The Shrinking Future of Colleges, Especially the Small Ones

Interesting dilemma for higher education. I had heard that some colleges were having issues attracting students to their campuses. The high tuition and a lack of funding in the form of scholarships, grants, awards, etc. have been an issue when they do not keep up with the costs of colleges. Another issue has crept up which I was not aware of till reading it at The one-handed economist. This is one of David’s selected articles featured in Interesting Stuff, “The incredible shrinking future of college.” Author Kevin Carey at Vox’s The Highlight starts off his article telling about Division II Shippensburg University winning the Field Hockey championship.

The activity on campus was in fine form with many students enjoying the activities Shippensburg had to offer. There was no hint of the underlying issues at Shippensburg University being a shrinking institution. And the problem was going to worsen. Shippensburg was just one of many institutions nationwide which would experience a decreasing enrollment.

The oncoming issue in four years, was the decreasing number of students graduating from high schools, Across the nation will begin a sudden and precipitous decline, the result of a rolling demographic aftershock of the Great Recession. It hit hard across the spectrum of citizens. There was no Joe Biden then to convince a majority Democrat Congress with minority Republicans to pass an ARA, a Jobs Plan, and expanding healthcare. Funds were directed towards Wall Street and bankers to bail them out from their gambling. Mainstreet had to resign itself to 2 years of meager Unemployment until Republicans gained control and cut them off. The difference between 2008 and 2020 is very discernable.

In 2008, I was stilling battling with the courts. Our children were grown. Being out of work cut our income. However, I could find other things to do to supplement my wife’s income. We survived and kept our home.

Among colleges today, the elite colleges and research universities consisting of the Princetons and the Penn States the oncoming drop off of the cliff will be no big deal. These institutions have their pick of applicants and can easily keep classes full. There could be dire consequences for everyone else.

In some places, the crisis has already begun. College enrollment began slowly receding after the millennial enrollment wave peaked in 2010, particularly in regions that were already experiencing below-average birth rates while simultaneously losing population to out-migration. Starved of students and the tuition revenue they bring, small private colleges in New England have begun to blink off the map. Regional public universities like Ship are enduring painful layoffs and consolidation.

I went to smaller universities. Even Loyola University-Chicago is smaller when compared to state universities. Matched to timing the outcome is dire. Trade policy, de-unionization, corporate consolidation, and substance abuse have ravaged countless communities. Colleges have been one of the only places providing good jobs in communities, offer educational opportunities for locals, and have strong enough roots to stay planted. The enrollment cliff means they might soon dry up too.

Simply speaking, fewer students mean empty seats, and costs remain the same at small colleges. The trend of fewer students will stress smaller colleges especially in small communities. Cities and coastal areas will not suffer as badly. For students who attend less-selective colleges and universities near where they grew up. For many college students, the enrollment cliff means fewer options for going to college in person, or none at all.

Some 4.3 million American children were born in 1957, a number that would not be matched for another 50 years, even as the overall population almost doubled to over 300 million. In 2006, the replacement rate was 2.03 and enough to keep the population growing. Twenty twenty-one is the first year since 1937 the U.S. population grew by fewer than one million people. The lowest numeric growth since at least 1900 (Census Bureau began annual population estimates).

The relationship between demography and higher education is always a two-decade delay of cause and effect. The college years of one generation fall in the birth years of the next. The baby boom meant that by the 1970s, campuses were bursting as the children of midcentury fecundity reached early adulthood and women increasingly sought degrees in professions that were finally opening up to women.

And in 2008, families decided to not have children as they were afraid of losing their jobs.

This article is long. I am not going to put it up here. The link is above. I have written on the topic of immigration and population growth and added some links. For many colleges, there is a serious issue. For many people, there will be an issue also as they will not be able to afford the costs of colleges. Many will disappear. Enjoy, the rest of The Vox read.