For years I’ve been projecting and observing a decline in American higher education. Reality keeps giving examples of those projections becoming observable data. Today’s case in point is a pair of state university systems, one in Pennsylvania, the other in New York.
First, enrollment in the fourteen-campus Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) system slid down 5.4% this semester, according to Susan Snyder. That’s steeper than the overall national decline of 3.2%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
This is also part of a terrible decade-long drop. The 3.5% loss is “its biggest one-year percentage decline in more than a decade” – i.e., since the Great Recession period. Listen to how far PASSHE has fallen in that time:
PASSHE’s enrollment fell to 88,651, down 5.4%, or more than 5,000 students, from last year — that’s about a $36 million loss in revenue, according to the system.
Since 2010, when system enrollment approached 120,000, most one-year declines have been 2% or 3%, but enrollment has dropped a total of nearly 26% during that time.
More than 25%! From 120,000 to under 89,000 is a very large plummet. Thinking of how much those institutions depend on tuition and fees for revenue shows what a crisis the decline represents.
Broken down by individual campuses, the slide is uneven, with some campuses hurt worse than others, and a couple actually growing a little bit:
In addition to the pandemic, state system and faculty officials cite other potential reasons for the drop: attendance costs, an erosion of state funding over decades, fewer high school students nationally, and fallout from the planned merger of Bloomsburg [University], Lock Haven [University], and Mansfield [University of Pennsylvania] into one university and Clarion, California, and Edinboro into another.
I’m not sure if the to-be-merged campuses’ decline will accelerate or slow that merger.
Next door, the 64-institution State University of New York (SUNY) system saw its enrollment decline by 10% during the past two pandemic years.
Worse, that downward slide worsens another case of a decade-long drop. Total SUNY enrollment went down 19.7% over the past decade.
As with PASSHE, SUNY’s enrollment picture differs by institution. SUNY is also bigger and more varies, so there are variations between institutional types at scale. Research-intensive SUNY universities actually grew over the past ten years, while community colleges, technical colleges, and comprehensive colleges were hit hard:
That 34.1% collapse of community college enrollment, from 247,667 down to 163,259, is staggering.
Why is this happening? Report Joseph Spector sees several reasons, not dissimilar from the PASSHE case:
“There was a pandemic issue there, of course, but I think the real issue we’re grappling with is the long-term trend of declining enrollment in higher education,” SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras told the USA TODAY Network New York…
New York has been also grappling with a decline in student population and an overall slowing of its total number of people, adding to colleges’ woes for both public and private schools.
Looking ahead, what can we anticipate?
First, we might see a Matthew Effect continue in both systems, as the highly ranked numbers stabilize or grow, while the rest persist on their downward course.
Second, a continued decline will increase pressures to merge or cut back programs and services within institutions. Closures are hard for states, but may become inevitable once the demographics bite harder.
Third, this could feed into some cultural shifts. Since 2021 America has manifestly failed in its goal to expand higher education access. I’ve been watching for a turn away from that goal; repeated shrinkage might set it up. Also, the power of demographics may elicit some cries for women to have more children. As I’ve noted elsewhere, such cries usually fail, and there aren’t many in the US. But they could appear.
Lastly, we might expect little discussion of this enrollment decline. The systems involved don’t win top billing when it comes to general conversation about higher ed. Media coverage prefers Penn State to PASSHE, Vassar and Columbia to SUNY, and just about any other topic on Earth other than community or technical colleges. And the same is pretty much true within higher ed at the national and regional levels. We remain deeply, punishingly creatures of hierarchy, even as the system the hierarchy structures continues to contract.
(thanks to Jim Luke for commentary)