Today’s grim higher education indicators

Today I’ll take a break from blogging and tweeting about the growing COVID-19 outbreak and return to the state of American higher ed.

(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.

LIU-logoFirst, 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.

Long Island U profFreezing 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.”

colleges missing enrollment 2013-2019_Chronicle

  • Financial woes: “Sixty-seven percent of institutions did not meet their net-revenue goals, with public institutions hurting slightly more.”

colleges missing revenue 2013-2019_Chronicle

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.

student debt 2002-2019_Economist

Thank you for the sarcastic title, Economist.

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)

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7 Responses to Today’s grim higher education indicators

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    It’s called the “College Meltdown.”

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Your phrase grows on me, Dahn.

      • Keil Dumsch says:

        Dahn has had the blog for several years, and it comes up first in a Google search for “college meltdown,” which is a phrase that has been used frequently in the media and by public figures like Mark Cuban and Clay Christensen. I just wish Dahn’s important blog was getting more media coverage.

        This is a growing disaster, one of the worst in American history, and an existential crisis. We really need to start a serious reform movement, with a major conference resulting in a concrete set of proposals and legislation. Higher ed leaders might be “working strategically” but I’m not seeing anything to address the core problems, which are the out-of-control costs, skyrocketing debt, way too many colleges (many of them in debt), and dwindling enrollments caused by demographic declines, costs, alternative credentialing, migration to the trades, and more.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Excellent comment, Keil.

          I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Right now I suspect a few things.
          a) Losing a bunch of colleges and universities to mergers and closures. Call it a market correction.
          b) The elite persist.
          c) Major shift to online learning continues.
          d) After Trump, a ramp up of international students.

          Beyond this, I have hopes for more experiments and creativity.

          • Keil Dumsch says:

            I think about this issue every day. I see a permanent, massively smaller higher ed sector. The elites will persist in some form, but nearly all the other colleges will contract or close. There is no way they can innovate and get enough international students to make up for the exodus of US-born students, especially when alternatives to the degree system pick up steam.

            We really need a movement to address this, and I have a lot of good ideas on how to do it. Maybe you could put a proposal on your blog? Someone lik Michael Horn and the Christensen Institute might have ideas as well.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Say more about the movement you have in mind?

  2. Keil Dumsch says:


    I believe we desperately need a movement for education structural reform, with the biggest issue higher ed and the debt issue. We need something like Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, but 100% non-partisan. I think that current education reform organizations (such as they exist) are splintered by ideology, are too broad and vague in their goals, are obsessed with charter schools and education fads like “grit,” and are only focused on one area of education policy (like Strike Debt with college debt). Moreover, these organizations aren’t innovative and they’re not addressing the massive inherent structural problems (the degree system, age segregation, letter grades, tying sports to schools and the amateur nonsense, etc.), nearly all of which are from the Middle Ages and 19th century. Worst of all, these organizations are not recognizing the potential college meltdown of student debt and university closures for the existential crisis that it is.

    I hope to get a website up, with a clear statement of principles/goals and a call to action, and then email various reformers (I’ve already compiled a big list of people whose writings, interviews, movies, etc. I’ve liked) for their support. Have them mention the movement on their Twitter feed, websites, etc.

    Would be interested to know what you think of this idea. I think it’s worth a try.

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