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Yesterday’s post asked my wise and worldly readers how their colleges are preparing for the demographic cliff of 2026, when the smaller birth cohort of 2008 hits traditional college age.  The responses were characteristically thoughtful.


Several readers told similar stories of the cliff being vaguely acknowledged in speeches by campus leaders, but with no discernible connection to action.  This was the most common response, and one that I have no trouble believing.  A few others noted that the COVID-related enrollment crash may have not only overshadowed the cliff but embodied it; now that we know how to function with lower enrollments, we need to carry those lessons forward.  I agree on the need to carry lessons forward, though I think the sanguine version of this view understates the essential role that Federal stimulus funding played over the last couple of years.


A few offered cautionary predictions.  Louise Seamster tweeted that “of the colleges that are accounting for this shift, how many are turning to predatory inclusion of ‘underrepresented students’ as a strategy?”  Maureen Murphy hit a similar note, offering that “[f]unding based on enrollment is a pyramid scheme.  We’ve had two years of major learning loss; time to double down on building people up instead of counting noses.”  Pam Eddinger put it succinctly: “see the adult student as an asset, not a replacement for traditional age students.”  I like these a lot because they acknowledge the easy trap of treating students (or prospective students) as means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves.  I saw enough of that in my days working at DeVry, which was frank about being for-profit.  The ethical compromises that ensue when everything is about “hitting the numbers” are exactly what pushed me away from for-profits and into the community college world.  I’d hate to see community colleges follow the same path that for-profits did.  I’ve seen that movie, and I don’t like the ending.


Mike Timonin saw the cliff as a moment of truth.  “From an adjunct faculty perspective, admin has been telling us for years – for almost 15 years, even – that enrollment is down this year, and so our class might not fill.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens when that’s actually true…” To this I’ll just say that context matters.  Here, for example, enrollment has been dropping for at least a decade; COVID accelerated the decline but didn’t start it.  That may not be true everywhere.  Still, to the extent that the point is that underpaying adjuncts has been a way to put off dealing with larger questions of institutional sustainability, it’s hard to argue otherwise.  


Bliss Austin Spooner noted that the declines Grawe highlighted are more fine-grained than just quadrants of the country.  In many ways, they’re about the metro-rural split: most of New England may be losing enrollment, but Boston isn’t.  That has implications for the colleges outside of the thriving metro areas.  


It’s the kind of point that rewards sustained reflection.  Our politics are already defined to a dispiriting degree by sheer population density; broadly speaking, the higher the population density, the bluer the voting.  Over time, that has led to political identification becoming a sort of lifestyle brand, which makes real conversation much harder.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that community colleges – monuments to the middle class – grew the fastest during the postwar boom, when income inequality was at its lowest and “swing voters” were actually common.  Community colleges are monuments to inclusion, equality, and shared ambition.  To the extent that the culture as a whole puts less value on those, community colleges struggle.  That will be most true in the areas that were once more solidly middle class and have since declined.  


It’s true that distance education broadly defined allows some limited autonomy from the dictates of geography, and that can help to some extent.  But when mission statements refer to serving the needs of the local community, there are political limits to how non-local you want to get.  


Many responded with the standard playbook of reaching out to adult students and working to improve retention.  Both are good ideas in both pragmatic and ethical terms.  Outside of special cases, though, I doubt that either or both would be enough to leave everything else unchanged.  To borrow a term from some scientist friends, those moves are necessary but not sufficient.


Nobody had a credible panacea, but I wasn’t really expecting one.  I drew hope, though, from the deep ethical concerns that folks brought to the question.  Community colleges are for students; it’s not the other way around.  If we can keep our moral compass pointed in the right direction, there’s real cause for hope.



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