American higher education might not be broken, but seems to be sick

This morning I had the privilege of speaking with a group of European academics via videoconferencing and doppelbot (Kubi for the latter, which was very good).  We discussed the future and current state of online learning.  There were comments about universities acting to support the public good, and the importance of academic knowledge for the commonweal.  I left the meeting hopeful and inspired.

Then I spent an hour listening to the status of student enrollment in American higher education.

InsideHigherEd logoBefore I proceed, let me thank Inside Higher Ed for conducting the research I’m about to summarize, and for hosting a webinar about it.  This is important work for anyone in or thinking about higher education, and I’m glad IHE is pushing the results out in the open.  Thanks, too, to LM and whomever else was staffing the IHE Twitter account during the event.  You (all) did a fine job of rapidly answering queries and running a backchannel.

IHE surveyed college and university admissions officers to see their views of student enrollment and institutional support.  This survey is an annual affair, so there is now some decent longitudinal data to check.  And the results for the 2015-2016 academic year are disturbing.  The notes that follow are based on my notes from a webinar presenting this info, and a read of the IHE pdf (head here to fill out a form for a free download).

The most powerful statistic this year is that 58% – more than half – of admissions offices did not make their enrollment goals.

Think about this for a minute.  That means those schools did not bring in enough students to pay their bills.  Recall that the majority of American campuses are tuition dependent; that is, the balance of their income comes from students, rather than from the local state government (which spends less every year, generally, per student) or from endowments (a tiny fraction of US higher ed).  This enrollment shortfall means budget stress, which means less funding for professional development, raises, new technology, support, new hires, etc.  It also raises the possibility of cutbacks, layoffs, and queen sacrifices.

A supermajority of admissions officers are worried about this.  “Admissions directors were commonly concerned about meeting their institution’s new enrollment goals for the 2015-16 academic year — 51 percent said they were very concerned and another 31 percent were moderately concerned.”  Which institutions are especially anxious? “High levels of concern were more common among admissions directors at two-year public colleges (63 percent) than among admissions directors at four-year public colleges (38 percent).”

One of the biggest reasons for this shortfall is perceived financial stress.  For example, every single community college admissions officer – 100% of ’em – reported losing students who didn’t think they could afford what is America’s least expensive post-secondary institution.  Debt is the killer: “Three-quarters of admissions directors, 76 percent, think their institution is losing applicants because of concerns about student debt. Those working at private colleges are much likelier than those at public institutions to say this.” Re: the latter, “Admissions directors at private nonprofit colleges are more likely than their public college peers to endorse higher debt levels.”

This enrollment problem helps spur admissions offices in recruiting foreign students.  One figure IHE heard was 10%: the desire to have 1/10th of the student body drawn from abroad.  Such a policy has the benefit of building up classes with more ethnical and national diversity, while also pulling in a greater number of “full pay” students (those whose families don’t qualify for financial aid, and hence pay full sticker price).  This doesn’t come free, as IHE discovered a growing number of campuses setting up administrative pathways for foreign students (“Nearly one-third of admissions directors (32 percent) say their institution currently has a pathways program for international students”).

One nation that looms large in international recruiting is China.  After all, as one reporter noted, “Chinese students being recruited tend to be wealthy.”  However, this year’s economic malaise afflicting that country might put a damper on those students traveling to the US.

At the same time enrollment-hungry admissions officers at public institutions are increasingly targeting out-of-state students.  Such students usually pay a higher tuition rate.  One IHE reporter described this as “We’ve seen states raiding others states” for students. “Most admissions directors at public institutions say their universities are seeking more out-of-state students.”  But 21% of those officers report receiving political backlash, being cited for paying undue attention to distant families and neglecting local people.  Iowa and California were two examples of this political challenge.

Asked about the possibility of government-supported free tuition, as per several Democratic proposals, admissions officers thought they might draw students back home, or at least in-state.

What about underserved or marginal populations?  Out of those surveyed, only one quarter prioritized recruiting first-generation college students. And “[a]dmissions directors are least likely to strongly agree they will increase recruitment of veterans, older students, online students and part-time undergraduates.” [emphasis added]

Some other findings:

  • Interesting notes about, well, corruption: “About one in four admissions directors say they have received pressure from various high-ranking administrators or trustees to admit applicants who were well-connected politically and otherwise. Forty-four percent agree such pressure is never appropriate, but 33 percent disagree.”  Who exerts such pressure?  “senior-level administrators (24 percent), trustees or board members (22 percent) or development office representatives”.
  • Speaking of corruption, “While no admissions directors say their institution has falsely reported standardized test scores or other admissions data to groups that produce college rankings, an overwhelming majority (92 percent) believe other institutions have done so.”
  • About the possibility that the US Supreme Court might rule against affirmative action, some admissions officers are concerns, but most are not worried.  “39 percent are either very or somewhat concerned. Seven in 10 have not had any discussions about how they might handle admissions differently if race is banned from consideration.”
  • What about admitting students with sub-par academic records?

Of a list of eight groups that may get special consideration for admission, admissions directors are most likely to say athletes (28 percent) and minority students (28 percent) had lower grades and test scores, on average, than other students typically admitted. They are less likely to say veterans (17 percent), children of alumni (12 percent), international students (12 percent), full-pay students (9 percent) and men (8 percent) and women (2 percent) had lower grades and test scores than other admitted students.

So what does this mean for the near future of American higher education?

Clearly many institutions are threatened by enrollment declines, driven by economics and demographics.  They are changing their operations and nature to compensate.  We may see more national and international campuses, rather than locally-focused ones.

If the pool of available students isn’t big enough, competition will take tolls from less successful campuses.  Readers of this blog know what that means.

We should also expect the steady increase in online learning to continue, as that’s another way to bring in students and their revenue.

In the long run, these new strategies might not be sustainable.  Other nations are busily growing their own higher education capacity, which might lure their students to stay home instead of trekking to America.  American students might decide not to head to other states, when they can get an equivalent education closer to home and for less money.  Meanwhile, America’s traditional-age student population isn’t showing any signs of growing again.

Perhaps this post’s title is too gloomy.  Maybe American higher ed isn’t so much sick as mutating into a new form, one with institutions serving a broader population than before, partly on-line.  But that majority shortfall of students this year suggests the new strategies either haven’t been implemented well, or just aren’t generally successful, and our finances will see the results.

(thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe, Mitchell Friedman, Barbara Fister, and more who discussed this research and its implications on Twitter yesterday)


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2 Responses to American higher education might not be broken, but seems to be sick

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