• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Enrollment Decline as Climate Change

A helpful analogy.

February 18, 2020
 
 

Nope, this shouldn’t set off the interwebs at all.

A colleague recently opined that the near decade of enrollment decline we’ve experienced (along with most other colleges in the region) is a lot like climate change. It’s omnipresent and world changing, and yet, denial and inertia prevent coming to terms with it.

I like the comparison a lot.

Climate change -- by which I mean the anthropogenic variety, mostly from burning fossil fuels -- is real. It’s a catastrophic threat, coming in the form of an escalating series of smaller catastrophes. But any given hurricane, or flood, or entire continent on fire, can be explained away if you really want to. After all, hurricanes, floods and fires happened long before the internal combustion engine came along. Tracing any given weather event conclusively to the burning of fossil fuels is just difficult enough that folks who are predisposed to reject the idea of climate change altogether can latch onto the uncertainty as a sort of reasonable doubt.

The rejection of the obvious is mostly an American phenomenon, from what I can tell, and it’s largely driven by the team-sports aspect of our politics. A dispiritingly large number of people will chuckle at molten permafrost or submerged coastal cities to own the libs. Yes, they’re supported materially by some pornographically wealthy people, but that wouldn’t matter if the inclination didn’t already exist. A combination of denial, misplaced solidarity and short-term convenience prevents, well, prevention.

But there’s another constituency that complicates the picture. These are the folks who acknowledge climate change and our role in it, but who aren’t willing to do anything meaningful about it. They wait for a scientific breakthrough and otherwise go on about their lives as if the issue were purely theoretical. Yes, it’s a problem, they’ll concede, looking concerned, but what’s the point of doing anything about it? Where would I start? Better not to think about it at all.

That’s where I see the connection to long-term enrollment decline. For a while, plenty of people either denied it was happening or maybe even greeted it with an element of relief. We’re mostly past that now. And I don’t see too many employees cackling at the prospect of layoffs. But I do see plenty in the “acknowledge, but wait for a miracle” camp. Some will claim, without any sense that anything’s wrong, that it’s “not their job.” They’re more skeptical of conscious effort than of gradually unfolding disaster. And that makes me wonder.

Inertia, like climate change, is real. Patterns of behavior learned over years have a way of reasserting themselves, even when the conditions under which they made sense change. If I’m in a department that isn’t going away, it’s relatively easy for me to look at the pattern of enrollment decline and think I’ll be OK. It’s the flooding equivalent of living on high ground. From there, it feels easy and safe to pass judgment on the folks trying frantically to head off disaster. Or, if my manners are too good for that, to simply ignore the whole thing. After all, there’s always another class to teach.

The problem, as with climate change, is that systems are connected. Fewer students in programs means fewer students taking gen eds. Fewer staff in financial aid or registration or advising means more mistakes. Fewer students means fewer economies of scale, making greater austerity necessary. Over time, mutually reinforcing cuts can become a death spiral.

The major difference with climate change is that this is potentially much easier to correct. The demographics of our service area are changing, with fewer teenagers and more folks over 65. We can deny that and ride the trend down, or we can figure out ways to serve the population of older adults. Student demand is increasingly for online classes. We can deny that and ride the trend down, or we can embrace online teaching and get really, really good at it. We have plenty of working adults with “some college, no degree” in their backgrounds. We can continue to ignore them, or we can craft programs that make sense in their lives.

Each of those involves some risk. Someone has to be willing to try a different approach. That risks the opprobrium of the folks who prefer simply to pass judgment. It risks failure. But I’d rather risk failure than guarantee it. The students deserve our best efforts. As do our kids.

Climate change won’t go away if we just hunker down. We have to take active steps to come to grips with it. The same is true here. Fatalism is selfish; other people are counting on us. If that means annoying some people, well, then that’s what it means.

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