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I think of higher education as a long chain of processes, services and functionalities that are broadly designed to improve society as a whole. These include such links in the chain as teaching and facilitating the learning for the workforce, assessing and ensuring skills and knowledge, enabling continuing professional development for advancing careers, and assisting with the maturing of teenagers into responsible and engaged citizens.

There are many more links in the long chain, but none more important to the success of the overall endeavor than ones linking to bringing students into college and the link of preparing them for careers in the workforce. These two links at the opposite ends of the long higher end chain are critical to the system as we know it, yet they are failing.

The key links are broken, leaving higher education as a system of declining relevance and effectiveness. In the case of the first link, enrollments continued to fall by more than half a million this spring below last spring. The decade-long decline cannot be due solely to the pandemic or the economy. It is a pattern that is certain to accelerate further as the “demographic cliff” hits in 2025, followed by another dip coming a decade later due to the impact of the pandemic on birth rates. With fewer students in the prospective pool, there will be even fewer students enrolled.

A two-year study by the ECMC Group showed that the number of high schoolers planning to attend college dropped from 71 percent in 2020 to 51 percent this year. Meanwhile, according to a separate study, fewer students went back to college this year, which was a key factor in dropping undergraduate enrollment 3.1 percent from last year.

At the other end of the chain of the higher ed system, there is a growing number of employers who have dropped their requirement of a college degree for new employees. Susan Caminiti cites compelling examples in the article “No college degree? No problem. More companies are eliminating requirements to attract the workers they need”:

The tech industry has been plagued by chronic talent shortages for years. Some estimates show that there are now more than 450,000 open cybersecurity jobs alone … A growing number of companies, including many in tech, are dropping the requirement for a bachelor’s degree for many middle-skill and even higher-skill roles, according to a recent study from Harvard Business Review and Emsi Burning Glass, a leading labor market data company … Even the U.S. government is rethinking its approach. In January 2021, the White House announced limits on the use of educational requirements when hiring for IT positions. Looking predominately at college degrees “excludes capable candidates and undermines labor market efficiencies,” the executive order states.

Meanwhile, the state of Maryland has dropped the degree requirement in hiring for nearly half of its job positions. Over all, the trend is gaining traction. Emsi Burning Glass researchers analyzed millions of online job listings, looking for four-year college degree requirements and trends. In 2017, 51 percent required the degree; by 2021 it was only 44 percent.

A myriad of reasons can be cited for this trend away from college. Near the top is the high cost of college, resulting in long-term debt for many attendees. Federal and state regulators are seeking ways to best find relief for students already in debt and those prospective students who seem certain to acquire a significant debt if they enter college. These efforts are complicated by a host of other issues such as relevance of current curricula and the other failing link—that is, the link to serving the needs of employers and society as a whole.

An alternative credential movement has made progress in serving students with shorter, targeted sequences of learning modules that end in a certificate or other credential affirming the knowledge and skills of the learner to prospective employers. This seems to meet the needs of students who are asking for shorter experiences they can cash in on quality entry-level jobs or advances in positions at their current work. Colleges have stacked some of these programs together so that, over time, they can lead to a degree while they provide higher wages and more opportunity with each of the component credentials. Yet some colleges have been reluctant to embrace this trend while competition mounts with offerings from large corporations and industry associations.

While a glimmer of hope is seen in the rise of alternative credentials among both students and employers, the short-term situation will become worse for universities in the fall. As the windfall of governmental pandemic funding runs out and inflation takes hold, the balance sheets of the more vulnerable colleges and universities will take a big hit. Coupled with less revenue expected from fewer enrollments, higher costs and lower subsidies, this will be an especially tough academic year.

In the longer term, it is clear that a world of wild change awaits us. If we are to remain fiscally stable, we have little time to fix the broken links on both ends of the university chain of services. Yet much can be accomplished if we are prepared to cooperate within the institution and collaborate outside the institution.

Regarding the final link of placing learners into meaningful, up-to-date, in-demand careers, we need to reinforce our relationship with employers. Given our growing online delivery to distant students, these employers are not merely those in our city, state or region. Those relationships have more to do with content and competencies than geography. To the extent that we can make those employers part of our curricular decision process—including not just course content, but also course packaging in terms of badges, certificates and certifications—we will extend our placement pipeline.

Those steps that include forward-thinking business and industry leaders will go a long way toward enticing more students to enter or return to colleges. However, to fully repair our enrollment linkages, we must engage prospective students, parents and adult learners. They must become a part of our pricing and packaging of learning. Even outstanding curricula, if they remain overpriced and overly long, will be doomed to further drops in enrollment and, ultimately, fiscal viability.

Are you carrying these urgent messages to your colleagues? Given the budgetary challenges we are about to see emerge this fall, we must act wisely. And we must act now.

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