Academia after peak higher education

What happens to colleges and universities after peak higher education?

Some background: five years ago I introduced the peak higher ed idea with a blog post.  Inspired by other peak discussions (peak car, peak sand, peak oil, etc.) I applied the metaphor to American higher ed.  I did so questioningly, not as a Delphic pronouncement, but to tentatively test the idea out.  Internally, I hoped the idea was wrong.  Yet commentators on that post, a sustained Google+ discussion, and more comments on the followup Inside Higher Ed article, tended to approve of the idea.  They either saw peak as about to happen or actively under way.

Since then, simply put, the idea has been borne out.  As my readers know, American post-secondary enrollment has declined every semester.  That decline is, like William Gibson’s future, unevenly distributed by geography, education sector, and institutional ranking, but the macro trend has been steady.

After two generations of sustained growth, we reached peak higher ed in 2013.  Since then, we’ve slid downwards.  As I wrote last week, 17,839,330 took classes this spring, while in 2013 we enrolled 19,105,651 students.  That’s about a 6.7% decline.


Others have recognized this trend, albeit without necessarily using my term.  In 2014 Clay Shirky wrote that we had just left behind higher ed’s golden age.  Ken Steele blogged about “peak campus” in Canada.  Later on the Wall Street Journal described a contraction or death spiral.  In 2017 Derek Thompson spoke of a higher education bubble, following conservative law professor and popular blogger Glenn Reynolds‘s 2012 book of that title; the bubble now has its own Wikipedia page. I’ve heard others speak in terms of a market correction.  None of our terms has received popular usage, although few have the awesome elegance and visuals of “peak higher education.”

What impacts of peak higher ed have we seen since 2013?

To explore its effects, we should first explore its causes.

  1. Demographics.  Many American institutions rely on traditional-age undergraduates (18-22 years old, roughly).  We are producing fewer of them, especially in certain areas (the midwest and the college-saturated northeast).
  2. Financial dread.  Many people are nervous about if not terrified of student loans.  Some of that is appropriate, given that (for example) saddling a non-rich 22-year old with nearly $30,000 in debt before they start work or think about buying a car or starting a family is indeed disturbing.  It’s even more appropriate for students who don’t complete degrees or who attain degrees of little worth. Some of this is driven by overheated media accounts of debt-crushed baristas unable to pay off six figure amounts.  Overall, this dread has encouraged some to either avoid college or down-shift to less expensive institutions.
  3. Full employment.  The most commonly used metric has unemployment at around 3.9%.  To the extent that this is true it means more people have options beyond taking classes.  (It’s not true in that it doesn’t measure underemployment, nor does it account for people who’ve left the labor force entirely.  The latter measure has grown over the past fifteen years or so.)
  4. The Trump administration.  The number of international students taking American classes has fallen for the first time since the 20th century, thanks to negative reactions to several Trump features (the ban on immigrants from several Muslim nations, a celebration of anti-intellectualism) and media coverage of American violence.
  5. The collapse of the for-profit sector.  After experiencing a boom from circa 1990-2012, many for-profit institutions have seen enrollments plummet and entire operations cease or get bought up.

So what has this meant since 2013?

In economic terms, remember that the supermajority of American colleges and universities depend largely on enrollment for revenue.  Very, very few can count seriously on endowments for income.  And states have reduced per-student spending steadily since the early 1980s.  American higher ed largely consists of nonprofits, which need enrolled students to survive.  Few students means higher prices, which we’ve seen plenty of.  Enough of that leads to a revenue decline.  It’s basic microeconomics.

Mountain peakSince 2013, some campuses have shrunk or closed academic programs, even to the point of laying off tenure-track faculty (hence my grim Queen Sacrifice track).  There have been campus closures and mergers.  Law schools have seen enrollments plummet, leading to talk of mergers, faculty layoffs, and closures.  At a smaller level there have been numerous examples of campuses freezing salaries, not filling open positions, slashing professional development, putting off physical maintenance and digital upkeep, and more (or less).

Campuses are ramping up efforts to get more students into their classes.  This has included recognizing out-of-school learning (competency-based education), exploring personalized learning, conducting more extensive recruiting, and enthusiastically pursuing the physical amenities arms race (dorms, cafeterias, climbing walls, lazy rivers, health centers).  Some have expanded technical training.

Educational technology now has a greater or more openly recognized role to play in helping students succeed (and stay in classes, and graduate).

What might we expect as American higher ed keeps sliding down the peak?

As student numbers drop for some institutions, administrations could respond either by reducing faculty and staff numbers, or maintaining them and seeing student:teacher ratios drop pleasantly.

As I’ve said elsewhere, institutions sliding most rapidly down the peak are likely to implement or expand austerity measures, like

  • salary freezes
  • benefit reductions
  • buyouts for older staff and faculty
  • professional development cuts
  • outsourcing various services
  • increasing work loads
  • further adjunctification

Some institutions won’t be able to make it.  We should expect more mergers and closures.  Last week I told Doug Belkin we could see 5% of our campuses shutter in some way or other within a decade; he thought I was too optimistic.

Research universities may become ever more reliant on public and private support to keep going, as teaching becomes less profitable.  This could lead to the privatization of public research universities, or a much greater separation of research and instructional functions within a campus.  Alternatively, given rampant adjunctification and aging, we might just see the American research faculty population start to decline.

One way to avoid the American demographic trap is to recruit abroad.  We’ve actually been doing that very enthusiastically, especially for students from Europe, east Asia and the Middle East.  We could focus on Africa, the last continent still interested in producing 18-year-olds, but we are currently running into problems attracting students from abroad (see above).  One way around this problem is recruiting global students online.  MOOCs do that pretty well, actually, since their student populations tend to be multinational.  We could see colleges and universities ramping up their online efforts as a result.  How many bricks and mortar campuses in 2030 will be subsidized by their wholly online branches?

Campuses could also expand their recruitment of “nontraditional students”, whom non-academics quaintly refer to as “adults.”  It’s tricky to do so when unemployment is so low, but there remain many reasons for working people to take classes: to get a better or different job, a pay raise, personal satisfaction.  We could see more institutions increasing their proportion of adult learners to the extent that they are no longer nontraditional.

Financialization of higher education financing – i.e., student loans – is likely to keep growing.  Unless states suddenly reverse course and start pumping monies into public universities, and unless colleges figure out a magical formula for drastically reducing prices, debt is the way forward.  When will total debt reach $2 trillion: 2025, perhaps?

The wealthiest families – certainly the 1%, and some of the 9% – can see their academic importance increase.  It’s a question of economics and revenue streams.  Perhaps we’ll see more endowed chairs, more named buildings and scholarships.  Perhaps these families will enjoy a greater governance role, either formally or informally.  Related to this: more attention paid to legacy admissions.

a peak

If states continue to plateau or decrease their per-student funding for public higher education, we could see the wealthiest institutions pull away from the rest to an even greater extent than they currently do.

The skilled trades play an interesting role in this question.  A portion of American higher ed teaches what some used to call “vocational tech”: diesel engine work, HVAC, culinary arts, etc.  Many of those fields have representatives, like Mike Rowe, who call for young people to start working there, rather than heading into college and debt.  They offer the possibility of attaining middle class careers in less time.

Perhaps we’ll see a growing movement to skip college in favor of woodworking.  Alternatively, campuses might expand their efforts to teach these skills, perhaps by offering German-style apprenticeships.  The former feels like a cultural shift, especially in the wake of post-industrialization, or even a culture war (here’s one sign of that).  As the brilliant Will Richardson suggests, we could experience a break in our long drive to get as many Americans into higher ed as possible, and return to an updated version of the earlier consensus of college for some and trades for the rest.

Up above I sarcastically mentioned “a magical formula for drastically reducing prices”.  I think we’ll see many campuses energetically try to discover such a formula through various means.  Automation is one, perhaps through a form of the Math Emporium model.  Further adjunctification is another – and that’s one nothing seems to be stopping.

Beyond formal education, we humans keep producing informal learning content and opportunities of all kinds.  YouTube is the home to history’s greatest collection of how-to videos.  Despite the risks and anxiety over social media, people keep taking to various platforms to share their explorations of gardening, history, engineering, and just about anything.  In fact, informal education is arguably much healthier than formal schooling.  It’s possible we’ll see more people avoid the latter while partaking of the former.  In many ways we’re living through the greatest time ever for people to learn on their own, and with other people – outside of an academic institution.

I mentioned a culture war, and we could well see that break out.  According to last year’s polling, there were sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats in their attitudes towards education.  New America recently published a report suggesting the differences are more nuanced, but the general difference remains, and could easily be exploited, especially by a nation in a hyperpartisan frenzy.  This fall election could heighten that gap, as could wild national campaigns in 2020 (starting 2019).  This year’s wildcat teachers’ strikes could win Democratic support.  Republicans could work to decrease higher education’s value. Either could push for (certain) people to have more babies. This could get very ugly and damaging.

Looking ahead a bit further, peak’s impacts may well deepenNathan Grawe’s indispensable research argues that the birth dearth we’re currently experiencing means an even lower number of 18-year-olds starting around 2025.  In Grawe’s words, “beginning in the mid-2020s many colleges will enter an extended period of shrinking recruitment pools.” (14)  More pungently, “Total numbers of students are headed toward a cliff.” (19)  Perhaps we’ll see 2013 as the end of an age of gold, 2014-2024 as a silver age, and the following years a time of underpopulated lead.

All of these possible developments can, and mostly likely will, play out unevenly.  Some institutions are well shielded by immense reputation and wealth.  Demographics vary by state – Arizona is producing bumper crops of kids, while Vermont is slowly heading to extinction.  Different states also have different funding mechanisms and politics, as California retains some residual commitment to higher ed for all, supported by high taxes, while Louisiana watches its carbon-fueled economy collapse its budget and Illinois struggles to avoid default.  Community colleges remain, so far, in a tightly countercyclical relation to employment, as for-profits continue their massive collapse.  Gibson again, tweaked: the future of higher education is unevenly distributed.

How could we reverse this decline?

This is the multi-billion dollar question.  Unsurprisingly, there aren’t easy answers.

One way to climb back to better days would be if the majority of American states decide to re-fund public higher ed at 1960s levels.  Chris Newfield refers to this as switching back from thinking of post-secondary education as a private good to viewing it as a public one.

However, this seems unlikely.  Higher education competes for state dollars with other interests that typically triumph.  Funds aimed at older folks – think Medicare, pensions, some of Medicaid – tend to win out.  Our current and usually fantasy-driven panic over crime means police and prisons have a better shot at funding.  And legislatures might see declining youth populations as a reason to spend less, rather than more on universities.  On top of this, the American economy isn’t growing at great rates, meaning most states aren’t exactly flush with cash.

It is possible that we will figure out ways for technology to actually reduce campus costs – not contain rising costs, but to actually save money.  Unfortunately for faculty and staff, the majority of campus budget items involve compensating human beings for doing work, so technological deployment will likely mean technology replacing people.  Imagine, for example, advanced AI teaching students at a basic level, while faculty take over for more challenging curricula.

I am very fond of teaching across institutions, and have been since pioneering some of that work myself way back in 1999.  A growing number of campuses have seen such work, like a Michigan cluster, the CIC and LACOL efforts, and the pathbreaking Sunoikisis “virtual classics department.”  These practices let us teach more students in classes that usually enroll few students, while expanding curricular opportunities for all involved.  We could grow this out at smaller colleges and universities, enriching their offerings, and possibly attracting more students from America and elsewhere.  I’m not sure what impact that would have on total enrollment.

We might see adult learners become the mainstream student, and eighteen year olds become a niche within the broader higher education marketplace.  Imagine more programs aimed at the rapidly growing population of seniors.  Think of greater numbers of openly professional programs intended for working people.  This might take a sea change in how we structure higher education, but might be the most likely way forward for many institutions.

Otherwise, I think we’re experiencing one side effect of a vast, epochal shift. Let’s step back for a final thought. Starting around 1970, in dread of overpopulation, most of the human race decided to reverse our ancient habits of massively reproducing.  Over the intervening decades many nations have succeeded in this effort.  You can see evidence in our rising median ages, and the decline in numbers of children.  It’s an extraordinary development, one that breaks with history.  We are just beginning to grapple with what it means, this sudden switch in what has always been the foundation of human civilization.

It’s only to be expected that we have to reconfigure higher education – only one, small piece of that civilization – in response.

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6 Responses to Academia after peak higher education

  1. Mark Nelson says:

    The year in which enrollment peaked for the different sectors is sort of interesting. Not only were four-year public and private non-profit schools hit less hard, but also years later: their enrollments continued to grow for years even as overall post-secondary enrollment declined. Using NSC’s spring data for 2011-2018:

    Two-year public: peaked 2010 or earlier
    Four-year for-profit: 2011
    Total post-secondary: 2011
    Four-year private nonprofit: 2016
    Four-year public: possibly 2017, possibly not peaked yet (2018 was a decline, but too small to be confident that 2017 represents a real peak)

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Oh, very good point – although some of the pre-peak growth for those sectors was really struggling, or just a plateau.
      It’s like peak spatters around 2013.

  2. Anonymous university professor says:

    The reasons for the decline are clear: higher academia has become a machine of indoctrination that teaches white guilt and cultural marxism. At the same time it is a capitalistic money making institution that lives off the very group that the system chastises. Only somebody who is blind and gullible will pay for that, people are waking up. I think that’s a good development.

    • Another anonymous professor says:

      I agree with the second part of your statement above, but “machine of indoctrination that teaches white guilt and cultural Marxism”? Come on. What, you think if university spaces just became more class, race, and gender blind that they would somehow be better? Where’s your data professor?

  3. Pingback: Here’s How Higher Education Dies | Your high education waits for you!

  4. CC says:

    >a celebration of anti-intellectualism

    academia has no claim to intellectual superiority until it has purged itself of Marxist economics and Lacanian twaddle

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