Good analysis of higher ed trends and strategy: Jon McGee’s _Breakpoint_

Jon McGee’s Breakpoint (2015, Johns Hopkins) offers a  very solid, useful, and accessible analysis of current trends in higher education.

Jon McGee, BreakpointIn the book’s first half McGee does a great job of exploring transformative forces in economics, demographics, and culture.

Demographics: the long boom in higher ed, from post-WWII GI Bill through the early 21st century, saw all kinds of institutional growth, and it really grew like mad during the past couple of decades up until around four years ago. For example, “There are 1000 more degree-granting colleges and universities today [2015, presumably] than there were in 1996.” (27, emphases added) “Total undergraduate enrollment at American colleges and universities rose from 12.3 million in fall 1994 to 17.6 million in fall 2009, a gain of 43 percent.” (!) (13)

But we are now in a new era, post-boom. For example, McGee shares excellent data about the high school graduating population dropping recently, then flatlining for the next decade (23-24).  The K-12 population in the northeast and midwest continues to decline, especially in comparison with the west and south(east); McGee nicely summarizes this as “The geographic center of the nation’s youth will continue to edge westward and south over the next decade… By 2022-23, 63 percent of the nation’s high school graduates will hail from those regions.” (30)

That population is increasingly nonwhite: “By 2023, graduates of color will represent nearly half of all high school graduates… up from one-third in 2003.” (36) Specifically the largest increases will come from Asian and Latino populations (“By 2023, Hispanic graduates are expected to make up one quarter of all high school graduates”). Moreover, that population will face increasing economic challenges (41).  Speaking of which…

On economics:

The combined effects of slow post recession economic growth and the changing demographic characteristics of the rising traditional age college population suggest that scarcity and uncertainty will remain the signature economic themes for the foreseeable future. (63)

Only 6% of students come from families earning enough, generally, to not require financial aid, which McGee cites as annual incomes greater than $200,000 (44). More,

By 2010, only one-third of all first-time, full-time undergraduate students attending four-year colleges and universities nationally, and just 1 in 6 students enrolled at private four-year institutions, were paying the full price of attendance, meaning they received no grant or scholarship assistance. (133)

Culture: when campuses seek to distinguish themselves from each other, that “differentiation or specialization at our institution is not nearly as clear to prospective students during their college search.” (68) McGee notes that students apply to more campuses than before, and are much more price sensitive.

Breakpoint‘s second half attempts to synthesize these findings and offer strategic advice to campus leaders; this is less successful.


  • demand for college will “remain very high, but college enrollment will become increasingly less predictable and stable” (85)
  • differentiation will have to be much stronger, tied more closely to market needs (115ff)
  • post-secondary education needs closer connections to K-12, especially given demographic and economic changes (126-8)
  • the “math” of institutional financing at the present makes very likely “widening gaps between already rich institutions and everyone else” (132)

How will campuses survive and thrive? Ultimately, after a good, management-style discussion of institutional decision-making, McGee hints broadly that it will take cuts to the academic mission.  That’s in part because income will be hard to grow, meaning “most colleges and universities [will have] to turn more assertively to the expense side of the budget” (138).  Additionally, campuses just can’t switch faculty and staff from one less needed area to ones more in demand (137).

The text’s examples of addressing budget problems all involve cuts: of a sports team (136-7) and of IT support (139). Expanding the student-teacher ratio (139) could be done with enrollment growth, except the book rules that out, suggesting fewer faculty members.
Instead, the book advises campuses to consider questions like so:

Are the curricular and cocurricular programs and activities we currently provide financially sustainable in the context of changing student needs and expectations and our revenue model?…
What spending choices have we defined as nonnegotiable in relation to our mission or values? (140)

i.e., where can a school reduce resources? This is a grim but, I think, quietly and widely held belief.  This is where queen sacrifices come from.

Breakpoint ends on that note, summoning campus leaders to think creatively – and to be carefully ready with the ax.

That’s a solid amount of information and advice to cram into 143 pages of text. Naturally I find two key features absent or woefully underplayed, namely technology and adjunctification. The discussion of digital changes (76-82) touches on high points (cost, commodification, MOOCs), but comes to no conclusions or recommendations. The transformation of American faculty from largely tenure-track to majority-adjunct goes unremarked – a special lacuna, given the book’s concluding thoughts about cutting costs.

I suspect these absences stem from another issue, the book’s focus on traditional-age undergraduate education. While Breakpoint acknowledges early on that the age of students is increasing, its focus remains on the 18-to-22-year-old segment. Adult learners don’t appear. Four-year residential colleges are front and center; community colleges barely appear, despite educating nearly one half of American students. Those residential campuses tend to be the ones most resistant to online learning, and the wealthiest tend to retain classic patterns of largely tenure-track faculty. I appreciate that McGee’s career experience gives him excellent insight into these schools; I just wish his book had addressed the rest of higher education, not least because his sector is increasingly competing with the rest.

Given those limitations, I recommend this book for any reader interested in American higher education, from academics to policymakers to students and families. Breakpoint offers a very handy compilation of very needed information.

(an earlier, slightly different version of this review cross-posted to Goodreads)

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2 Responses to Good analysis of higher ed trends and strategy: Jon McGee’s _Breakpoint_

  1. Ken O'Connor says:

    It’s hard for people to understand just how much education will change. However, education will remain a challenge to “price” since no one can tell what it is worth until after it is consumed.

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