For years I’ve told people about the possibility that American higher education is overbuilt. After more than thirty years of steady growth, around 2012 we reached peak student enrollment, and have seen that population decline every year since. A series of forces may further shrink this nation’s colleges and universities: demographics, domestic attitudes, international geopolitics, new or renewed competition, and so on. My readers know all about this.
I’ve also published information about the ways American higher ed has responded in reality. This has included positive steps, like innovation and collaboration. It’s also involved negative developments, from colleges closing to campuses cutting staff, faculty, and programs.
Now comes the story of a university deciding to shrink its footprint. George Washington University‘s president announced that they will deliberately reduce the size of its student body. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall), “George Washington will cut its undergraduate student body by 20 percent over the next five years.” It’s an unusual move to do this preemptively rather than reactively, as Nathan Grawe observes.
The Chronicle article doesn’t offer much detail on exactly how this would progress, beyond this datapoint: “Measured by total enrollment, the proposed drop would mean enrolling about 2,400 fewer undergraduates, or a decrease of 480 students per year.” (Wikipedia says 11,244 undergrads enrolled in 2016) Apparently GWU leaders are either keeping plans to themselves or are still developing them.
We can learn something from the language LeBlanc uses to explain this move.
Better, not bigger.
Our intention is to continue to improve everything we do at GW by being even more focused on quality and less focused on quantity…
[W]e need to right-size the undergraduate student population…
Quality over quantity, right-sizing (from corporate America): key words for describing this strategy.
There is also a quiet thought that GWU is overbuilt, or overexerted itself in its growth phase:
During the past five years, we have grown our undergraduate student body significantly. We have stretched our facilities, our services, our staff and our faculty to accommodate that growth.
“stretched… to accommodate”: that’s not the language of pride but of difficulty and fatigue. It points to a path now deemed mistaken.
In addition, president LeBlanc offers a certain curricular focus going forward:
[W]e cannot be a preeminent global research institution unless we expand our commitment to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), building on and adding to our core strengths in politics, policy, law and international affairs. I want to be clear: I am talking about and, not or. Increasing the number of students studying STEM subjects will broaden the conversations in our classrooms, our labs and our residence halls. Increasing our capacity for teaching and research in STEM also will strengthen our students’ experience in non-STEM fields, preparing all GW graduates for an increasingly technological society.
How many times does that paragraph repeat “STEM”? And if GWU grows the number of STEM majors while reducing total enrollment, what happens to the numbers of majors in other fields? Should we expect some humanities and social science queen sacrifices ahead, or will those become service departments? “politics, policy, law and international affairs” seem to be protected.
The Chronicle piece also interviewed some consultants, and their thoughts are useful here. For example, this argument that GWU aims to improve not just its institutional quality, but also the students it admits:
George Washington was hardly the kind of college to pursue high enrollments at any cost, said Lawrence R. Ladd, director of the higher-education practice at Grant Thornton, a consulting and accounting firm. “They could admit thousands more students if they wanted to.”
But doing so could harm the student experience and decrease the college’s selectivity, which has slipped in the past five years.
That’s another sense of quality over quantity.
Will those be students from wealthier families? LeBlanc’s statement doesn’t mention this, and neither does the Chronicle. But this lone sentence caught my eye, concerning GWU’s recent growth era: “the university offered financial aid to more students and added an office to manage enrollment and retention.” Perhaps many of the larger number of students required a higher discount rate, and LeBlanc aims for a student body that’s not only smaller, but less costly.
To sum up: this is just the first signal of one university leadership’s new direction. It can unfold in many different ways. But it’s a useful datapoint about where American higher education can be heading. It’s a strategic recognition that the boom years are over, and that a kind of correction is coming into view.
Watch for echoes and iterations of that language to appear elsewhere.