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 | Leave a comment

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.


(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

One gaming design exercise in a seminar

Last week I tried a new exercise in my gaming seminar, and wanted to post about it because it went well and might be useful.  I’d also like to build on the exercise.

To recap: at this point in the class we’re explored a range of gaming forms.  We started with tabletop games, moved on to role-playing games, then jumped to the digital world, and followed up with gamification.  Throughout we’ve explored the higher education implications for each via practice (playing games), scholarship (reading research), and design (making stuff). Now students are working on their final game projects, a process taking weeks and a lot of iterative work.

At this point I wanted to try synthesizing the class contents.  One of my goals was to make sure they can bring the entire semester’s work to bear on their projects.  Even if they’re producing a game in one format (say, tabletop) they can apply many design and pedagogical lessons from the others.  A second goal was to firm up their understanding of gaming and education overall, so they have a better chance of taking that away from the semester’s experience.

Other thoughts went into my planning.  The event should be creative, focused on design. It should encourage them to dive into their memories and class work. It should also be light enough that we could do it in one class session without bogging down their project processes.  It should also not focus on a topic we’ve already dwelled on (for example, storytelling, historical or science simulation).  Theoretically, it’s a constructivist effort, as they can make meaning and understanding through making and producing stuff.

So I gradually came up with an exercise and tried it out.  The pitch: I told the class “I’d like you to design a game representing a national election.”  I didn’t specify which nation. I didn’t give them educational parameters or constraints (i.e., curriculum, budget); I wanted them to surface those dimensions themselves. One requirement: they had to make their game a role playing game.  In designing, they should bear in mind key themes from our class to date: information restrictions, empathy, randomness, the balance of simulation with playability, storytelling, etc. etc.

One contextual detail: electoral politics hadn’t appeared in class conversation to date, nor had any student described seriously studying government or political science.  I chose the topic because it would be fresh and unfamiliar, hopefully spurring new reflections.  Further, no student would dominate discussion based on academic credentials, so they should all feel equal before the problem.

Additionally, I didn’t specify a nation because I wanted to keep their imaginations open.  Also, it was a very international class, and I hoped students would raise details from different nations.

Materially, it was a whole group exercise, with the in-person students seated together at shared tables.  Several remote learners Zoomed in, projected on two big screens and also available by chat through individual computers. I didn’t bring any physical props or tools because I wanted this to be discussion-oriented.  I did write up notes on a projected/ shared Google Doc.

So how did things play out?  To begin with, students wrestled with the challenge admirably.  They raised a lot of good questions.  Whom would players play: candidates, government officials, the average voter, constituent groups? What would go into a character sheet: persuasive capacity, government experience, finances? What could the game master simulate and represent: votes, polling, regional interest groups?

DALL·E imagines a university classroom setting showing students and a professor engaged in a simulation design exercise. The room is equipped with computers and large

DALL·E imagines “a university classroom setting showing students and a professor engaged in a simulation design exercise. The room is equipped with computers and large…”

Should the game be more competitive or collaborative?  How many pre-election political features could appear in-game?  Some students suggested random events, such as scandals, marriages within character families, and endorsements.  Others thought about non-player characters (NPCs) and how many to set up ahead of time.  More questions cropped up, like: can we simulate an electoral mandate to set up governing?  How to structure electoral coalitions as well as corruption?  Can we allow candidates to challenge vote counts?

Once the class surfaced a significant body of ideas, I switched things up: “Now, how would you design a tabletop game to simulate a national election?” I reminded them of the games we had played together and the scholarship we read, as well as the fact that some of them were building up tabletop games.

Students gradually built up some ideas, again, often in the form of questions.  Should the game represent a specific election (real world or hypothetical) or an abstract one?  As with the RPG, should players play candidates or voters? What should be on a board, a geographical map or representations of metrics?  (I showed images of this US election game). Some students explored using a map to represent campaigning. One raised the idea of only representing swing states. We discussed ways of including regional states, with examples from India and the United States.  Folks aired different metrics to display, such as polling and campaign finance.  There was some discussion of using multiple cards to create resource or action combinations.

Once that discussion progressed to a good point, I switched things again, over to computer games.   How might a video game simulate a national election?  At this point I think things became a bit repetitious, as we had a lot of ideas on the table already, and it became a question of how to translate them to digital formats. Students did suggest ways of locating election strategies within a branching narrative structure.  One way of doing that would be for the player to answer questions, and ultimately learn if they won the election.  Other students thought about pre-generating a suite of candidates, or randomly generating them for each game.

Next, I turned discussion over to gamification.  How would they gamify a national election?  Some started by talking about rewards for voting, like stickers, but making them more desirable through a limited release, or even the possibility of adding weight to early voters.  At this point I wrapped up the exercise and moved the class on to other topics, namely gaming and storytelling.

Overall, I was happy with how it worked.  Students dug into their learning and turned it into design ideas.  They tested out their understanding of different game types.  They thought about educational uses.  It was a good review process.

Things to do next time, if I repeat the exercise: I might make stuff available for students to work with, such as drawing paper and writing implements, blank game materials, or toys, like Legos. Expanded digital materials might be good, too, such as involving all students in writing the Google Doc, or using some other tool, such as Miro.

I’m still thinking about the surprise nature of the exercise.  I liked the way it made people think quickly, but would it have better to announce this in the syllabus from day one, so students could prepare for it?  I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure what to do about the length of the exercise, once it started becoming repetitious.  Should I hold this event earlier in the semester, perhaps as a kind of mid-term assessment, when they have less gaming to bear in mind?  Or should I keep it at this late time in the semester, but somehow change things up to spur more ideation?

As a blended class, remote and in-person students participated equally.  The Google Doc being virtual I think helped online learners feel equal access.

Building on the exercise, I wonder if there’s a generic name for this sort of thing.  I’ve done a similar session in my technology seminar, asking students to creatively apply their seminar learning so far in a creative, live activity. What should we call this, a synthetic design exercise?  A synoptic design activity?  Surely someone else has done things like this and theorized about it.

My thanks to the brilliant LDT students for working hard and constructively with me.


Posted in gaming, teaching | Tagged | 3 Comments

Heading to ASU-GSV 2024

Greetings from airportland.  I write this waiting to board a United Flight to San Diego, where I’m scheduled to participate in the ASU-GSV conference.

ASU-GSV logoIt’s my first time there, in fact. Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the hype and the critique for years. I’m looking forward to the event for a few reasons, starting with researching the flows of capital around education and technology, followed by checking out emerging ed tech projects.  AI is very much in the air and I plan to scope out how financial groups are trying to wrangle the fast-moving technology.

I’m also speaking at their AIRshow Monday morning (Pacific time) with my friend and Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Ian Wilhelm.  It’s going to be a conversation based on our respective research.  The title is “Gen AI in Higher Ed: Moving Ahead or Milling With the Herd?”  Here’s the session’s description:

In an era marked by the rapid evolution of generative AI, higher education stands at a pivotal juncture, grappling with its potential as both an innovative tool and a disruptive force. This session delves into the complex perspectives revealed in a Chronicle of Higher Education survey, highlighting the dual nature of generative AI as an opportunity for enhancing educational practices and a perceived threat necessitating cautious engagement. Join Bryan Alexander, a visionary futurist and senior scholar, in a compelling keynote interview with Ian Wilhelm of The Chronicle. Together, they will explore the strategic decisions facing academic institutions: whether to pioneer the integration of AI technologies with all their inherent risks and rewards or to navigate a more conservative path forward. This discussion promises insightful revelations on the future of education in the AI-driven world, offering valuable guidance for educators across all levels.

I’d be delighted to meet with any readers who’ll be in San Diego for the event.

Best travel wishes for all others heading in that direction.

Posted in travel | 2 Comments

Watching _Civil War_: impressions and disappointment

We just saw the new movie Civil War. Afterwards the audience filed out in silence, perhaps stunned.  Our group talked about it energetically, then hit the internet for more, and hence this post.

This post also assumed you’ve seen the movie, so if you haven’t, I hereby raise spoiler shields.  In fact, I’ll use the movie poster as a spacer before I get going:


Nice image, but never seen in the film. Reminds me of the cover art for the 1976 SPI game Invasion: America.


I know what I’m about to say is a minority view (check ratings here), but I found it overall to be an uneven mix of a movie, and ultimately disappointing.  To begin with, it’s not really about an American civil war.  Yes, that’s the background and a good deal of the film’s fabric, but civil war isn’t really the point.  To explain, we begin with an unnamed American president preparing to give a speech.  He tries out several sentences and phrases, rearranging and pronouncing them in different ways, and then cut away.  Crucially, that scene begins out of focus, the camera pointed the wrong way; our unidentified viewer corrects the lens.

That’s really what Civil War is about: photographing a civil war.  And it’s not about amateurs.  First and foremost, above all else, this is a movie about journalism – photojournalism, really, and doing that work in danger zones.  The film takes us through the profession’s ethics, practical tips on practicing it, its competitive nature, and jokes about writers. Photojournalism is where the main plot lies, where most of the time is, who the main characters are.  I mentioned the opening shooting of a president, which the final scene recapitulates in an additional sense. We never learn that character’s politics, policies, or even party.  That president is barely a character at all.  His presidency is not important material for the film; photographing the president is.

That’s because the main characters are journalists: an older photographer, a younger one, and two writers.  Their arcs outweigh by far the rest of the story.  We see the older photojournalist cope with bitterness, being burned out, being famous, and finally getting shaken, while the younger comes into her own. The writers are less important professionally (we don’t see or hear anything they produce) but they play key roles in helping the photographers along.  Throughout the movie we see, presumably, their work, or the output of others, as director Garland inserts still images into action scenes, pausing to remind us of what’s really, well, in focus.

That’s the primary emphasis of the movie.  Its secondary purpose is to be a road movie in the classic American tradition.  That is entirely the plot, our characters hitting the road by car.  It all begins with journalists starting a daring trip to score an unlikely interview. When the road trip ends, the movie stops.  Civil War really treats the road movie genre seriously, hitting beats familiar to anyone who’s watched examples of hat modern American picaresque. Our characters check out scenic bits of the US, sometimes ironically.  They have to make driving decisions, such as getting gas from one station, picking up new riders, avoiding danger, figuring out whom to trust.  They experience sweetness and disaster.

There is really nothing else in the film beyond the journalists’ road trip.  We only see what  they see and hear the rumors they pick up. We never cut to, say, a tv news broadcast, a military headquarters, or the White House.  Garland and the actors do a terrific job of grounding us in the journalists’ world.  There’s a fine scene when they stumble into a sniper duel, and one writer’s desire to learn more than the basic gun vs gun is played for laughs, and we never discover more about that microcosm, including whose side each fighter was on. At one point the older and younger photojournalists press themselves to the ground, waiting for a resolution, and each stares at blossoms emerging from the grass.  We’re locked in with Lee and crew, making the point of view the movie’s point.

In contrast, he titular civil war is almost completely empty of content. It’s ending as the movie begins, and there’s no doubt about the outcome.  We learn nothing about the nature of the opposing forces.  What caused the conflict and how it proceeded are matters on which Civil War is coy.  As I said, we see what our journalists see, and even then, most of it is vague.  We can’t tell who’s fighting whom in most of the scenes, as uniforms seem optional and flags scarce, and the journalists prefer just to capture what they see.

There’s an anti-civil war theme which the trailers loudly proclaimed.  It appears starkly in a clunker of a scene, when the weary older photojournalist tells the weary old writer that she wanted to warn people not to have civil wars.  I can accept this theme, having spent two weeks in one (Yugoslavia in the 1990s), and the movie tries to make sure you can’t miss the point as it shows a lot of people being killed without chances for surrender or mercy. War is bad is deeply unsurprising and general theme of war movies, yet the journalism point of view makes this dubious.  The film wants us to cheer on the characters for getting great shots. There’s no space for the younger photojournalist to bow out and choose another career – indeed, the final scene, where she captures the downfall of the president, is her apotheosis. I’m reminded as ever of Truffault’s line about there not being any truly antiwar movie.  War is bad, says Civil War, especially a cryptically civil one like this; now marvel at the lovely footage and exciting set pieces.

And the movie is truly marvelous to watch. Garland offers powerful scenes: people hanging for some apparent crime; a fire seeing a character to death; a cruel confrontation between soldiers and civilians; claustrophobic firefights; an epic vision of one army marching on Washington.  The film blends sound and visuals well, pulling back audio to let images and characters’ reactions carry the emotional burden, or hitting us HARD with sudden bursts of noise.  Editing is fast, with scenes ending and jumping suddenly into the next.  As I said, the actors are very fine.

Perhaps there’s a genre problem with the movie.  It’s definitely a thriller, with explosions, daring rescues, multi-car hijinks, and plenty of shooting.  I do wonder how many watched it just for that purpose. It’s definitely a road movie. It’s sort of a war film, although that’s the background, as I’ve said.  It’s also science fiction, taking place in some near term future at least a decade away, although there are no signs of any changes to technology, social organization, or culture.  Ultimately, it’s a journalism movie.  Not My Girl Friday, but more like Welcome to Sarajevo, being about people covering a conflict rather than the war itself (although technically more impressive).

Civil War is also about the succession of generations.  Age versus youth is one of the oldest story tropes, and we see it here in the clash between Lee and Jessie.  Lee’s a hero, well established, and Jessie is, classically, just a kid.  We see Lee get weathered and degraded by the trip, eventually cracking up under fire, while Jessie loses her innocence in stages and grows as a photographer.  Ultimately Lee literally takes a bullet for Jessie, and the latter shoots the event several times.  Thankfully, the movie stops short of using generational shorthand for the two, although it can’t resist the younger one preferring a film camera to a digital one, developing photos by hand.

We don’t get such a generational dynamic for writing, which doesn’t really exist in the film, as noted.  More, we don’t have a sense of such a socially grounded passage of time in the titular war.  Since we don’t know what it’s about beyond secession (and if that was the idea, why invade Washington? and what happened to Florida’s friends?) we can’t see which order passes away and what new order arises in its place.   The movie’s conclusion is military, with tanks crashing around DC and driving hard for the White House (for me, echoing North Vietnam’s capture of Saigon), and a squad takes out the president. We don’t know what happened.

Is this a commentary on the limitations of photojournalism?  I don’t think so.  It feels instead like a case of foreground and background, with the title confusing the two.

Readers know I’ve been modeling how civil unrest or even war might break out in America (for example).  I’m certainly looking for fictional representations of this.  Garland’s Civil War gives me some fine visuals, and a very narrow focus on one profession in such a conflict, but nothing more.

Posted in movies, sf | 1 Comment