In our December 2020 article ("Standardized Testing and College Admissions: Plan for a New Relationship") we observed, “For decades, the purchasing of student test-taker names has been fueling college recruitment’s time-honored funnel.” We went on to discuss the many ways a long-term shift away from requiring standardized testing will reshape higher education admissions.
Having employed the metaphor of what fuels the admissions engine, we were struck by this recent headline: "General Motors sets goal of going largely electric by 2035."
The AP News article closed on this note: “So far, Wall Street has cheered the shift by GM which says the industry has reached a history-changing inflection point for mass adoption of electric vehicles.”
The 2035 marker prompted us to think about Nathan Grawe’s 2018 book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. In the closing chapter ("Looking Beyond 2030"), Grawe writes, “The next 15 years will present serious challenges to much of higher education as demographic shifts already under way are further complicated by a new birth dearth.” The Great Recession spiked a decrease in fertility (Grawe: “birth rates plummet[ed] by almost 13 percent in just five years”) and the pandemic is already causing a second wave of infertility that will lap on higher education’s shore in the mid- to late 2030s. Grawe’s sequel, The Agile College, has just been released and provides further updates on the inexorable march of college-bound demographics.
It is time for four-year colleges, dependent on traditional-aged high school graduates continuing their education, to acknowledge where current trends lead and pivot like GM. Simply put, there will not be enough traditional student demand to fuel higher education’s current scale. Most institutions are already experiencing this reality, but few are truly reckoning with the ominous dashboard signal -- low fuel warning -- much less the reality of 2035.
The fundamental step must be a rigorous re-examination and communication of institutional mission (i.e., purpose, objectives and how you will achieve those objectives). In his seminal 1990 study of liberal arts colleges, David Brenneman observed that of the nearly 600 liberal arts colleges in the 1970s, only 212 remained in 1990. While fewer than a dozen had closed and some disappeared through merger, the majority evolved their missions to the point of no longer qualifying as a liberal arts college according to their Carnegie Classification. A 2012 study in Liberal Education, revisiting Brenneman’s work, found only 130 institutions remained as “true liberal arts colleges.” Citing these studies is not to judge the viability of the liberal arts sector but to point out that there is precedent for redefining mission to adapt to changing market realities. The mission statement is not narrative window dressing. As we will discuss later, a changed mission is the consequence of intentional restructuring of academic offerings and the learning/living environment.
Setting and sharing a realistic yet aspirational vision (i.e., what a company desires to achieve in the long run) for the institution is not just a website “punch list” item. GM, if still dependent on fossil fuel 15 years from now, did not see itself relevant in the automobile market. Or maybe it was just seeing that Tesla’s corporate valuation is greater than the top nine auto manufacturers combined. Regardless, GM put a stake in the future’s ground. Incremental visioning is not sufficient to drive the transformative change required of higher education. The vision statement is not simply a marketing tag line. It must be sourced in vigorous and inclusive strategic planning. Created with broad stakeholder input, a new vision for an institution must resonate with faculty, staff, alumni and students. It must serve as a call to action, inviting faculty to be innovative and students to stretch their limits. And, of course, it must motivate prospective students to inquire, apply and enroll in larger numbers.
Transformative change is not incremental. It is not achieved by tinkering around the edges. Barely a day goes by without a headline announcing that another college is proposing to eliminate a set of majors, programs or even departments. There is not a size or sector bias. In recent months we have read about Ohio Wesleyan University, Ithaca College and the University of Vermont, to name just a few examples. These headlines do not mean that higher education’s sky is falling. Instead, it is reasonable to view this downsizing as rightsizing after years of growing -- intentionally or not -- beyond mission scope. Visionary change should not be about cutting, but, rather, contouring academic offerings to where the market demand will intersect with the institution’s core strengths. In a similar vein, institutions that carry unsustainable overhead costs in co-curricular programs (e.g., student affairs, athletics, centers, etc.) must determine the optimal mix of academic and co-curricular offerings. That will help the college or university to deliver on its promise -- yes, its brand.
GM probably has not yet determined the number and styles of cars they will produce in 2035 and at what price points. Assuming a college’s enrollment and cost of attendance are analogous to production and price, there is no reason a college should not deliberately establish enrollment and price footprints for the longer-term future. In recent years, a majority of colleges reported they did not meet their enrollment targets and thus fell short of revenue goals.
Perhaps they think it was a consequence of subpar recruitment programs. That may have contributed to a lackluster result, but in the context of broad enrollment underachievement, it is more likely a reflection of unrealistic goals. If, in a time of relatively buoyant student demand, an institution is falling short, what can be expected when the next 15 years delivers deep high school graduate declines in its primary markets? Setting realistic enrollment goals now and, over time, scaling overhead accordingly, are essential tools with which to address the demographic realities that threaten an institution’s position. The goals are not simply numerical (enrolled students) but also financial: Is the institution able and willing to selectively invest in its people and its programs to pivot successfully into the next decade? An affirmative answer along with careful planning and execution will position a college to thrive in 2035.
Explaining his on-ice superiority, Wayne Gretzky offered, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is.” GM (and likely, very soon, Ford and other automakers) is taking a page out of Gretzky’s book. Will higher education do so as well?