Another Crisis for American Higher Ed, this one Demographic

October 03, 2019

There's a stimulating piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning, on the risis of enrollment in American higher education.  It gathers five people together.  To be honest, I don't know that they needed five people, since they all mostly sing from the same choir book.

Madeleine Rhyneer makes the sharpest statement:

College enrollment is down 1.7 percent nationwide, and universities up and down the quality chain missed headcount goals this fall. Throw in Moody’s negative credit outlook for higher education; hyper-competition; a booming economy drawing prospective students into the labor force; fewer high-school graduates in most regions; students with different needs and expectations; free-college initiatives; state funding challenges; and parents who can’t or won’t pay for college, and I see serious headwinds with a very long tail. 

Now, she goes on to make a pretty controversial (though usefully vague) claim:

most families view college as a transaction, not as a time of transformation. I think fondly of my undergrad experience where I was drawn by my love of learning, acquiring knowledge for its own sake. Those days are gone. According to the CIRP Freshman Survey, students are going to college (and having their parents pay for college) to get a good job. Understand their pragmatism and embrace it. It is time to prioritize what students want and need over what we want to teach.

A couple things here.  First of all, I'm not sure what she means by "we".  She is a consultant, not an educator; she has no scholarly degrees, just a BA and an MBA; and while she worked for a while at a university, it wasn't as a scholar or a teacher; it was as an administrator and manager.  I think she treads a bit heavy, and a bit unguardedly, when she says "we".

My suspicion here is amplified by two classical consulant moves she makes.  First, "the customer is always right."  I'm interested in what college kids say they want, but my experience, of myself and thousands of students, is that that may change.  Second, she radically de-politicizes things, and makes everything seem an inevitability.   There's no political forces affecting higher ed in her account, no pressures on finances by large-scale political powers.  It's all a free market--or at least she implies nothing else.  As is clear from what I've said elsewhere, even on this blog, I think otherwise.  I'm not saying there aren't major demographic and economic challenges that colleges must face; far from it.  But they interact with a weirdly asymmetrically politically toxic environment, which must be taken into account.

All that said, and my academic snobbery perhaps fully on display, I think there's something crucially important about Rhymer's point (and the others' points as well), though they don't really frame it the way I would.  Here's my idea:

The university as we have it today is not fundamentally a "post-war" university.  It is not most fundamentally a "modern" or "enlightenment" or "postmodern" university.  It is a university fundamentally designed around the demographic transition.

What do I mean by this?  I mean the contemporary university as an institution, in its thinking, in its organization, in its expectation of a future, was built on the idea that there would always be more.  Fundamentally, more students.  There was an expansionist presumption built into the university's DNA. 

When I say this, I am saying that this university came into being in the period 1850-1900, it was premised on there being a functionally endlessly increasing demand for higher education by an endlessly increasing supply of students, and students were young people--roughly from 18 to 22, let us say.  For a lot of reasons those premises were true.  Even were the whole young population of humanity going to college, the idea was that the next generation would be more people.  So higher ed was an inevitably expansionary system.  It wasn't a ponzi scheme--or if it was, it was a ponzi scheme that turned out to be true.

Until it didn't.  For now these premises are being challenged, one by one.  Maybe everyone doesn't need to go to college.  Maybe the college-ready population is roughly fixed.  And maybe we're coming to the end of the "demographic transition," so that future generations will not be larger than present ones.  

That last one is key.  The problem is, the modern university really began, and flourished, in a two-century period whose demographics are unlike any that humanity has ever known before, or is likely to know going forward.  I think that is the major factor that people are not actually considering right now.  

I'll write more about this in a later post, along with some ideas of how radically higher education has to reconceive what it is about.  For it is a radical reconceptualization that is coming.  In some ways, in fact, it is already here.