Peak higher education, 4 years later

Four years ago  yes, way back in 2013 – I first wrote about the peak higher education concept.  Let’s see how it holds up.

peakTo refresh your memory: this idea began as a blog post where I laid out the possibility that enrollment in American higher ed might trend downwards in the wake of the already damaging 2008 financial crisis, with enormous implications for the supermajority of campuses.  This represented a major change after decades of growth.  I focused on student populations (starting to decline), admissions and recruitment challenges, financial pressures on both families and institutions,  adjunctification, and the general sense of academia in crisis.

Comments followed swiftly, with more than a dozen people weighing in on.  Some wondered about the interaction between a growing jobs market and higher ed enrollment, and questioned the accuracy of data. Several saw the digital world as offering a new world of learning, which could either speed higher ed’s decline or transform it.  People compared higher ed to the 2008 housing bubble.  Rolin Moe brought in more politics and neoliberalism.  Mark Vickers fired off a ton of ideas, including the likelihood of American students taking online classes from international providers.

On other blogs, Mike Caulfield responded with a post looking on the bright side of things, arguing against a peak model and in favor of a transition state.  Andrew Gibson went darker, calling for “an Oswald Spengler of higher ed.”  Other comments flowed in via email, Facebook, and other platforms.  A publisher expressed interest.  I followed up with a second post, summarizing and responding to those reactions.

Next, Inside Higher Ed kindly offered me a column to further develop the peak higher education idea.  I identified some issues, like growing difficulty in supporting new student populations (“Like peak oil or peak water, it’s becoming more expensive and problematic to meet demand”), families spending less on higher ed (“downshifting”), and demographics.  Some strategies appeared, like the queen sacrifice and campus mergers, greater attention paid to STEM and international students.

So, looking back at the launch of peak higher education, how did it fare?  Overall, it has proven to be useful, sadly.

Total student enrollment has, in fact, continued to decline, right through the most recent data.

enrollments by sector

Financial pressures remain fierce for the majority of campuses.  Mergers, closures, and queen sacrifices have been in the air for years, as my readers know.  Competition for students has certainly heated up.

Financial pressures grip families even harder than they did in 2013-2014, as debt continues to boom.

The peak metaphor remains popular.  Peak oil didn’t pan out (yet), but peak car is widely discussed, and even peak sand now seems to be becoming a thing.  So the abstract concept is viable.

Clay Shirky offered a version of peak higher ed, arguing that American academia enjoyed a Golden Age, and we’ve since fallen away from that fine era.  “[W]e live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists.”

It was a nice time, but it wasn’t stable, and it didn’t last, and it’s not coming back. It’s been gone ten years more than it lasted, in fact, and in the time since it ended, we’ve done more damage to our institutions, and our students, and our junior colleagues, by trying to preserve it than we would have by trying to adapt.

What did I miss in those early writings?

I didn’t pay enough attention to the quiet yet rising argument in favor of certain jobs as alternatives to undergraduate education.  From Mike Rowe on, people have called for some young folks to turn to skilled trades and apprenticeships instead of a BA.  I didn’t write about coding academies, either, which might not turn out to be a problem.

I didn’t anticipate the free tuition movement having such traction.  Starting with Bernie Sanders’ 2016 call for federally-supported public tuition, we’ve seen movements for and instances of this at the national, state, and city levels.

When I spoke of enrollment decline, I didn’t do enough to break it out by sector.  Critically, the biggest fall is in the for-profit world.

I also didn’t foresee the potential of a cultural struggle over higher ed, but that might be happening.

And I failed to write about the possibility that international student demand could slack off.  In conversation with scholars since then, but not blogged, I’ve raised the possibility that China might stop sending so many students our way, once that nation finishes rebuilding its university system (in the wake of the Cultural Revolution).  I’ve also discussed the likelihood of certain nations (mostly European) enticing American students away with offers of low tuition.  Few of us anticipated the onset of an anti-immigration federal administration, and how that would depress foreign student interest.

All in all, not too bad, I think.

So where will this idea go next?

In the IHE piece I suggested that what looks like a peak now might turn out to be a simple (if large) correction, as higher ed ratchets down to a lower size, then continues humming along.  For example, I offered the possibility that a larger youth population (in some regions) might eventually appear and make its way into the K-16+ pipeline.  Today I think that remains a possibility.  From the future we might dub this “the higher ed trough” period, a low point between two peaks.

However, that trough might last a long time, and end up as a peak after all.  Consider: state governments have massively defunded public higher education, and show no signs of returning to 20th-century levels.  That means costs will continue to be high for students.  Additionally, the American economy isn’t growing very well, which means both tax revenues and the general compensation landscape aren’t likely to expand.  Escalating economic inequality means the working class, the poor, and the shrinking middle class will find it harder to get students to college and through degrees; we might see higher ed become more the province of the wealthy, who don’t exist in numbers great enough to float 2012’s higher education ecosystem.

The demographics remain solid.  America is not spawning large numbers of children, especially in the midwest and campus-rich northeast.  We’re not exactly encouraging immigrants to bring children here, either.

There’s also the possibility of technology enforcing the peak.  The sheer amount of learning options digitally available continues to grow, holding out the possibility of learners using those choices instead of campuses.  The wild card of automation offers the idea of people learning from a mix of software and hardware, perhaps beyond institutional provisions (one aspirational example).

How does peak higher education strike you in 2017?



(thanks to Steven Kaye)

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5 Responses to Peak higher education, 4 years later

  1. mikecaulfield says:

    Just a clarification — I wasn’t arguing in favor of a transition state as much as saying if we took the idea that education should be ubiquitous and free then most of these markers — demographic shifts, separation of research from teaching, degrees being less of a stand-out marker, etc. become signs of success not failure.

    The idea was *if* we could move to an idea of free higher education for all, then this was a transition state, but only if we made that shift to thinking of education in that way. It was part of my push back at that time to get people to realize that free education might be easier politically than moderately less expensive education, because it would shift the narrative — and remove us from our “diminished expectations” death cycle.

    • Good point, Mike – and a very huge if. Because, instead, we moved to privatizing higher ed, as per Chris Newfield.

      “free education might be easier politically than moderately less expensive education, because it would shift the narrative…” reminds me of the arguments today about ACA versus Medicare for All.

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