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“Future of Higher Ed” Day One: Bluntness Unto Truth

When graphs elicit gasps, you know you have a story.

I’m at the “The Future of Higher Ed” conference in Baltimore. It’s organized by Inside Higher Ed, though I registered for it just like everybody else. It’s an unusual mix of people, since it draws on both the two-year and four-year sectors. I’ve already met a few ed-tech entrepreneurs, as well as some longtime readers and a former colleague from Holyoke.

So far, the conference seems to rest on a productive impatience. I’ve been struck by the candid/exasperated tone of some of the discussions. The first couple of presentations had a “what the hell, let’s just tell the truth” vibe to them that I (and my former colleague) found refreshing. Steve Robinson, from Owens CC in Toledo, addressed the “community college stigma” directly, repeatedly exhorting us to “call it what it is.” His #EndCCStigma campaign and podcast have the considerable virtue of taking something we all know is there, but pretend we don’t, and addressing it directly. Bill Behre, from Slippery Rock University (and formerly of neighboring Georgian Court University) named the obvious flaw with performance-based funding: “If I have to hit a bright line on graduation, I can just admit students based on parental income.” Mildred Garcia, of AASCU, noted that parents at a college that started running FAFSA workshops in Spanish said that they liked the workshops “because we don’t need our children to translate for us.” In response to a question about student debt, she noted that “the problem with the debt narrative is that we’re scaring away the very students who most need to go to college.” That’s reality.

The graphs that elicited gasps were from Nathan Grawe, an economist from Carleton College who wrote the terrifying short book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. He showed projections of enrollments for various sectors of higher education over the next decade, based on a combination of birthrates, changes in racial and ethnic composition and college-going rates, and rates of first-generation students. He also broke out the projections by state and region.

The general trends weren’t especially shocking, but the magnitude was. The short version is that two year colleges and nonselective four year colleges will take major hits, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. New England fared the worst in his projections, which already seem to be borne out by the recent slew of mergers and closures of colleges there. (Just last week, the number of community colleges in my own state dropped from 19 to 18. Last week!) Birthrates never really recovered from the Great Recession, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, so the aftershocks of the recession will go on for years.

In discussion, Grawe noted that his data only go up to age 25, so colleges that are able to increase their share of students older than 25 may be able to blunt some of the impact. That said, he also noted that qualitative research has found that many in the “some college, no degree” group are there for a reason: they tried college and had a bad experience. They aren’t necessarily eager to return. He noted that Latinx students’ college-going rates have hit the national average in the last couple of years, though they’re still overrepresented in the two-year sector. Though he didn’t mention it here, his book mentions that community colleges’ relative success with reaching first-generation students over the last twenty years actually puts them in a tight spot; second-generation students are likelier to start at the four-year level. In q-and-a, he mentioned that enrollments of international students in the US used to grow even faster than domestic ones, but that they started declining in 2016. (They’re booming in Canada.) That’s probably more of an issue in the four-year sector, but still worth watching.

Grawe mentioned that he didn’t look at retention rates, which probably offer the best hope for some colleges. Doug Lederman offered a bit of morbid consolation, noting that “some (colleges) may die so that others may live.” I think of that as the Borders/Barnes & Noble effect. The market couldn’t support both, but Borders’ demise left room for Barnes & Noble. The students who would have gone to, say, Green Mountain College this September will instead likely go someplace else.

I would have liked to see some discussion of the long-term effects of increased dual enrollment with high schools; maybe next year.

Christopher Newfield wrapped it up with a reminder that we need to focus on the non-pecuniary benefits of college, as well as the monetary ones. I found his post-talk q-and-a much more compelling than the talk itself. In the q-and-a, he talked about the effects that college had on his parents, who were both first-generation students. That struck me as the argument we need to make. If data were enough, we would have won by now. We need stories rooted in recognizable reality. As Bill Behre put it, “we need to be blunt.”

So far, so good. On to day two.



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