Look At Those Deck Chairs

I am going to return to beating one of my favorite dead horses — systemic change in higher education — partly because I just completed three days’ worth of commencement-related events at a university with a total full-time enrollment of only 2,500 students. This post is a preview of something that is already under review for publication in another venue, so I won’t go into my usual excruciating level of detail.

I remain convinced that we are in the early stages of a massive, decades-long consolidation of post-secondary educational institutions in the USA. The consolidation will hit small, private, non-profit colleges and universities first. Here are the basic indicators:

  • A population that is aging out of the labor force combined with low unemployment rates means fewer young people interested in attending college.
  • Continuing demographic decrease in the number of high school graduates in New England and the Midwest.
  • Expanding economic inequality will make the traditional four-year, full-time, residential undergraduate experience, with its high overhead costs, increasingly unaffordable for a greater number of high school graduates. Even those with sufficiently affluent socioeconomic backgrounds will seek out colleges and academic programs that are perceived as providing higher value-added and a better return on investment.
  • As of Fall 2015, there were at least 600 private, non-profit bachelor’s and master’s degree-granting institutions with less than 2,500 students. How many of these colleges can you name? You just proved my point. The vast majority of them have undistinguished reputations, are heavily tuition-dependent, and lack the resources that are available to students at larger institutions. These small colleges and universities will be the first to be crippled by falling demand.

Marian Court, Burlington, St. Joseph’s, Wheelock, Concordia Alabama, Atlantic Union, Mount Ida, Marylhurst, and Bacone represent just the tip of the iceberg.

2 Replies to “Look At Those Deck Chairs”

  1. I don’t think this will happen. It’s been predicted many times that small private colleges will disappear. Indeed, the first time this happened was when public universities began their increase in size after WW2. “Why should anyone go to a small, private, liberal arts college when you can go to a public university for so much less and (presumably) get so much more?”, it was asked. Yet the number of small colleges hasn’t changed all that much and, while the proportion of students attending them has decreased, the actual number of students is about the same (you no doubt know this).

    So what’s going on here? Partly, it’s a function of organizational inertia. Many students at these schools are the children of alums. Also, since like most post-secondary institutions, these places get the bulk of their students from a sixty mile radius around them, it’s a matter of going to a school that’s close and familiar. (Remember, Harvard is just the good local school to lots of its perspective students.) There’s also the educational experience and the fit of the students. Many young people come from small high schools and don’t want to go to a big university where they will, they think, be lost in the shuffle. Also, many people still value the “liberal arts experience”; i.e. general courses leading to specialization, but with an emphasis on cross-disciplinary training. Many state university systems have recognized this and organized “liberal arts colleges” inside their systems to try to attract these students. But their success at this has been limited.

    In short, I look forward to seeing what your book says, but I doubt that this central prediction will be sustained.

    1. Tracy, thanks for the comment — perceptive as usual. I wish I had a book in progress on this topic, but I don’t, just an essay submitted to a news publication. I do think small-enrollment colleges and universities that lack strong national or even regional brands are in for rough times ahead, at least in parts of the country with declining numbers of high school graduates. A private, 1,500-student college in New England or parts of the Midwest that is highly tuition dependent is going to find it difficult to compete with either the nearby state regional campus that will cost the prospective student half as much or the similarly-sized private college that has a slightly better reputation in the market.

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