Pushing back on peak higher ed: a discussion with Joshua Kim

Last week I reviewed the peak higher education idea twice.  First there was an update on the now six-year-running enrollment decline.  Next I reflected on my peak hypothesis in light of recent history and emerging factors.

Around the same time as those blog posts went up Joshua Kim wrote a thoughtful critique for his Inside Higher Ed column.  There Josh posited a contrary view, finding the peak higher ed model too pessimistic, and offering instead a series of arguments for a growth-oriented academic future.  I responded with some comments, and would like to expand a bit.

Before I begin, I want to thank Josh and the other interlocutors for staging a thoughtful conversation.  Between my blog, the IHE column with its comments, and Twitter notes, it’s been a pleasure to explore ideas together.  The connective, communicative promise of the web still lives!

Joshua M. Kim, Ph.D. Director of Learning and Technology, Master of Health Care Delivery Science Program (2011-1403080064.jpg is modified version of 2011-1403080065.dng)In his column Josh offers a series of pushbacks against peak higher ed.  The first involves seeing enrollment data as not significant enough to worry about at this stage, being epiphenomenal :

I don’t make too much of year-to-year changes in enrollment. As Alexander notes, annual enrollments are driven by any number of cyclical and exogenous factors. These factors range from the economy (low unemployment depresses enrollment), to changes in regulations and the competitive landscape. Here the story is the collapse of the for-profits, and the rise of nonprofit online options.

Kim then goes on to mount what he calls (and numbers) four arguments.

  1. Enrollment isn’t declining, but being spatially redistributed across regions and different institutional types.
  2. Graduate schools are in higher demand than ever, especially at the master’s level.
  3. Online learning is poised to boom.  “[O]nline education — in all its forms — will grow dramatically over the next few decades.”  In fact, “[m]y bet is that the combination of high-quality low-residency education and lower-cost online-only programs will power a 21st-century renaissance in postsecondary education.”
  4. Enrollment is changing in another way. Adult learners are rising (“We have already moved past the idea that college equals a four-year residential experience for 18- to 22-year-old recent high school graduates. We have probably reached peak traditional higher ed”) as are students who study but don’t take degrees (“We need to think about counting those learners who are participating in nondegree programs”).

I think there’s a lot I agree with here, actually.  #3 + #4 appeal to me greatly.  Some of my readers know I’ve been advising many institutions to expand the age range of students they teach, for instance.  But I am not sanguine about these changes happening in a timely fashion.

Academic inertia is, of course, a feature, rather than a bug.  Our institutions are literally conservative in many ways, conserving knowledge and approaching change often in a slow, incremental style that the great conservative Edmund Burke would admire.  Depending on the campus, different populations can slam on the brakes, including trustees, governments, students, faculty, or senior administrators.  When it comes to Josh’s third point, faculty resistance to technology-mediated instruction – be it thoughtful or shallow – has been a staple of campus life since the 1980s (in my experience).  Regarding adult learners, switching up a given recruitment, teaching, and support strategy is difficult if not agonizing.  Meanwhile, it’s not a sure thing – the stats I cited last week had adult enrollments dropping more quickly than traditional age numbers.  So American academic can make such strategic shifts; I fear it’ll take a lot longer than it could, and that the human costs will be horrendous.

I differ with some of Josh’s other points for other reasons.  For one, I’m not seeing short-term enrollment changes, but a steady, even unbroken declining trend lasting six years.  That comes after decades of continuous growth.  We could this as a blip, but that’s a pretty fat blip.  It’s also one with a series of well established drivers behind it.  As sibyledu observes in a comment, “[s]ix years isn’t a permanent trend. But it certainly is a long one, especially given the length of the growth trend.”

Argument #1 has some truth to it, namely the ongoing demographic change in the American northeast and midwest. However, the population growth Josh finds is outpaced by the population decline, at least for traditional-age students.  As Nathan Grawe has established, growth often occurs in areas with fewer people to start with.  This does bring us back to argument #4. I note, too, that Josh quietly suggests a decline in the total number of institutions, which is a humanitarian and cultural problem in many ways for communities and for American higher ed as a whole.

The argument about grad students is quite correct, and I admire the way the author steps back from endorsing credential inflation. Yet it misses a crucial point: the recent drop in international students thanks to the double whammy of Trump and media coverage of American violence, including school shootings. International students have played a key role in American grad school enrollment.  Meanwhile, the other factors depressing enrollment – student loans, economic anxiety, etc. – are still in play.

The very active Inside Higher Ed commentator known as Unemployed_Northeastern adds one particular policy pressure that could further cramp grad school growth:

I suspect if PROSPER passes and limits graduate federal student loans to $28,500/year, that will greatly harm at least certain segments of advanced degrees. The more foolhardy law and medical students may borrow an additional $50k to $100k per year in private loans in the gamble that they may immediately have a career that can support a mortgage-sized student loan repayment, but I suspect more would-be graduate students will choose other paths.

As you can tell, Inside Higher Ed still supports comments, and their generally decent quality helps remind us that “never read the comments” is a bad general policy. Let me mention one here.  sibyledu (quoted above) asks us to rethink employer desires for education.

Will employers decide they don’t need bachelor’s degrees for their workforce? Will sub-baccalaureate credentials gain wider acceptance, and will higher education be the place that those credentials are earned?

sibyledu goes on to add more questions about the public’s attitude, answers to all of which can modify the peak model, making it more severe or ending it completely.

To sum up:

First, I think the peak model withstands Josh Kim’s genial pushback.  The enrollment decline is real and the drivers behind it are serious.  Now, will institutions respond to this problem creatively and strategically?  Perhaps.

If I can make a too-ambitious analogy, this is a bit like the the futures work on human overpopulation in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  We are both pointing out major changes to come, supported by powerful forces.  In doing so we warn involved parties that this would be an excellent time to take some big steps in response and anticipation.  Taking those steps successfully could make those forecasts look like misfires… and that’s not a bad thing, given the better real-world outcomes that result.

Second, let me reiterate the delight in seeing this old-school web-based conversation flow.  A blog post, an article in a web-friendly and open site, Twitter comments, blog and article comments: it still works.  Personally, as someone not part of an institution, I love the way this kind of discussion improves my thinking, while generating an exchange others can use.

PS: Amy Pearlman and George Station added an Alternet piece to this discussion.  I hope to find time to write a response soon – and do have time to appreciate their weaving new threads into the conversation.  Thank you!

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