How to shrink a university and how to talk about it: one campus begins the process

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.

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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.

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  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.

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36 Responses to How to shrink a university and how to talk about it: one campus begins the process

  1. Ken Soto says:

    This looks like the beginning (or continuation) of stratification of higher ed. Some schools will succeed in admitting more undergrads, stealing them from competitors, some schools will fail to do this and downsize or close, and some schools will leave the competition for all undergrads to others and focus on the students from wealthier families, as you suggest. It’s as if they’ve decided they can’t make money in one football conference so they’re jumping to a wealthier one. They’ll need the reputation that goes along with that, however. We’ll see how that works out for them.

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    I wonder how many upper tier schools will follow suit. It makes a great deal of sense as the US becomes even less democratic and more elitist. And it’s in the tradition of George Washington, a “Founder” who was a total a**hole. Will GW also need to put a fence around the area and stop allowing the poor to be fed so close to campus? How about the student food pantry?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      We may see some of this with the top 90 or so liberal arts colleges, whose small size is a matter of pride.

      That fencing idea is prescient. Some colleges already wall themselves off, literally – Vassar has a gate plus wall system facing Poughkeepsie.

      • Dahn Shaulis says:

        Bryan, this really is a mess brought on by American Greed. For years now I have carefully monitored lower enrollment patterns in subprime colleges, community colleges, lesser known private colleges, and regional public colleges, but this is one aspect of the College Meltdown I didn’t see coming. How many of these selective schools have expanded then purposely cut back in enrollment?

        I know there are derivatives of this elitist, money grubbing mentality. Several years ago, Northeastern ran a marketing campaign to elicit more applications, then used the higher number to create a lower acceptance rate and the semblance of greater exclusivity.

        I’m seeing and hearing more and more about American Greed and corruption in higher ed– as people write to me about the horrible results. Not just about for-profit schools, but schools like Ohio State and UT-Austin.

        I know that the story is even larger than that, when you investigate endowments, alumni associations, and other College Meltdown firewalls.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Dahn, doesn’t that greed in higher ed match our broader society? We have shifted into a “greed is good” ethos, with privatization going full bore.

          • Keil Dumsch says:

            Bryan, the colleges are always the ones to rail against “corporate greed,” when they are just as bad. Thomas Frank in particular points out this hypocrisy.


            The problems with higher ed can’t be pinned on privatization. There are private companies profiting off the insane system, but that’s different than the entire system getting privatized and then costs going up. The “corporate/privatization devil made us do it” excuse regarding the obscene costs is pure hogwash. Museums, libraries, fitness centers, and other educational entities (both public and private) don’t have the issues that both public and private colleges do: consistent, skyrocketing across-the-board price increases well above inflation, price gouging (especially textbooks), hidden fees, amenities and prestige arms races, growing ranks of unnecessary and highly paid administrators, and more.

          • Dahn Shaulis says:

            The short answer is yes.

  3. Roger Schonfeld says:

    I can’t help but wonder how much of this is caused by the growth in undergraduate enrollments at more selective private institutions (Princeton and Yale for example) during the boom.

  4. Keil Dumsch says:

    Bryan, you’re right. There are way, way too many colleges in this country. They are way too huge and lavish, and too many people go to college. Colleges hold the credential monopoly for employment, expensive elite colleges are viewed more highly by employers, and elite colleges are viewed as a pedigree and status marker, particularly by the wealthy. All this in a nutshell is why college is so expensive. It’s an obscenity.

    George Washington is the poster child for the college status race for run amok.

    Certainly preserving its elite and exclusive status is part of their decision to downsize, but GW let itself get too big and has no choice but to get smaller. Contraction is in the cards for every college eventually, even the elite ones, because enrollments will continue to dwindle. This process will be sped along by the $1.5 trillion student debt bubble popping.

    • Ken Soto says:

      I think the huge and lavish schools will thrive and continue to grow. The small schools will attempt to get out of the vice between rising costs and declining enrollment. There are very few small AND lavish schools around, and the ones that survive will cater to the elite, or join forces to effectively become medium-sized, while the large schools, which are mostly state/public non-profits, will face declining state revenue but increasing enrollment. They are building housing and student facilities at a rapid pace. The costs for expansion are financed through higher tuition. A UC admission counselor told me this summer that they’re building capacity for an additional 11K students over the next few years at her school and I see buildings going up on campus right now.

      Students will evaluate the landscape and make the rational decision to enroll at the large state universities which have scale enough to survive. It remains to be seen whether they are or will continue to be lavish.

      Regarding your comment that too many people go to college: yes, too many go to what we currently call college – it’s too expensive for the return on investment, and not tailored to their needs to acquire the skills needed for the jobs this economy will be generating, if they even finish their degree. But practically everyone will need education beyond high school; colleges today aren’t ready yet to provide it affordably. Enter Amazon.

      • Dahn Shaulis says:

        Ken, I hope you are right about rational decisions–and it may be happening more often as the College Meltdown intensifies. Right now, college choice is still often an emotional decision, regardless of class. The “Chivas Regal” effect, where price is wrongly perceived as an indicator of quality, is one of the most commonly associated factors with College Choice. Even when consumers become more aware, the “sunken investment” effect often takes place.

        • Keil Dumsch says:

          Ken, my friend Dahn is right about college being an emotional decision. People view higher ed in a lofty, fetishized way disconnected from reality, and there’s also the obsession with status (see Loughlin/Huffman scandal for the most extreme manifestation of this). As for your view that the big and lavish schools will continue to thrive and grow, I just don’t see that happening. Colleges are starting to lose their credential monopoly in important sectors like tech, the lower middle class and working class students that make up a big cohort of the artificial demand will start to gravitate to the trades, and most importantly we are collectively running out of money to pay for college. States are strapped for cash and the $1.5 trillion debt bomb is growing. You’re right that colleges will still exist, but the coursework will be done in a piecemeal, as-needed fashion for jobs. If that happens on a large scale way the colleges are screwed. They are dependent on high enrollments of people doing the full four-year college experience of dorms, lots of classes, keg parties, football games, etc.

          • Dahn Shaulis says:

            The big banks and vulture equity will be willing to buy up that mess, after it explodes, for pennies on the dollar. I can almost hear Henry Kravis and Leon Black creeping closer right now.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Thank you for your thoughts, Ken.

        Between Amazon and the state schools, what role do you see for community colleges?

        • Ken Soto says:

          Unfortunately CCs will struggle alongside state schools due to budgets cuts. Which is infuriating because they are better positioned to be of service to many students than the 4 year schools. But society seems to have bought the free market preference, so they will be told they must compete against Amazon for cost reduction and delivery of service while their per student budget gets smaller every year.

          What’s interesting also is how many CCs are getting into the 4 year degree space. Many are building student housing. I wonder if this is due to shrinking state revenues and and effort to grab more tuition per student?

          Bryan, am I wrong about this? You have a better view of this landscape than I do.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            CCs are pushing to be 4 years for a lot of reasons. Improving their profile is one. And tuition, as you say.

            They did compete closely with for-profits, but when the latter collapsed, those students didn’t flow to CCs. Meanwhile, low unemployment has reduced CC enrollment.

  5. Ken Soto says:

    Keil, I think we agree. The college experience is changing and I think Amazon and others will step into this turbulence and accelerate it while also serving larger numbers of students for whom the traditional model is poorly suited. Where I disagree is I don’t believe the large 4 year institution will disappear. Many smaller ones will, but the larger schools will still attract students with the means to pay for it. The 4 year schools with established brands will adapt and change in ways that might make them unrecognizable, but their brands, if managed well, will persist because students (and their parents) will continue to want to associate themselves with these names. Think of a shoe brand like Nike – their shoes are out of reach for many but are still desired because of what they signify.

    What I’m concerned about is the worsening stratification – when lower income students are told “well no, you can’t afford the education your parents had, which was largely state-subsidized. We won’t support that anymore, but here’s your 12-week Amazon credential.” For many this is a plus – previously unavailable education and opportunity is now possible, just like next-day shipping. But the broad-based liberal arts education will get more and more unobtainable to the masses.

    Having said that, I’ve never believed the 4 year degree was the right model for everyone, and it’s obviously an artificial construct – why 4 years? Why does every degree require the same number of units? Not every career needs it, some less, some more. So yes, I think many 4 year schools will survive but they’ll have to change their process, and eliminate the whole 4 year thing. Accreditation will have to go along on this journey. Also, we don’t know yet what society will look like when that liberal arts education is traded for job training. Yes, coding schools show how to match short, intense training for specific job skills. What happens when those skills are no longer required when systems replace coders? I don’t know if the current libarts construct prepares students better for a more turbulent job market – proponents say it does. Coding camps offer another pathway. I guess we’ll find out.

    I speak to high schools students all the time, mostly middle-class, and they all have at least two attributes in common: incredible anxiety about which school they can accepted into, which is even more of a status symbol than when I was an undergraduate, and then how on earth will it be paid for. But they also see the future better than most, and many tell me the 4 year experience seems outdated, they’d rather build their own education from the available resources a school has to offer and get that degree from a reputable brand. So the dorms, keg-parties and football games can be negotiated away in exchange for lower tuition and more flexibility. That’s the future I see – big schools will adapt to keep their brand relevant, but will redistribute how they teach and accelerate the farming out of services to manage costs, just as Nike will continually look for cheaper manufacturing. The downside for schools is they are currently structured to earn their revenue from the dorms, services, and football games, so the things their students are willing to give up are the things that earn them the money to survive. So bigness will remain but lavishness will be reserved for only the most wealthy schools (the only place it belongs.)

  6. Keil Dumsch says:


    It’s the “grow and thrive” part that I disagree with you on. Many colleges will be able to keep their doors open in some way, but nearly all will have job losses and shuttered facilities if we switch to the piecemeal approach to college. Colleges are now living off the fat of the land from an artificial demand for a bundled-cost model. You’re right that once we switch to an as-needed approach to college, their revenues dry up. Yes, the big-name colleges will exist as a brand, but there is no way for them to “adapt and change” to a world where people aren’t forced to take the four years of coursework, live in overpriced dorms, pay for overpriced textbooks, pay exorbitant extra fees, etc. Even the Ivies draw middle to upper middle class students who need to get themselves into the job world. Once they see their cohorts getting well-paying careers with just bootcamps and employer-provided training, they’ll demand less onerous hiring requirements across the board.

    As for the college brand status thing, I see that starting to dwindle away. The Loughlin-Huffman farce has started to raise serious questions about using colleges as status markers. If and when colleges lose their credential monopoly status will mean even less. I think Peter Thiel is right when he says eventually college will be viewed as an expensive luxury good.

    You are absolutely correct about the four-year degree system being an artificial construct. As this piece points out, it is a pure and pernicious product of the medieval guild system.

    You are also right that we face a completely unjust two-tier system where people of means can get traditional degrees (and the well-paying professional jobs that require them for employment) and the rest get bootcamps, low-paid coding, the trades, etc. This is why we need to have third-party credentialing, no degree system, and a smaller and more manageable college system funded by employers, donors, and taxes.


  7. Ken Soto says:

    Interesting counterpoint to this discussion. From the article it seems the answer is to have very talented people working for you, a nice endowment, and also have famous and/or wealthy alumni:

    • Keil Dumsch says:

      I don’t know how much longer that will last though. We’re only at the initial stages of college skepticism, and eventually even those wealthy colleges will start to feel the pinch as more and more people question the astronomical costs and opportunity costs of attending. Even at colleges like that very few students come from inherited wealth. They need to get themselves into the job world, and once alternative credentialing gets up and running, more students won’t stick it out to finish a degree. The days of walking around a leafy campus for four years to earn a sheepskin and wear a cap and gown will go the way of the dodo.

      • Ken Soto says:

        Oh, I don’t think it will last either. In the very near term though, the solution proposed by the article won’t be enough either.

        The author of the piece appears to believe that struggling small colleges will simply get serious about the situation and apply this formula. But most don’t have Ken Burns or wealthy patrons to help them reposition themselves.

        • Keil Dumsch says:

          Agree. A few years ago Sweet Briar was about to close and the alumni rallied to keep it open a while longer. But I don’t think it will last. Endowments and wealthy donors aren’t enough to keep the college industrial complex going. There are just way too many colleges, and the college-going demographic and enrollments are declining and will continue to decline.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            One dimension of the problem is high discount rates. It’s an open question of how many campuses can keep that going.

  8. Keil Dumsch says:

    That’s right, Bryan. There’s no way, no way, for colleges to make themselves genuinely affordable and not incur job losses and/or close their doors. Their entire economic model is high demand and high enrollments, at high costs. It’s a house of cards.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s what I hear from a lot of CFOs and CBOs.
      But most in higher ed aren’t talking about it.

      A different view comes from The Economist. They argued that discounting is how American higher ed does means testing.

      • Keil Dumsch says:

        Is that the July 18 article of The Economist? I’d have to read it. Problem is means testing is not really making college affordable. Marking down a sky-high tuition cost is like marking down a BMW. It’s still unaffordable.

        College in its present form is inherently unaffordable if you factor in all the costs and opportunity costs. If we didn’t have this system and proposed it, it would never be adopted. Going off for four years, living in an overpriced dorm, hidden fees and lifestyle costs, saddled with expensive and time-consuming electives that you don’t need, taking out loans when you don’t have collateral, not having a job so opportunity costs in money and experience, etc.

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