What happens after American higher education contracts?

What will American higher education look like after it shrinks?

Let’s follow up on this week’s peak higher education reflection.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume peak higher ed happened, and the post-secondary sector contracts.  Call it a market correction if you like, or a trough between two higher demographic waves.  Whichever description we choose, the number of students attending American colleges and universities is significantly smaller than it was in the pre-2012 era.

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 What changes as a result?

It’s probably reasonable to expect fewer campuses, as some close programs (for example), others shut down entirely, while others merge (for example), especially smaller ones and those in demographic danger zones (the northeast, the midwest).  Remember this is a major change after two generations of growth.

What else?

Class size and student care If the total number of faculty and staff remain the same, and the student population decreases, we could see a shrinkage of class sizes and advisor loads.  This might be good news for students, who’d get a touch more attention.

Conversely, this might not occur, at least not in the public sector.  State legislators and perhaps private donors could well conclude that peak higher ed represents a demand shortfall, and that the logical response is to reduce support.  This makes some business sense, which appeals to a great many policymakers in our neoliberal era.

Greater role for wealthy families A recent Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions officers notes two things: that most institutions saw enrollment shortfalls this year, and “[m]any colleges, especially private institutions, appear to be focusing recruiting strategies on students with the capacity to pay.”  As the supermajority of colleges and universities are massively tuition dependent, enrollment declines hit them very hard.  A reasonable solution is to cultivate more wealthy, full pay students and families.  Conversely, reaching out to poorer students will be less attractive as an economic strategy.

Related to this: even more attention paid to legacy admissions, where those occur.  Such long-term family relationships will be golden.

Increased exploration of automation The old promise of automation is both labor and cost savings, which may well appeal to institutions running into limits on either.  Everything from business operations (think billing) to student support (advising, targeted help) to teaching (automated assistants and tutors) to research (Meta, IBM Watson, etc) can become fields for trialing automation.  Naturally there will be criticism and resistance, a whole emergent politics.

Meanwhile, campuses are likely to expand ed tech deployment in order to attract presumably tech-focused students.  That can take the form of hardware (for example), new learning spaces infused with digital options, new majors and career paths (game design, digital storytelling), extracurricular options, and more.

Wider gap between elite institutions and the rest Some slice of American universities can get by on the powers of enormous endowments.  Let’s call them the academic 1% for now.

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 Declining enrollment won’t hit them at all.  Meanwhile, the academic 99% run into problems.  The resource and reputational gap between them, already significant, will widen.  If that 1% tends to be liberal politically, the gap could become even more intense on the national state.

…unless there’s a change.  On the one hand, social pressure could induce the 1% to help other campuses through various mechanisms, such as contributing to collaborative organizations or endowing scholarships which students can take elsewhere.  On the other, governmental pressure might do something else with that money.

More austerity Business 101: if income declines, cut expenses.  We might protest that higher education has been in austerity more for a decade, more or less, off and on.  Transforming the professoriate from majority- to minority-tenure track has already occurred.  Many schools have seen service staff cut in certain areas.  However, financial pressure is a powerful motivator, and there are plenty of austerity measures on tap:

  • salary freezes
  • benefit reductions
  • buyouts for older staff and faculty
  • professional development cuts
  • outsourcing various services
  • increasing work loads
  • further adjunctification

Research universities continue to pump out more PhDs than the market can handle, openly and knowingly furthering the adjunct crisis.

In addition, we can see resources redirected from less popular and/or politically powerful units to more popular and/or politically powerful ones.  Curricular overhaul plays a key role here.

More debt Colleges and universities can try to take out more bonds and loans to finance physical needs, as budgets tighten.  This can be a short-term solution, based on hopes for such investment to pay off in increased student interest and/or bets that a cyclical economy will turn around and float all boats.

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More online learning If costs go up or higher ed looks endangered, then some proportion of would-be student might well fine online learning a viable alternative.  Inequalities of various types could also drive away politically progressive students.  This is where there’s room for new institutions and organizational forms, as well.

Informal online learning seems likely to grow no matter what.  If a segment of the populations decides against higher ed for political and cultural reasons, they will probably still turn to YouTube and instructional videos, Pinterest for interior decorating ideas, Facebook and Twitter to look for help, and, of course, Google for curiosity.

Taken together, we might expect a smaller academy, more digitally engaged, more unequal, more STEM-focused and less humanities-, holding more debt and fewer tenure-track faculty, perhaps in a better relationship with students.

What do you make of this future?

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7 Responses to What happens after American higher education contracts?

  1. Thanks for such a succinct and thorough coverage of futures in HE, Bryan! I think it touches a few areas you’ve covered, but wonder how you think “privatization” of HE (a la Christopher Newfield) plays here. I wonder if it could be called out specifically. I get the sense that it is a growing factor but remains more or less hidden. Thoughts?

    • Good call, Scott.
      Privatization in terms of public higher ed, or American society in general?

      • I was mainly thinking in terms of public higher ed ~~ “The Great Mistake”

      • That is definitely a major force, playing out in multiple levels: reduced state support at a per student level, increased entrepreneurship among academics.
        Do you see anything going against this?

        • I don’t see a way to reply to your reply, so I’ll repost yours here:

          “That is definitely a major force, playing out in multiple levels: reduced state support at a per student level, increased entrepreneurship among academics.
          Do you see anything going against this?”

          Most importantly, I don’t see the privatization of Higher Ed as being all that visible to most faculty, staff, and upper administration interested in the futures of Higher Ed. Lots loaded in that one. I know Chris Newfield highlights the downfalls of research with private partnerships, but I am very curious about how we continually seek private “ed tech” systems and solutions to “do” Higher Ed on a daily basis (LMS, CRM, adaptive learning systems, etc. etc.). The way Silicon Valley (and others) are increasingly eating more and more of institutions allocations of funds.
          So many ways this conversation can go…

  2. David Knapp says:

    I wonder if automation and the introduction of technology really decreases overall budgets or does it shift money into different budget categories? Is technology expensive to support? Is technology shelf life decreasing? Can current infrastructures handle the technology it currently sees and will see in the future?

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