Home > Uncategorized > Higher Education’s Death Spiral: Smaller Entry Cohorts + Higher Tuitions = Fewer Applicants

Higher Education’s Death Spiral: Smaller Entry Cohorts + Higher Tuitions = Fewer Applicants

June 15, 2018

Atlantic writer Adam Harris recently posted an article on the future of higher education that paints a bleak picture. Titled “A Futurist Predicts the Death of Higher Education“, Harris describes how futurist Bryan Alexander predicts the pending demise of higher education:

Bryan Alexander started grappling with the idea of “peak higher education” in 2013—inspired by the notion of “peak car,” “peak oil,” and other so-called “peaks.” At the time, there were signs that the industry was already struggling. The number of students enrolled in higher education had dropped by a little over 450,000 after years of booming growth, the proportion of part-time faculty—more commonly referred to as adjuncts—had steadily become a more significant part of the professorship, and there was a general skepticism about the skyrocketing costs of college and concerns over whether a degree was worth it. Taken individually, he said, each sign was troubling enough. But when looked at together, they represented the outlines of a bleak future for higher education. Alexander, a self-described higher-education futurist and a former English professor, came to the conclusion that after nearly a half century of growth, higher education might be as big as it could get. It would, he reasoned, only get smaller from there.

Mr. Harris described the factors that appear to lead to an inevitable and seemingly irreversible death spiral: smaller cohorts of traditional students; higher tuitions and more stringent loan applications that drive away alternative learners; a tighter job market that makes employment more attractive than college; more complicated visa applications that drive away foreign students; and lower quality and fewer options that result from cost cutting in order to balance operative budgets. As Mr. Harris notes, flagship state colleges and universities and elite colleges have not been and will not be affected by this phenomenon. But for-profit schools, community colleges, and smaller liberal arts and state colleges are all feeling the impact. As a result, fewer tenure track assignments are offered at any post secondary institutions making advanced degrees and liberal arts degrees less attractive feeding the vicious cycle that is underway.

The solutions offered in the article are not up-lifting. After suggesting that the best and most expeditious means of pulling out of the spiral– providing more state support– is vanishingly remote, Mr. Harris and Mr. Alexander offer this as a means of improving the future for post-secondary schooling:

Maybe colleges will wind up taking a proactive approach and innovate their way out, shifting, as some have already, to serve more adult students alongside recent high-school graduates, and moving more of their coursework and programs online to serve a wider audience of students and reduce campus costs.(Alexander also points out that moving more programs online could help with international enrollments, as students wouldn’t have to worry about potential political issues in the U.S.)

On-line learning is undoubtedly less expensive and more available to non-traditional and international students, but the entire campus experience would be lost as would the opportunity to attend classes and exchange ideas and perspectives with those of differing backgrounds and nationalities. Indeed, the entire social context of education would vanish if this is the direction we head in higher education. And worse yet, it will pave the way for more and more isolation and less and less interaction with our fellow human beings.

Here’s hoping that traditionalists prevail in this arena, and the value and importance of campus experience results in politicians providing the additional support needed to keep higher education accessible to more and more individuals.

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