American higher education now seems to be recovering at last from the 2008 financial crisis. Some states are increasing their support for public universities and colleges. Backlash against the impact of budget cuts seems to have the idea of austerity down a peg, if not discredited it entirely, which might free up more budgetary room for governmental support of education. On the private side, institutional endowments are finally rising after years of stagnation and decline. Domestically, American college graduates still enjoy higher lifetime earnings than those with only high school experience. Internationally, the number of students traveling to study in the United States continues to grow.
But what if these cheerful data paint an inaccurate picture? What if a battery of other data points, driven by powerful forces, exerts pressure in the opposite direction, pushing American colleges and universities into contraction? Much like "peak car," the demand for higher education may have reached an upper point, and started to decline. Like peak oil or peak water, it’s becoming more expensive and problematic to meet demand. As a thought experiment, let us examine these forces and consider this possible scenario under the header: Peak Higher Education.
The very idea is retrograde, as American higher education has enjoyed a growth pattern stretching back more than a century. In the 19th century the Morrill Act established land grant institutions, massively increasing the number of students and expanding the breadth of social class in higher education. The adoption of German research university models built up scholarly capacity and graduate programs. The World War II-era G.I. Bill sent an extra generation or two to college and helped lead to the creation of many community colleges while the Cold War’s Sputnik spurred a renaissance in university-based scientific research. Starting in the 1960s enrollment grew even further under the impact of two coincidental drivers: outreach to previously underserved or excluded populations, especially women, racial minorities, and the poor, and a boom in creating new campuses. Managing these changes expanded and professionalized administrations and support staff. The post-Cold War drive to get even more high school graduates into college to take advantage of the “college premium” on lifetime earnings added yet another layer to the enrollment cake, with adult learners constituting an ever-growing slice.
So if the big picture is of persistent growth over the long haul, of increasing numbers of campuses, instructors, researchers, administrators, support staff, undergraduates, and graduate students, how can we speak today of an apparently sudden reversal into decline?
To start with, the number of students enrolled in colleges and universities has been in broad decline over the past two years, despite the growth in America’s total population. Last fall the majority of admissions officers reported challenges in making their baseline targets. Census data back up these professional assessments, identifying an especially pronounced decline in the for-profit sector, but also clearly visible in both two-year and four-year public institutions. Even private four-year baccalaureates barely show a plateau. This decline hit both undergraduate and graduate student populations.
Perhaps the labor market’s gradual recovery is partially responsible for this decline. After years of high unemployment drove some workers back to school, a portion of them have left campus for work. Maybe some older nontraditional students have chosen neither schooling nor work, but retirement. Alternatively, still others have simply chosen to stay at home, refusing both formal work and study. Whichever reason or reasons lie behind this aggregate shift, colleges and universities now deal with the results.
While fewer Americans are now attending higher education, we also spend less on tuition and other costs. The recent recession and slow recovery obviously play a role here, as do the longer trends of stagnant family median income. Possibly some students have downshifted their institutional expectations in order to save costs, preferring a community college to more expensive state university, or online degrees to those from brick-and-mortar institutions. Staying close to home can save residence hall/apartment costs. For whichever reasons, tuition-dependent colleges and universities are suffering a decline in their main income stream. The majority of campus chief financial officers see serious sustainability issues unfolding.
Looming over all of these developments is the double whammy of debt and un(der)employment. Ever since 2008’s financial crash, traditional-age college graduates in their 20s have entered a very challenging labor market, all too often facing underemployment or unemployment. “Boomerang children,” graduates who return to their parents’ homes in order to survive or save money, are now features of our cultural landscape. The majority of those graduates also carry a growing debt burden. While media accounts can overstate the student debt specter (about one-third of students graduate without borrowing at all), the total amount of debt continues to grow to unprecedented levels. Individual debt approaches $30,000 per loan carrier, while total American student debt blew past one trillion dollars. Also daunting is the policy by which student loans are, unlike most other forms of borrowing, undischargeable by bankruptcy.
Taken together, the challenge of carrying that debt into a still-difficult job market may well drive a good number of Americans to new behaviors. Many are likely to delay major life decisions, such as getting married, having children, or buying a house, with cultural and economic impacts just starting to be felt. Some may see their lifetime earnings depressed by having a slow start. In a telling response, several major banks have ceased growing their student loan operations, while one publicly states that new loans will no longer be profitable. Perhaps the financial industry is signaling that higher education’s debt-fueled finances have reached an upper limit.
Behind these economic and enrollment decisions lies an even greater force, the demographic decline of American children and teens. The number of minors, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, has been decreasing for several years. This has already impacted K-12 student populations, a fact well known to parents, school boards, and state planners. In turn such a shrinkage threatens to tighten the traditional-age undergraduate pipeline, which is already being squeezed by enrollment and financial support problems.
At the same time recent changes in student demographics have added to institutional costs. An increasing number of undergraduates are first-generation students, sometimes requiring extensive support or remedial help. The growing number of learning disability diagnoses, partially driven by poverty and/or poor health, has similarly boosted campus support expenditures. Student life programs and campus amenities have grown at many institutions, in part to compete for that slipping number undergraduates. Looked at in this light, American higher education as a whole may be teaching fewer students than before, and they might be more costly to instruct. And the same is true for public institutions that may have few luxuries but haven’t been given the funds to keep up with past demand for instructors, space and student services.
Naturally this places upward pressures on tuition and other fees. If we press on the peak model, these students are well-suited for the downward slope, being more difficult to work with than those on the upside.
If this description of peak higher education is correct, then many recent decisions by colleges and universities make new sense. Campus mergers are logical strategies if those institutions deem they have grown class capacity in excess of what is and will be needed for a dwindling number of students. Similarly, some institutions have announced the closure of entire departments, even in core curricular areas like math and literature. Elsewhere I’ve dubbed this “the queen sacrifice,” using the desperate chess metaphor to catch the importance of cutting at the heart of a college’s academic mission. With such sacrifices come concomitant reduction of support staff, and laying off of faculty, both tenured and adjunct.
These campuses simply see themselves as cutting back in response to a shrinking market. The same goes for administrations deciding to shift resources to high-enrolling majors and programs: aiming to catch increasing numbers from a dwindling group. These strategic choices may signify institutions coping with finding themselves on the downward slope of a recently-passed peak.
If this peak higher education model offers an accurate assessment of the current situation, what does the future hold? Unfortunately, we may expect more of the same: mergers, layoffs, closures, further adjunctification of the professoriate. Curriculums might change, shifting towards programs winning larger numbers (STEM, health services, business, hospitality, criminal justice), and moving away from their opposites (the arts and humanities, all too often). The human costs of these institutional strategies will grow, as instructors lose jobs and current students see programs disappear. The number of graduate students could drop in those de-emphasized fields. Alumni and other stakeholders may resent seeing a beloved campus change from its pre-peak character. Beyond the campus popular dissatisfaction with higher education could grow. That could take the form of more potential students opting out of college, or a return to vocational training in K-12 and adult learning.
Moreover, competition for a smaller student pool will increase. Admissions offices will deploy data analytics and social media analysis to fight for scarce American teenagers. Some institutions may increase student support and amenities, while others reduce them to offer a cut-price education. We can imagine more universities opening up recruitment and branch campuses abroad, especially in regions combining large populations with economic growth. As one economist put it, some campuses may well become “(Partially) a Finishing School for the Superrich of Asia,” using international populations to make up for a national shortfall. The American campus to come may well be more global than it currently is.
To sum up: higher education has overbuilt capacity for a student demand which has started to wane. America has overshot its carrying capacity for college and university population, and our institutions are scrambling for strategic responses.
Where and when do these post-peak strategies end? Demographic and economic rebounds seem necessary. The youngest generations may increase their child-bearing numbers, although that will take 20 years and more to be felt in higher education. Closer to the present, immigration growth may supplement the national teen shortfall. The American economy may return to significant growth at or better than pre-2008 levels, encouraging families and government to invest more in colleges and universities. In other words at some point institutions may have the opportunity to reduce these cutting and competitive strategies. Corrections may slow down and cease, leaving us with a smaller higher education sector as compared to its 2011 peak. There will be fewer students and faculty, but the decline will have ceased.
All of this is a thought experiment, not a prediction of a likely or desired future. The peak model may founder on emerging developments, such as a popular resurgence in support for higher education, or the appearance of hitherto unused cost cutting measures or a major growth in nontraditional age enrollments. Instead of a major peak, the data touched on in this article could represent only a blip or hiccup in a continuing story of American higher education’s growth. But until such developments emerge, we should consider the peak higher education explanation of real data and present trendlines. It is, at least, a provocation to get us thinking about campus strategy in new, if darker ways.
Bryan Alexander is senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. He thanks those who comment on his blog for having contributed to the development of the ideas in this essay.
I’ve taught both theoretical and applied university classes in my academic career, and the opening lecture always has one thing in common: an invitation to my students to demand something of me. I tell them to insist they walk away from my course writing better, speaking better, thinking more analytically and a little more comfortable with numbers. Indeed, I urge them to insist the same of their university education writ large.
My efforts to frame courses like Sociology of Education and Social Science Research Methods around a set of broadly applicable skills aligns me with an “outcomes” orientation increasingly promoted by academic, business and political leaders. Yet whether my students achieved the four capacities I encourage or not, their college academic transcript will never tell.
If the answer to those who doubt the value of higher education is to trumpet the full educative impact of a postsecondary education, students deserve a credential that describes their full set of educative experiences. The time has come to extend the traditional academic transcript and begin issuing Postsecondary Achievement Reports (PARs), a verified summative document issued by colleges and universities that aligns and reflects each institution’s deeper educative goals.
While every institution could issue a PAR according to its own academic policies, what defines a PAR is a set of generally accepted conventions for the structure and technical formatting of academic transcripts that include co-curricular and competency-based information, along with traditional information such as courses, grades and credits. But before describing the PAR in greater detail, let’s first set some context for why colleges and universities have begun to think differently about how they document learning outcomes.
Defenders of academe are inclined to agree that transcripts and diplomas are insufficient credentials, though for very different reasons. As the scholar Andrew DelBanco argues in “College: What is, what was and should be,” the traditional four-year college experience can be an exploratory time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values with the help of teachers and peers. If a degree is really about developing a whole person, and preparing them with humanistic education that will serve them in a very dynamic career landscape, surely a ledger of courses and grades alone is a poor reflection of that experience.
Indeed, institutions with a more vocational orientation face a similar challenge documenting the industry-skill certifications their graduates achieve on their way to conventional degrees.
It’s not surprising that, given these pressures, higher education has, in fact, put forth efforts to innovate the credential. Three distinct developments are already in process: co-curricular transcripts, competency-based transcripts and data-enabled eTranscripts. Together they lay the foundation for a new generation of academic credentialing. Co-curricular and competency-based transcripts innovate at the level of content and substance, extending the academic transcript. Electronic transcripts innovate the medium of credentials, enabling machine-readable data and analytics that can make student learning outcomes more easily understood and actionable.
Each initiative has successfully generated some momentum and adoption in the higher education community. For example, Northern Arizona University is doing innovative work documenting the student competencies that have been mastered via coursework, and State University of New York at Geneseo’s is continuing long-standing efforts to capture the student leadership, research, study abroad and other co-curricular experiences that define its vision of a postsecondary education.
While these institutions are already extending their transcripts, there are good reasons for concern that the grassroots nature of their innovations will conspire against its own success. Specifically, I fear a Tower of Babel if we do not find a way to converge around a lingua franca that describes the basic structure of such 21st century extended transcripts of the type being issued by pioneering universities across the country.
We take for granted the fact that transcripts make sense; we all expect to see a course title and number, a letter or number grade, in a sequence that is chronologically based. But transcripts are not actually standardized in any formal sense. My company, Parchment, exchanges millions of electronic transcripts each year. Our platform has been developed to help both sending and receiving institutions align and utilize the different information transcripts contain. For example, colleges may award different numbers of credits for essentially the same course. A-level work at one college may be B-level work elsewhere. Over time the academy gravitated toward a basic document structure, along with a strong professional code for issuing transcripts that remain a sacred trust of our university registrars. This standardization respects academic freedom while supporting learners in their pursuit of academic and professional opportunities, for example when transferring between institutions and seeking course credit for prior learning.
How does a university articulate a competency transcript from a peer institution? Where does Ernst & Young look for evidence of leadership, when each institution’s co-curricular information is reported in different sections, with no convention for describing the process by which activities were verified? How do various information systems import achievement data, when the field names and file formats lack any rhyme or reason? Before you know it, the best intentions and efforts give rise to documentation that isn’t widely understood, reliable or actionable.
We need to extend the transcript, but we need a method to do it within a well-worn convention that is backward compatible. By backward compatible I mean we need to preserve the role of the traditional academic transcript, and create a reasonable roadmap for extending it, when institutions so choose, in a way that serves students, educators, associations and employers.
This is why I am calling for a “PAR,” a Postsecondary Achievement Report. A PAR is a concise, electronic document that provides a standardized, machine-readable report of the full range of higher education experience. It can be verified by the academic registrar to confirm credibility, and it creates a common understanding of both course-based and campus-based achievements. A PAR does it sensibly, recognizing academic freedom. It is not a uniform way to grade; rather, it is a consistent document structure and data standard when institutions choose to extend their traditional academic transcripts. The PAR can be issued alongside a traditional transcript, or act as its next generation successor. It is a summative statement from the institution and a passport for the learner.
Perhaps the best model for a PAR is the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), which has been evaluated for almost 10 years in Britain. The HEAR not only provides a standardized academic transcript; it also captures information relevant to employers. And the information is captured and transferred as electronic and verifiable data.
The HEAR is a maximum of six pages long and adheres to a standard template. It is verified by the academic registrar and regularly updated throughout a student’s enrollment. It is accessible by the student at any time, and is unique and personalized to them. There HEAR contains six sections:
Personal information about the student (name, date of birth, etc.)
Name and title of degree earned
Level of degree in the context of a defined, national framework
Detailed course information and results
Information about the degree and professional status (if applicable)
Additional awards and activities
In their final report, the HEAR’s creators summarize well the goal of their work: “The HEAR has been designed to encourage a sophisticated approach to recording achievement that better represents the full range of outcomes from learning and the student experience in higher education at the same time as encouraging personal development that is commensurate with a culture of lifelong learning.”
The HEAR is one example; there are various efforts internationally to create a more standardized way of reporting and documenting academic achievement. Australia has adopted something similar with the Australian Higher Education Graduation Statement (AHEGS). Our colleagues abroad also recognize the need to extend the transcript electronically, but do it in a way that is understood among all constituents nationally and internationally.
The U.S is the world leader and innovator in postsecondary education; we can take extended transcripting to the next level.
To succeed, we need to start with a core set of institutions, particularly those that are already doing competency-based and/or co-curricular transcripting, and have adopted eTranscripts. Those institutions can share their experience to establish a set of conventions that creates a common language for all. Institutions can create a roadmap for implementation, by adopting sections when ready. The beauty of a PAR is that it represents incremental change. At least some sections of PAR would be immediately actionable by any institution using eTranscripts. If a limited form PAR is as far as an institution is comfortable going at first, so be it. The pace of the roadmap will be driven, in part, by the validation PAR receivers give to more robust PAR issuers. In other words, if employers or grad school admissions committees start paying more attention to parts of the PAR, more institutions will add them. The more valuable a “complete” PAR is found to be, the more it will be demanded, and the broader and faster adoption will be.
Such an effort will require the collaboration of a number of campus leaders beyond registrars and admission officers. Chief academic officers, deans of continuing education and online programs, directors of student affairs and career services, as well as other campus leaders, will need to be engaged in the conversation both on their campuses and through their national organizations. And core organizational stakeholders like the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and the P20W Education Standards Council (PESC) are central actors in helping to make the PAR a reality.
We are all ready for a new era of credentials communication, one that is aligned with our more mobile and digital culture. The PAR will be universally understood and actionable. It will be easily portable and stackable in an individual’s personal, online credential profile. Lifelong learners will start with a PAR, then continue to add digital academic or professional credentials from an ever-growing diversity of resources — from degrees to certificates to badges — to their profile, and present a verifiable, complete picture of education and skills.
In addition to knowledge and specific skills, a college experience imparts the ability to communicate a compelling story, to synthesize information into a bigger picture and to use data and numbers to understand a problem. Those are some of the characteristics that Google is looking for and that LinkedIn wants to help employers identify. In our knowledge economy, where opportunities are defined by what you know and how well you know it, a PAR will provide the foundation for learners, educators and employers to make more insightful and successful decisions.
Returning to the skills I encourage my students to demand in my opening lecture, for me the PAR is personal. I know from both my academic and professional experience how much they matter. In my last lecture — to the great surprise of my students — I reveal that before becoming an academic I was a technology entrepreneur. The skills I said they should demand are the reason my co-founders and I could create and build Blackboard..
We must ensure that the significant value gained during one’s postsecondary journey is captured and validated. A PAR would be a major step to empower learners, and help them turn credentials into opportunities.
Matthew Pittinsky is the CEO of Parchment and co-founder and former CEO of Blackboard. He is on the faculty of Arizona State University, and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.