Has American higher education reached a decision point in its history, with a major transformation on the way?
I raised the possibility earlier this month in response to a study about private college enrollment and financial aid. I return to the theme now because of more new research on enrollment not just in private colleges and universities, but across the board, including publics and for-profits. The news is spotty, but could be a milestone.
The gist is that American college and university enrollment has been declining, slightly, over the past two and one half years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse (full report pdf). For-profits institutions especially suffered, but so did everyone else to some degree:
Start with the leftmost sample, “All sectors”, which shows a steady downward curve from gain to decline. Only private nonprofits break this curve, and their positive difference has dropped to a very thin gain over the past year.
Is it possible that American higher education is experiencing a plateau or even downturn of student demand? Perhaps not. The NCS and NACUBO studies don’t extend very far in time, so this could be a blip. This fall in demand might be temporary, and reverse through a return to growth. After all, colleges and universities are seeking new student markets in America and abroad. Then again, this could be what it looks like at the very crest of a wave, as the water’s edge curls in a new direction. We’d be foolish not to think it through.
Setting aside the future, we should ask about the recent past: why did this (maybe temporary) decline occur? Some sources see economic recovery as a reason, although that seems very limited to me. The “recovery” is actually quite weak, with few and lower quality jobs created. Most of the economic rebound is focused on the wealthy (hence the growth in private schools, to some extent) and investments.
Other reasons include the specter of debt. Perhaps the student loan crisis has scared away some would-be students, between media panics and the huge crimp on middle-class family wealth. Or maybe this demand stall is because the jobs which seem likeliest to hire don’t require much academic work (for example). Some potential students are avoiding school and heading straight to the service sector, in other words.
Maybe. It’s too early to tell, especially as a colossal entity like American higher education takes time to change. For now let’s lodge these observations and considerations in the stream of time, so we can check back on it later on to see which future came to pass.