trend developing because of it. For example, in my own case, I’m only able to attend a private university with F2F (my preferred learning mode) instruction because I work for one. I would be priced out of the market otherwise. And even though I might feel compelled to pay the huge price tag on another degree to stay viable in the job market, I would definitely feel the pain from it for years to come. A state school would be my second option, but I’d still have a bill there, and I’m betting a lot of those courses would be online. If a really attractive foreign option was available, I’d be concerned about being able to work in that country while I’m there. But if options abroad start to look better than those in the US, then I think people who can go, will go.

      So while I think we’ll still hear a lot about college degrees being “worth it”, I think people will be doing their homework and choosing options that they can afford wherever they may be.

  10. Pingback: The peak education conversation | Bryan Alexander

  11. Devops says:

    Your ideas are really visionary and thought provoking! I too agree on willrich as the 4 year academic systems need a complete restructure as the need for such degrees have no place to fit in the market than it is just merely a title after your name.

  12. What do you think should replace the 4-year degree, Devops?

  13. Devops says:

    There should be more on the job courses, many universities’ curriculum is are biased towards academia. i think a mix of academia and a professional certification should be maintained. that way the system can adopt and create more opportunities

  14. Deepak says:

    Hi Beyan. Very nice post. But I have 1 question from you. What is your opinion about educational/students loan when they consider higher education.

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  21. Reblogged this on Wetwiring and commented:
    Along with some recent developments in Canada (Ontario at least), as highlighted by Alex Usher of HIgher Education Strategy Associates, this is timely. Time for an Oswald Spengler for higher ed.

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  23. I bought something yesterday that I wanted not needed. Mentally, I have already begun to make the sacrifices necessary in order to pay for the purchase – not a large purchase about $100. This will be the real test and this is where I give credit to the Live Richer Challenge. Thinking daily about my money choices is no longer a challenge as much as it is vital to my future wealth – Thank Tiffany!!
    truc et astuce pour tomber enceinte http://www.commenttomberenceinte.ml

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