Commentary Magazine

Is Higher Education in Trouble?

Conservatives have long warned of a higher education bubble. Americans, they say, are irrationally exuberant about the value of college. Students who might once have chosen an apprenticeship have been pushed toward college instead, which has bid up the price of higher education to unsustainable levels. Now, as director of editorial content for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, George Leef, recently explained, Americans are wising up because “lots of people with degrees” are “doing low-skill work.” Families are no longer willing to overlook that “students [learn] little of value and [rack] up big debts.” They are fleeing the market.

Defenders of this thesis—call them the “bubblists”–claim that we can see this flight in real time thanks to the National Student Clearinghouse Center’s data on changing college enrollments. Its most recent release finds total enrollment at 17,839,330, which is a decline of 1.3 percent from the prior year. More importantly, this is the seventh straight year of decline. Drawing on a thoughtful piece by Martin Center board member Jane Shaw, Leef pegs the decline since 2011 at 9 percent. The bubble may not be bursting, but Leef thinks it’s deflating. College, he wrote, is a “stock that rose much too high on hype and is now in the process of market correction.”

Shaw is more careful. She correctly attributes much of the decline to “adult students going back to work.” They flooded into higher education not because of “college for all” hype but because, with jobs scarce, it made sense to acquire additional credentials. They are no longer flooding in because jobs are no longer scarce. Moreover, the number of high school graduates has stagnated after “two decades of reliable increases.” College enrollments were expanding because the available pool of high school graduates was growing. They now find it hard to grow not because Americans are wising up but because that pool is stagnant.

Still, Shaw thinks we may be experiencing a “culture shift.” COMMENTARY readers will be well aware of the wave of student protests that swept through American campuses starting in 2015, touched off by Black Lives Matter protests at the University of Missouri. A Pew Research poll, Shaw noted, shows a dramatic increase in the percentage of Republicans who say “colleges have a negative effect on the country.” Before the Mizzou protests, “most Republicans and Republican leaners held a positive view of the role of colleges and universities.” Two years later, only 36 percent did. Perhaps, then, some Americans have had enough of the well-documented liberal bias of university faculties and the appalling spectacle, seen most strikingly at Evergreen State College last year, of administrators sucking up to the activists. Enrollment at Evergreen has certainly dropped, and the protests probably contributed to the decline.

However, if we were seeing a broad culture shift, we would expect to see big losses at the four year private and public universities where most of the protests have taken place. As Shaw recognized, the drop in enrollments has been primarily at community colleges, where enrollment decline has been fairly steep. At for-profit universities, there has been a jaw-dropping 43 percent decrease in enrollments since 2011. By contrast, enrollment at four-year public and private non-profit colleges is up slightly since 2011. This year, enrollments at four-year public and private non-profits fell two-tenths and four-tenths of a percent, respectively; not the kind of drop one needs a culture shift to explain.

But Leef is right to speak of a correction of sorts for traditional four-year colleges and universities. Small declines over a period of years add up. Increasingly, colleges and universities are offering more financial aid to attract about the same number of students, a sign of softening demand. With fewer tuition dollars coming in, many of these places are under real pressure.

In a way, this situation is an opportunity for education reformers. Because conservatives have good reasons to object to the college and university status quo, it is satisfying to imagine that colleges are now in trouble because of liberal hype and leftist lunacy. That isn’t true; at least, not where enrollments are concerned. But perhaps those who care about the future of higher education can be persuaded that there is a market for colleges and universities that resist left-wing pieties and attend to their missions, captured well by former University of Chicago president Hannah Gray. Universities, she has said, “should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

This conception of the university has not been terribly popular among university administrators and faculty, but, as they say, any port in a storm.

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