I realized that I’m approaching the ten-year anniversary of writing about the structural transformation of higher education.
This realization occurred in part because of two recent reminders of the post-2008 recession demographic cliff by fellow political scientist Matt Reed (here and here). In my region, the Northeast, 2026 won’t be a sharp but brief dip in enrollment. The population of incoming first-time, full-time undergraduates is not going to rebound to pre-2008 levels for the remainder of my career. And then there are the compounding effects of the pandemic. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the number of U.S. college undergraduates has already decreased by more than 5% since Fall 2019.
According to the research firm EY-Parthenon, national enrollment across all sectors of higher education increased by 3% in the decade before the pandemic. But during the same period total capacity increased by 26%. We now have a tertiary educational system that is one-third larger than needed given the number of students. Not coincidentally, the cost of this over-expansion is equivalent to the student loan debt amassed over the same period — US$50 billion annually. As I wrote in 2013 and 2014, institutions that engage in debt-financed spending binges will eventually come to a bad end, regardless of who has borrowed the money.
The situation shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. It certainly wasn’t to the blog’s guest contributor who wrote — in 2013 — that:
higher education is at the front of a massive paradigm shift that is going to leave perhaps only a half of the currently operating, relatively traditional institutions of higher education standing in recognizably their current form in the next twenty years or so.
We’re about ten years into that shift. Another ten to go.