Higher education reaches an inflection point, continued

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:

Enrollment 2010-2013

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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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.

(via Inside Higher Ed)

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10 Responses to Higher education reaches an inflection point, continued

  1. skjandrews says:

    There is a curious feedback effect that might make the “disruption” argument more compelling. While it is sort of unconvincing to me that teens will flock to MOOCs instead of campuses, if a lot of potential students forgo college at 18, entering the service sector instead of taking on debt, they might not put off all aspects of adulthood – marrying, having kids, etc. – then then when they eventually want to head to school they won’t necessarily be able to head to a campus. But I shudder to think what this would mean for the economy as a whole. Among other things, college soaks up a lot of the excess labor in the country – for several decades we have been able to afford having a substantial portion of the 18-24 population almost completely self selecting unemployment in favor of self-betterment via college education. If that shifts to a significant degree, it will only make the overall employment situation that much worse (particularly for the older workers forced into early retirement who are at this point struggling to make ends meet by also doing this low-level service work.) That does not bode well politically or economically.

    • That does sound like a recognizable pattern, Sean. K-12 -> service economy ->low-cost online learning. High and persistent unemployment keeps wages low and pressure high.

  2. Gabor says:

    I saw no mention on the report whether it was controlled by age cohort. In other words are the number of 18 years olds comparable for each of the 3 year examined or declining too? Caveat know from my own example it is not just 18 year olds who start college. Still this factor might influence how steep the decline in number is.

  3. William Patrick Leonard says:

    The other side of the economy issue, fewer students fewer faculty jobs and in the industry beyond the academy. Maybe the College Board’s layoff is another feather on the scale.

  4. Perhaps academia is slowing down as an economic contributor, at least at the job level.

  5. Glenn Everett says:

    Hi Bryan —
    I assume you saw this article in the Boston Globe magazine a few weeks ago? “Why some small colleges are in big trouble” http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2013/04/13/are-small-private-colleges-trouble/ndlYSWVGFAUjYVVWkqnjfK/story.html.


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