A rejected black applicant to the University of Michigan participated in protests last week, charging that the university could increase its black enrollment by admitting students like her, The Detroit Free Press reported. In going public with her story, supporters of affirmative action said that they were trying to focus (as critics of affirmative action have done) on the compelling stories of those turned away. In this case, the rejected applicant is Brooke Kimbrough, who has a 3.6 grade-point average and an ACT score of 23. While supporters said that she could succeed at Michigan, critics said that the university was correct to turn her down, given that her academic record wasn't superior to those getting in. According to the university, the average high school G.P.A. is 3.85 and the 50th percentile of admitted students have ACT composite scores of 29-33.
Nine people were killed and many more injured Thursday when a truck crossed over the median on a highway and struck a bus carrying high school students from Los Angeles on a college trip to visit Humboldt State University, The Los Angeles Times reported. A statement from Humboldt State said that the students were en route to the university, the northernmost in the California State University System, as part of the Preview Plus Program, which brings low-income and first generation students from San Francisco and Los Angeles high schools to the campus.
President Obama has said that even with a divided Congress, he has access to the phone and the pen. The White House summit on access was an example of what could be accomplished after phone calls, bringing together leaders from over 100 institutions to strengthen commitments to increasing college opportunity for low-income students.
One phone call that the president should make now is to U.S.News and World Report, asking editors to include socioeconomic diversity in more meaningful ways in their college and university rankings. If the Obama administration wants greater commitment on the part of colleges and universities to spend additional resources on financial aid, it needs to create greater incentives for them to do so. Changing the rankings would be a step in the right direction. U.S. News claims that its ranking already does this. But, if this were in fact the case, the rankings wouldn’t change as much as they do when a direct measure of socioeconomic diversity is added. And of course, the federal government could have a more direct impact by tying access to federal subsidies more directly to success on socioeconomic diversity.
Today, any dollar spent on need-based financial aid receives little credit in the U.S. News rankings, and also means not spending it on things that do count, such as small classes or faculty resources. Since most colleges include a commitment to the diversity of their student bodies as part of their mission, such a change should not be objectionable.
What would be the impact? The table below shows the rankings of the top 20 (plus ties) of national universities and of liberal arts colleges, according to U.S.News and World Report's latest rankings. A second ranking for each group of institutions is listed, which includes two variables that represent socioeconomic diversity. The first is the share of Pell Grant recipients. This is reported as the difference between the actual share of Pell Grant recipients and what would be expected given the academic selectivity of the school (measured simply as the share of students from the bottom two quintiles of the income distribution with the required SAT scores in the national pool). A positive number means the school is doing really well by low-income students. The second measure is the share of students on need-based financial aid, again relative to what would be expected given the school’s selectivity.
In this case, the share of students in the national pool from the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution with adequate SATs is used to measure what would be expected given the selectivity of the school. The rankings change when socioeconomic diversity is included. (Note: I’ve just included the rank of each school on the two measures of socioeconomic diversity and given them a 25 percent weight. U.S. News would do it in a different way, but the fact that including these variables would change the rankings would remain the case.)
There is much criticism of the U.S. News rankings, including that any unique ranking of schools based on a variety of variables can’t possible indicate for any individual student and family whether the college is a good match. But these rankings don’t seem to be going away and they do create incentives for schools. If the Obama administration is serious about increasing the incentives for schools to allocate resources to financial aid, encouraging U.S.News and World Report to change its rankings would help. A phone call from President Obama just might accomplish this.
1st-time undergrads receiving
local or institutional grants
The Project on Fair Representation, the legal team that has brought many legal challenges to the consideration of race, is looking for new plaintiffs. On Monday, the project announced that it has created three websites to invite people to indicate that they feel they have been the victims of discrimination in admissions. The sites seek plaintiffs against Harvard University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Officials with the project have in the past said that affirmative action hurts Asian applicants, an argument that appears related to the photos on the home page of each website.
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.