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The 2012–13 academic year presented an opportunity of a lifetime for me as an American Council on Education Fellow (#administratorwannabe #becarefulwhatyouwishfor)—a year to study higher education without the burden of a day job (a sabbatical for administrators). I focused on learning about strategic planning—the mechanics, trends and prevalent goals of the day, such as sustainability and diversity.

Hungry to learn, I attended the 2013 ACE annual conference. My eye was on any helpful information I could find to understand the future and how to plan for it. Toward the end of the conference, I sat in a packed and stuffy conference room. While the speaker’s name escapes me, what he said about the demographic trends that would ultimately affect higher education some 10 to 20 years in the future was astonishing.

The presenter detailed the declining population of traditional-aged students, the population shifts (i.e., outgoing populations of the Northeast, incoming populations of the South), and the growth of Hispanic and Asian American populations. (You can see details of these trends and learn more by visiting the National Center for Education Statistics’ website and, in particular, Projections of Education Statistics to Year 2028.)

Details of the demographic shifts affecting higher education were eye-opening and terrifying. It was also the first time I heard the terms “cliff” and “trough” applied to higher education. Today, as predictive trends become a reality, these terms are used daily in association with declining enrollments, rising costs, institutional closures and the value of higher education. To comprehend the terms as related to higher education, understanding their use and context may be helpful.

The terms “cliff” (also known as “peak”) and “trough” are two of five words used to describe the life cycle of the economy (expansion, peak, contraction, trough and recovery). The graphic visualization looks like the letter “U”; the left top of the letter indicates peak and the bottom middle a trough (a word also used to describe a long, narrow vessel used to hold food or water for animals). Here’s a good explanation of how economic cycles in business operate written by Akhilesh Ganti in an article called “Trough,” published on Investopedia’s website.

The life cycle–of–business framework, as applied to early-21st-century higher education, plays out as follows: in the early 2000s, higher education enrollment expanded, peaked around 2011–12, contracted in the years since and now resides in a trough lasting at least until 2028. Typically, higher education’s life cycle lags behind the economy’s life cycle by 18 to 24 years, which is also the traditional age for students. Why? When the economy is in a trough (a recession with high unemployment), people return to college for more training and put off or don’t have children because of the associated costs and uncertainty. For example, following the market crash in 2009, enrollment expanded and peaked. Once the economy recovered, fewer people attended. Also, during the trough, people had fewer children. Fast forward 18 to 24 years (where we are now), and there are fewer traditional-age students.

Of course, it’s more complicated due to other forces at play, such as growth and demands of the labor force, social mores about who should and can go to college, cost to attend, population growth by ethnicity or social class, immigration, and the agendas of political parties. But, hopefully, some of the information provided here helps us understand where the higher education sector stands now in the life cycle and what may happen in the future. For additional information, read this insightful and thorough essay, “The incredible shrinking of college,” by Kevin Carey, published by Vox (Nov. 21, 2022). Carey explains why the population of college-age Americans is about to crash and how it will change higher education. He also mentions another trough that will likely occur in higher education 18 to 24 years from now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking back 10 years ago studying strategic planning, I still agree that diversity and sustainability (including financial) were spot-on targets essential to future success. Unfortunately, understanding the issues and how to achieve substantive change has been more elusive. Tools like SWOT analyses (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) were undeniably helpful when conducted correctly. Still, what needed to be added to the processes we followed back then? Where did we fail as a sector in preparing for the trough? Was it a failure to apply to a greater extent, the principles of forecasting? If we are to recover, their application is vital.

In 2007, Paul Saffo wrote an article published in Harvard Business Review about economic cycles and trends, “Six rules for effective forecasting.” They include:

  • Map a cone of uncertainty (Seek to reveal overlooked possibilities and expose unexamined assumptions regarding hoped-for outcomes).
  • Look for the S curve (Just because you have a clear view of the future doesn’t mean the goal is close. Remember, the journey may be extended and bumpy).
  • Embrace the things that don’t fit (Anything truly new won’t fit into a defined category, but what’s new will likely change the future. Don’t ignore hints about the future that comes from oddities. Learn about ideas that you don’t understand).
  • Hold strong opinions weakly (Don’t overrely on one piece of seemingly strong information because it reinforces the conclusion already reached. Always challenge information; seek to discredit it with new data. Forecast often).
  • Look back twice as far as you look forward (Don’t use moments in history for support. Look far enough into the past to identify patterns).
  • Know when not to make a forecast (Understand that everything need not change. Decide what needs to change and what doesn’t).

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