Essay considers whether higher education in the U.S. has peaked

American higher education now seems to be recovering at last from the 2008 financial crisis. Some states are increasing their support for public universities and colleges. Backlash against the impact of budget cuts seems to have the idea of austerity down a peg, if not discredited it entirely, which might free up more budgetary room for governmental support of education. On the private side, institutional endowments are finally rising after years of stagnation and decline. Domestically, American college graduates still enjoy higher lifetime earnings than those with only high school experience.  Internationally, the number of students traveling to study in the United States continues to grow.

But what if these cheerful data paint an inaccurate picture? What if a battery of other data points, driven by powerful forces, exerts pressure in the opposite direction, pushing American colleges and universities into contraction? Much like "peak car,"  the demand for higher education may have reached an upper point, and started to decline. Like peak oil or peak water, it’s becoming more expensive and problematic to meet demand. As a thought experiment, let us examine these forces and consider this possible scenario under the header: Peak Higher Education.

The very idea is retrograde, as American higher education has enjoyed a growth pattern stretching back more than a century. In the 19th century the Morrill Act established land grant institutions, massively increasing the number of students and expanding the breadth of social class in higher education. The adoption of German research university models built up scholarly capacity and graduate programs. The World War II-era G.I. Bill sent an extra generation or two to college and helped lead to the creation of many community colleges while the Cold War’s Sputnik spurred a renaissance in university-based scientific research. Starting in the 1960s enrollment grew even further under the impact of two coincidental drivers: outreach to previously underserved or excluded populations, especially women, racial minorities, and the poor, and a boom in creating new campuses. Managing these changes expanded and professionalized administrations and support staff. The post-Cold War drive to get even more high school graduates into college to take advantage of the “college premium” on lifetime earnings added yet another layer to the enrollment cake, with adult learners constituting an ever-growing slice.

So if the big picture is of persistent growth over the long haul, of increasing numbers of campuses, instructors, researchers, administrators, support staff, undergraduates, and graduate students, how can we speak today of an apparently sudden reversal into decline?

To start with, the number of students enrolled in colleges and universities has been in broad decline over the past two years, despite the growth in America’s total population. Last fall the majority of admissions officers reported challenges in making their baseline targets. Census data back up these professional assessments, identifying an especially pronounced decline in the for-profit sector, but also clearly visible in both two-year and four-year public institutions. Even private four-year baccalaureates barely show a plateau. This decline hit both undergraduate and graduate student populations.

Perhaps the labor market’s gradual recovery is partially responsible for this decline. After years of high unemployment drove some workers back to school, a portion of them have left campus for work. Maybe some older nontraditional students have chosen neither schooling nor work, but retirement. Alternatively, still others have simply chosen to stay at home, refusing both formal work and study.  Whichever reason or reasons lie behind this aggregate shift, colleges and universities now deal with the results.

While fewer Americans are now attending higher education, we also spend less on tuition and other costs. The recent recession and slow recovery obviously play a role here, as do the longer trends of stagnant family median income. Possibly some students have downshifted their institutional expectations in order to save costs, preferring a community college to more expensive state university, or online degrees to those from brick-and-mortar institutions. Staying close to home can save residence hall/apartment costs. For whichever reasons, tuition-dependent colleges and universities are suffering a decline in their main income stream. The majority of campus chief financial officers see serious sustainability issues unfolding. 

Looming over all of these developments is the double whammy of debt and un(der)employment. Ever since 2008’s financial crash, traditional-age college graduates in their 20s have entered a very challenging labor market, all too often facing underemployment or unemployment. “Boomerang children,” graduates who return to their parents’ homes in order to survive or save money, are now features of our cultural landscape. The majority of those graduates also carry a growing debt burden. While media accounts can overstate the student debt specter (about one-third of students graduate without borrowing at all), the total amount of debt continues to grow to unprecedented levels. Individual debt approaches $30,000 per loan carrier, while total American student debt blew past one trillion dollars. Also daunting is the policy by which student loans are, unlike most other forms of borrowing, undischargeable by bankruptcy. 

Taken together, the challenge of carrying that debt into a still-difficult job market may well drive a good number of Americans to new behaviors. Many are likely to delay major life decisions, such as getting married, having children, or buying a house, with cultural and economic impacts just starting to be felt. Some may see their lifetime earnings depressed by having a slow start. In a telling response, several major banks have ceased growing their student loan operations, while one publicly states that new loans will no longer be profitable. Perhaps the financial industry is signaling that higher education’s debt-fueled finances have reached an upper limit.

Behind these economic and enrollment decisions lies an even greater force, the demographic decline of American children and teens. The number of minors, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, has been decreasing for several years. This has already impacted K-12 student populations, a fact well known to parents, school boards, and state planners. In turn such a shrinkage threatens to tighten the traditional-age undergraduate pipeline, which is already being squeezed by enrollment and financial support problems.

At the same time recent changes in student demographics have added to institutional costs. An increasing number of undergraduates are first-generation students, sometimes requiring extensive support or remedial help. The growing number of learning disability diagnoses, partially driven by poverty and/or poor health, has similarly boosted campus support expenditures. Student life programs and campus amenities have grown at many institutions, in part to compete for that slipping number undergraduates. Looked at in this light, American higher education as a whole may be teaching fewer students than before, and they might be more costly to instruct. And the same is true for public institutions that may have few luxuries but haven’t been given the funds to keep up with past demand for instructors, space and student services.

Naturally this places upward pressures on tuition and other fees. If we press on the peak model, these students are well-suited for the downward slope, being more difficult to work with than those on the upside.

If this description of peak higher education is correct, then many recent decisions by colleges and universities make new sense. Campus mergers are logical strategies if those institutions deem they have grown class capacity in excess of what is and will be needed for a dwindling number of students. Similarly, some institutions have announced the closure of entire departments, even in core curricular areas like math and literature. Elsewhere I’ve dubbed this “the queen sacrifice,” using the desperate chess metaphor to catch the importance of cutting at the heart of a college’s academic mission. With such sacrifices come concomitant reduction of support staff, and laying off of faculty, both tenured and adjunct.

These campuses simply see themselves as cutting back in response to a shrinking market. The same goes for administrations deciding to shift resources to high-enrolling majors and programs: aiming to catch increasing numbers from a dwindling group. These strategic choices may signify institutions coping with finding themselves on the downward slope of a recently-passed peak.

If this peak higher education model offers an accurate assessment of the current situation, what does the future hold? Unfortunately, we may expect more of the same: mergers, layoffs, closures, further adjunctification of the professoriate. Curriculums might change, shifting towards programs winning larger numbers (STEM, health services, business, hospitality, criminal justice), and moving away from their opposites (the arts and humanities, all too often). The human costs of these institutional strategies will grow, as instructors lose jobs and current students see programs disappear. The number of graduate students could drop in those de-emphasized fields. Alumni and other stakeholders may resent seeing a beloved campus change from its pre-peak character. Beyond the campus popular dissatisfaction with higher education could grow. That could take the form of more potential students opting out of college, or a return to vocational training in K-12 and adult learning.

Moreover, competition for a smaller student pool will increase. Admissions offices will deploy data analytics and social media analysis to fight for scarce American teenagers. Some institutions may increase student support and amenities, while others reduce them to offer a cut-price education. We can imagine more universities opening up recruitment and branch campuses abroad, especially in regions combining large populations with economic growth. As one economist put it, some campuses may well become “(Partially) a Finishing School for the Superrich of Asia,”  using international populations to make up for a national shortfall. The American campus to come may well be more global than it currently is.

To sum up: higher education has overbuilt capacity for a student demand which has started to wane. America has overshot its carrying capacity for college and university population, and our institutions are scrambling for strategic responses.

Where and when do these post-peak strategies end? Demographic and economic rebounds seem necessary. The youngest generations may increase their child-bearing numbers, although that will take 20 years and more to be felt in higher education. Closer to the present, immigration growth may supplement the national teen shortfall. The American economy may return to significant growth at or better than pre-2008 levels, encouraging families and government to invest more in colleges and universities. In other words at some point institutions may have the opportunity to reduce these cutting and competitive strategies. Corrections may slow down and cease, leaving us with a smaller higher education sector as compared to its 2011 peak. There will be fewer students and faculty, but the decline will have ceased.

All of this is a thought experiment, not a prediction of a likely or desired future. The peak model may founder on emerging developments, such as a popular resurgence in support for higher education, or the appearance of hitherto unused cost cutting measures or a major growth in nontraditional age enrollments. Instead of a major peak, the data touched on in this article could represent only a blip or hiccup in a continuing story of American higher education’s growth. But until such developments emerge, we should consider the peak higher education explanation of real data and present trendlines. It is, at least, a provocation to get us thinking about campus strategy in new, if darker ways. 


Bryan Alexander is senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. He thanks those who comment on his blog for having contributed to the development of the ideas in this essay.


Editorial Tags: 

Essay on mentorship styles in higher education

Get a Job!

Cheryl E. Ball explains how a recent online debate missed truly important issues about mentorship.


Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 

Social media may benefit international students and group projects, researchers argue

Smart Title: 

For international students and structured group settings, social media can be more of a benefit than a distraction, speakers at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting argue.

Campuses must create formal networks for female STEM professors (essay)

Colleges and universities can't leave it to chance -- they must deliberately change a culture that often encourages female researchers to become isolated in their jobs, write Santa Ono and Valerie Gray Hardcastle.

Ad keywords: 
Show on Jobs site: 

Study shows positive imapcts of government aid on graduation rates

Smart Title: 

Study finds that government grants have a positive impact on the graduation rates of low-income students, but unsubsidized loans counter that impact.

Addressing the mismatch between colleges and the job market (essay)

Recently, the McKinsey Center for Government released the second in its “Education to Employment” series of the reports. The first, “Education to Employment: Designing a System that Works,” released in December 2012, looked at global youth unemployment challenges and the roles of higher education institutions and employers in helping students to make the transition from one domain to the other more successfully. The second report, “Education to Employment: Getting Europe’s Youth into Work,” released in January of this year, takes a geographically more narrow look at the same issues, and makes some practical recommendations for addressing the so-called skills gap currently vexing many European nations.

The report is timely, and relevant not only to all who are concerned about the prospect of a “lost generation” of European youth but also to those of us concerned with the college-to-work transition here in the U.S., and the potential long-term effects of underemployment and unemployment.

I was reminded of this very recently while conducting a brief survey of employers myself. In one question, the survey presented the respondents with a list of more than a dozen institutional characteristics and asked how important each of those characteristics is to their selection of preferred providers for recruiting full-time hires. Included in the list of characteristics were things like geographic location, diversity of the student body, institutional rankings, selectivity, and so forth.

The number one issue wasn’t any of those, however. Far and away, the most important characteristic, survey respondents indicated, is the work readiness of graduates, with 91 percent of respondents calling this important or very important.

By contrast, only 44 percent of respondents called institutional rankings important or very important. In the current economy, employers may be more inclined to measure colleges and universities by the results they produce rather than by their reputations.

As usual, Shakespeare may have put it best when he said, “the readiness is all.”

One of the problems with fostering work readiness, of course, as the McKinsey report points out, is the difficulty of getting diverse constituencies to agree on what readiness looks like. The results of McKinsey’s European survey are telling: “74 percent of education providers were confident that their graduates were prepared for work, yet only 38 percent of youth and 35 percent of employers agreed.”

In response to this misalignment, the McKinsey report offers some sensible advice: “To improve student prospects, education providers could work more closely with employers to make sure that they are offering courses that really help young people prepare for the workplace.” While the youth employment situation here in the U.S. is nowhere near as desperate as in many parts of Europe, the advice nevertheless has relevance here at home, too.

Of course, it’s equally true that employers need to work more closely with education providers in order to achieve the best results. McKinsey’s 2012 report makes the need for this kind of two-way dialogue explicit, arguing that a genuine solution to the skills gap requires a form of collaboration where education providers and employers “actively step into one another’s worlds,” so that the “education-to-employment journey is treated as a continuum.”

There may be some within the higher education community who feel corporations are not doing enough, and I have heard people argue that employers are spending less on training than in the past, and trying to force colleges and universities to pick up the tab. The data, however, suggest otherwise. According to Bersin by Deloitte, a firm that tracks corporate training expenditures, domestic investments in training have grown from a recent low of approximately $47 billion in 2009 to $70 billion in 2013 – with double-digit growth over each of the last three years. That’s not to say that corporations shouldn’t be doing more to collaborate with higher education providers, of course – they should, particularly if we hope to arrive at a better matching of recent graduates to jobs is the desired outcome.

Certainly the work of producing a match between a recent graduate and a job opening is no easy matter. For some already in the workforce, it may well have been that innate passions and native talents aligned serendipitously with the workforce needs of industry. But for many others, careers may have been more likely to resemble careens along a complicated and cobbled path of discovery, with seemingly unpredictable outcomes.

In a world of perfect information, matchmaking would be easy. Students would have ready access to market data on jobs and salaries, and the task of connecting particular degree programs to those jobs would be straightforward. These students would make wise choices about what to study, put in strong academic performances, obtain credible real-world experience through internships, service learning opportunities, or co-ops, and, aided by focused career services offices, they would transition seamlessly to in-demand professions upon graduation.

Alas, at times it seems that un-readiness is all. Despite the efforts of a few information sources (the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Burning Glass, and EMSI come to mind), market data may too rarely find their way into the hands of students and their families. Colleges and universities may still offer degree programs with uncertain linkages to job opportunities (and I’m not taking potshots at the liberal arts here, as there are many professional programs that are poorly aligned with regional job prospects). Students may make poor choices and perform poorly in their chosen fields of study. They may graduate with little in the way of practical, hands-on work experience and, after a brief faculty critique of the resume, end up fending for themselves in the vastness of online jobs boards.

How can we redress this kind of mismatching?

Sadly, for some higher education institutions, the response is occasionally exactly what you’d expect – more school! So they entice students back to the bachelor’s completion program to complement the associate degree, or to the graduate certificate program or master’s degree. Sometimes this works. Having gone through the school of hard knocks, students now make wiser choices. But in some instances, more of the same merely exacerbates the original problem.

Given the priority that employers assign to work readiness, and the observable mismatches between students capabilities and the skills many employers seek, it isn’t surprising to see a growing number of commercial ventures attempting to fill the breach with a wide variety of services – training programs, coding academies, networking websites, and experiential learning opportunities. Just scan the education press for names like Dream Careers, Envoys, Fullbridge, Koru, Hack Reactor, Coursolve, Intern Sushi, Collegefeed, Rad Matter, and many, many more.

McKinsey’s suggestion that education providers work more closely with employers is sound advice. At the moment, a burgeoning group of commercial education providers seem to be taking this advice to heart, and traditional colleges may have something to learn from them – particularly at a moment when it makes all the difference whether their graduates are work-ready or not.

Peter Stokes is executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University.

One MBA program makes no apologies for its high costs

Smart Title: 

At this international program, there are no apologies for a high price tag.

Universities should create a sports performance degree for athletes (essay)

Colleges and universities prepare students for almost all professions of note -- except sports. To be sure, we have students pursuing degrees in sports management, kinesiology, and other related fields, but unlike students who come to study music performance, acting, creative writing and other talent- and performance-based professions, our students who come with athletic talent and seek opportunities to perform are left out of the academic curriculum.

This is a significant omission, for as we all know, sports is big business. It is one of America's major entertainment industries, and surely rivals orchestras, theaters, operas and movies as professional post-college employment venues. We provide degrees in music performance, we have superb academic programs in opera focused on the production of major entertainment products by the university, and we have countless theatrical productions produced on campus by students majoring in acting.

When we teach our students the profession of sports performance, however, whether in football, basketball, tennis, or track, we deny them the structure and benefit of a focused curriculum and degree.

It's time for the sports performance degree. As anyone who watches the college sports enterprise knows, the profession of sports performance (that is, being a professional athlete, whether on the golf tour or in professional baseball) is demanding, highly technical, and requires a combination of talent, skill, training, preparation, and dedication.

One only needs to observe the increasingly sophisticated methods and techniques required of baseball and football players, or the careful analysis that goes into learning golf techniques or tennis strategy, to understand that we should provide our students interested in sports performance with similar opportunities to those we provide students seeking a career as a violinist or operatic tenor.

To be sure, academic programs in music, or theater, or dance with courses in theory and history, as well as performance, have been with us for a long time, and have well-established traditions and curriculums. Sports performance, with its tradition of amateur participation and a longstanding existence outside of the academic program as an extracurricular activity, does not have the benefit of an academic tradition.

Yet today, we know that sports performance is a rigorous, demanding, and highly professionalized career for many people. Some participate as performers; others with a performance background in college athletics move into management, coaching, and other professional roles related to sports. The skills of sports performance are nontrivial and currently have highly specialized training and study required to perform them well, and most professional athletes acquire sophisticated training and understanding of their games to ensure a successful career.

It's now time to reexamine the nature of sports performance and see if we can construct an academically viable course of study analogous to what we have done for music or dance.

How can we make the transition from sports as extracurricular activity to sports as an academic discipline? The first step is to recognize that sports as an extracurricular activity already exists in the university through elaborate systems of intramural and recreational sports, and as well through club sports that play competitions in nonprofessional contexts with other universities. But for those students seeking a career in sports performance, the requirements for a degree would need to be carefully structured and clearly specified.

The best model would follow closely on the academic requirements expected of music performance majors at many of our premier universities: Indiana, Florida State, Michigan, the University of Southern California, to take a few examples. In these programs, the students spend countless hours honing their performance skills and abilities through individual practice and have many performance requirements where they must display their skills before highly critical and expert audiences.

While an opera season at Indiana University may not draw quite the audience of an Indiana University basketball season, it surely would draw an audience that exceeds that of the IU golf or tennis team. It is not the size of the audience in any event that matters; what matters is the rigor of the preparation required of a student pursuing a performance major.

If a student wants to receive a performance degree, they not only must perform at the highest skill level (and be recruited and selected based on auditions that demonstrate the talent and commitment required to succeed), but they must also take a range of academic courses related to their profession. Music theory, composition, music history for the musician, for example. In addition, of course, they must fulfill the university's general education requirements.

In constructing our sports major, most universities already have the academic subjects that would be required through departments of kinesiology, sports management, etc. They have courses in sports history, sports law, sports finance. What they need is a structured curriculum for a student majoring in sports performance with a specialty in individual sports performance or a specialty in team sports performance.

That major would surely require participation on an intercollegiate sports team, and like those who audition and are chosen for music performance majors, they would need to have the requisite skills and abilities to compete at the highest levels. All current intercollegiate athletes already are required to participate in the general education curriculum and be on track to major. The only difference here is to have the opportunity to seek a sports performance degree.

To gain the confidence of our colleagues, we would need to ensure that the sports major achieves academic integrity. This would require an accrediting association for degrees in sports performance composed of representatives from the strong academic fields of sports management, kinesiology, business, and music performance; participation by representatives of regional accreditation agencies; and most likely engagement with the NCAA, especially using faculty athletic representatives and perhaps a designated presidential member. Periodic reviews of sports performance programs with accreditation upheld or denied, the establishment of models and norms for the organization and structure of the sports performance degree, and continuing engagement with the professional world of sports would all be part of the sports degree accreditation system.

Along with the establishment of the rigorous program for an academic degree, universities would need to create opportunities for students to move easily from college to professional performance whenever it appears appropriate. If a student in opera performance tried out for the Metropolitan Opera and was selected to become part of that organization, they would surely leave the university degree program and begin their professional career immediately, and we would celebrate that departure as a recognition of our ability to identify talent, train professionals, and launch a career, even if with an incomplete degree. Similarly, students in a sports degree program in, say golf, might well drop out and join the tour with the expectation of an early start on their professional life.  Indeed, we already do this for college baseball players.

Many, but not all students in the sports performance major would receive scholarships based on their talent and performance ability, just as students in other performance related majors receive scholarships based on auditions and assessments of talent and promise. Within this context, the athletic director, coaches, and other personnel who teach the skills, strategy, and operations of athletic programs would carry faculty status, not necessarily tenure-track depending on the nature of their work. The athletic department in collaboration with the university's academic affairs office and in compliance with accreditation expectations, would develop standards for performance instruction.

The university faculty, through its normal process, would determine the appropriate credit to be granted for particular instructional and performance activity. This, too, would draw on the experience of music performance programs.  Indeed, in those programs, the faculty are often superstars drawn from the professional world who teach performance in their fields on a temporary or guest faculty basis.

Will it take some effort to construct this sports performance major? To be sure. But the consequence of continuing to operate intercollegiate sports as an auxiliary entertainment enterprise are significantly damaging to the success of the college sports activity and detrimental to the success of students participating in these displays of talent and skill to require colleges and universities to take on this challenge.

What we need now is a courageous university president with a strong athletic program to launch this process and mobilize the support and enthusiasm of like-minded innovators.

John Lombardi is former president of Louisiana State University and the University of Florida and author of How Universities Work (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Editorial Tags: 

Essay on how to deal with tenure rejection

Trish Roberts-Miller shares what she wishes she had understood at a difficult point in her career.

Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 

Essay calls for colleges to award associate degrees for those who finish two, but not four years

The story has Biblical overtones. Twin brothers grow up in a typical middle-class household. Brother A reads Charlotte’s Web and Chronicles of Narnia; Brother B swirls a basketball with the finesse of Meadowlark Lemon. Friendly, social boys with agile minds, over the years their looks remain identical as their skill sets meander in independent directions.  A has Ivy aspirations. B isn’t sure about four more years but ultimately decides to attend a local community college.  

By the second year of college A begins to think about graduate school and B is getting ready to graduate with his associate degree, eager to enter the work world. In the middle of year three A is adrift; he changes his major and he begins to skip class. B is now part of an employee team designing a new marketing plan, learning “the way” of the work world. By the end of year, A leaves college and moves back home. 

The world’s view: B is a success; and A -- the dropout -- is a failure. Without a credential on his résumé, A finds it difficult to find work. He’s stuck in a rut.

Suppose A’s college recognized his two years of work and awarded him an associate of arts degree (A.A.)? Then he too would have the necessary ticket to get through the employment gate.

College study provides two primary values: it stretches the mind, develops critical thinking and broadens the base of one’s knowledge; and by awarding a degree it puts a stamp of approval on one’s back that says the student has met certain standards. That hechsher -- that certificate -- signals to hiring personnel that this individual has jumped through hoops and over hurdles: an important requirement has been met. Check mark in Box One.

Workers with bachelor’s degrees earn 60 percent more than those without a degree. And students with an associate degree earn 25 percent more. Yet within those gross statistics lie many variables that nuance the figures: major field of study and occupational choice are but two categories. Graduates (with bachelor’s or associate degrees) earn more if they studied health professions or STEM than those in most other fields. But the earned degree level matters most in calculating the economic value of higher education. Note the use of the word economic value, not educational value. Breadth and depth of knowledge is not being quantified, only field of study and degree attained.

Three years of college study but no earned degree is worth less in the market place than two years of college that culminates in an associate degree. If that is so, then why not award the A.A. to students who successfully complete two years of study but don’t make it to the finish line at traditional four-year institutions?

A good part of the answer lies in self-image and perceived respectability among one’s peers. The world of higher education is obsessed with rankings: best in class. Research universities that grant not only bachelor of arts or science degrees but also masters and doctorates are on the top of the chart. Community colleges that offer only associate of arts degrees not so much. Faculty are paid differently, research expectations are not the same, test scores of entering students are often widely variant at the two extremes. 

But as Kent State University has recently proposed, it is time for the Academy (with its capital A) to adjust its ways, to re-examine its degree policies and to turn failure into success. Let’s reward students for what they have done, not what they failed to do. Let’s allow them to readjust their lives, to take the AA degree out into the marketplace, to join the work world. Let’s commend the positive, not stress the negative.

If at some point in the future they wish to return to the university or pursue additional learning online there is no reason that cannot happen. Securing one’s education in stages may be one of the most viable alternatives we seen in the future. 

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor at the George Washington University. He is the author of Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It (Johns Hopkins University Press).



Subscribe to RSS - Thumbnail-horizontal
Back to Top