(Note to self: really try harder to get more cheerful topics)
I’d like to share several stories that point to the increasingly fragile state of this nation’s colleges and universities, then draw some conclusions from them.
First, one case study of impending cuts. Long Island University announced it would freeze new enrollments in certain programs. What does this mean? “While new students will not be admitted to these programs, the university will continue to offer the necessary courses for current students to be able to graduate on time within these majors.”
What’s headed for the freezer?
art history, earth system science, French, Italian, music performance, Spanish, geography and geology. A list of frozen programs provided by the chair of LIU Post’s Faculty Council also includes a number of education-related undergraduate programs as well as master’s programs predominantly in the liberal arts and education fields…
Why is this happening? My readers can guess: enrollment and finances.
Total full-time-equivalent undergraduate and graduate enrollment at the Post campus has declined from 6,029 in 2015 to 5,458 in 2019, a drop of about 9.5 percent, according to data LIU provides to its bondholders. However, the number of enrolled freshmen spiked last fall to 771 students, up from 564 the fall before, an approximately 37 percent increase.
Universitywide, across all campuses, the number of total faculty has declined by 21 percent since 2015, from 1,979 to 1,558.
Freezing is interesting, strategically. It gives LIU time to transition faculty into other teaching roles, or to encourage them to retire. Failing that, the campus is setting up a queen sacrifice down the road.
As one professor, Michael A. Soupios, political science, put it: “Soupios described the use of the word ‘freeze’ as ‘euphemistic rubbish … Frozen is tantamount to death. You’re not going to be thawed.’”
Second, the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports on a recent survey of campus leaders. It’s a small sample, about 6.5% of the total sector, so we might be cautious with the results.
Key findings include:
- Enrollment woes: “about 60 percent of public and private institutions responding to the survey missed their enrollment goals, although private colleges were more likely to miss their goals by a wider margin.”
- Financial woes: “Sixty-seven percent of institutions did not meet their net-revenue goals, with public institutions hurting slightly more.”
Note as well that differences between private and public institutions on these scores are nearly nil: “Fifty-two percent of private institutions missed both enrollment and net-revenue goals, compared with 49 percent of publics.”
Remember that this survey covered several hundred colleges, meaning there’s a range of institutions and data. What the Chronicle did here was look at overall trends, the macro picture.
What’s also interesting in that survey is what campus leaders reported for their responses:
starting new programs to attract students, enhancing the marketing of the institution, and putting more pressure on enrollment management. (The private colleges, in particular, favored starting new programs.)
Cutting back was less popular. Compared with the number of institutions that said they would start new programs, roughly half as many institutions said they would consider eliminating underenrolled programs. Reductions in campus services and layoffs also were less-appealing responses.
Plus “recruiting nontraditional populations of students, and retaining the ones who are already there.”
Now, there was a significant difference between public and private institutions in terms of one strategy:
Forty-six percent of private institutions raised their level of aid, while roughly 30 percent of publics gave more aid last fall. Half of the public institutions gave out the same level of aid as the year before, compared with a third of private colleges.
Overall the larger trend is towards adding rather than subtracting, exploring rather than cutting.
Third: the Economist offers their estimate of America’s total student debt: $1.5 trillion.
This isn’t news to my readers, but it’s a useful snapshot/refresher of a debt totaling
around 7% of GDP. Fully 45m Americans owe an average of $37,000; a fifth are struggling to make repayments. Despite making up 56% of the student population, women owe two-thirds of total debt.
So what can we take away from these three stories?
First, that American higher ed continues to be under stress, and that its leaders are working strategically.
Second, that cuts – or “freezes” – are on the table.
Third, that higher education finances are under particular pressure, and seem likely to remain that way for a while.
Note: I introduced the peak higher education theory to the world back in 2013.
(thanks to Stephen Landry)