Is the End of Higher Education Nearing?

There are some notable trends worrying America’s 5,300 higher education institutions. Last year was the sixth consecutive year that post-secondary enrollments had declined; we aren’t expecting anything different in 2019. These dropping enrollment rates are putting pressure on institutions, some schools have even begun to borrow recruiting tactics from for-profit schools. So, what exactly is making colleges and universities nervous? What can they do about it? We’ll explore these questions below.

Enrollments are dropping…and they will continue to drop.

As Professor Nathan Grawe, author of Demographics and Higher Education, says, “The bottom line is there’s almost nothing that’s going to get us around the fact that, in the late 2020s, we should see really significant reductions in enrollment. If your strategy for this is to try to increase enrollments, the model suggests that that’s a bad idea.”

Tuition rates are climbing, and students are becoming more aware of the student loan debt crisis.

As tuition rates climb almost 200% since 1997 (while inflation has risen about 50%) and student loan debt rises to $1.5 trillion, would-be students are beginning to question the worth of their degrees. Studies show that earning a degree is not necessarily a golden ticket for landing a high-paying job.

Will all schools suffer?

Elite 50 schools such as Princeton and Harvard will actually maintain or increase their application numbers. Among the reasons for this is the increase of Asian-Americans that will be seeking placement in elite schools. Schools ranking 51-100 could survive the enrollment squeeze as well if they are successful in recruiting students that weren’t able to get into their top choices.

Gawe predicts that there will be many of these cases as he doesn’t foresee elite schools increasing their class sizes. The schools that are going to struggle the most will be small and 2-year  institutions that generally recruit from local markets. The Northeast is expected to suffer the most because of its high concentration of post-secondary institutions, while western states like Colorado and Utah may actually see a small increase in enrollments.

What can institutions do?

According to Gawe, there is no remedy for dropping enrollment. What institutions shouldn’t do is increase their recruiting and marketing efforts. Instead, Gawe encourages schools to embrace these demographic changes as an opportunity to get back to the roots of higher education and provide more value for their students. This means potentially lowering class sizes and focusing on retention rates.

Reducing faculty may be necessary, but Graw doesn’t see that as an entirely negative outcome. Many institutions are relying on non-tenured faculty for instruction. This, in some cases, sacrifices the quality of instruction. By reducing faculty and relying more on tenured professors, we may be able to improve course rigor and quality.

These trends we are seeing in higher education could be interpreted “the bursting of the college bubble.” Institutions will need to adapt to changing demographics and focus on providing quality and value in return for tuition. From these statistics, it could be assumed that students who are school-age now will have fewer challenges when it comes time for them to apply to college. None of these trends is signaling that the higher education industry will collapse as a whole, but rather that the industry will be undergoing several major transformations over the next decade.

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