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The incredible shrinking future of college

The population of college-age Americans is about to crash. It will change higher education forever.

In 2021, Shippensburg University won the NCAA Division II Field Hockey championship, completing an undefeated season with a 3-0 victory over archrival West Chester. The “Ship” Raiders also won it all in 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2013, which I know because I saw it written in big letters on a banner festooning the fieldhouse on Ship’s campus in south-central Pennsylvania when I visited last month.

Ship was in fine form. Young men and women wearing logoed Champion sweatshirts bustled between buildings. There was a line at the coffee shop in the student union. It was the kind of bright-blue autumn day that you would see on a brochure.

There was no way to tell, from the outside, that Ship was a shrinking institution. Or that the problem is about to get a lot worse — not just here, but at colleges and universities nationwide.

In four years, the number of students graduating from high schools across the country will begin a sudden and precipitous decline, due to a rolling demographic aftershock of the Great Recession. Traumatized by uncertainty and unemployment, people decided to stop having kids during that period. But even as we climbed out of the recession, the birth rate kept dropping, and we are now starting to see the consequences on campuses everywhere. Classes will shrink, year after year, for most of the next two decades. People in the higher education industry call it “the enrollment cliff.”

Among the small number of elite colleges and research universities — think the Princetons and the Penn States — the cliff will be no big deal. These institutions have their pick of applicants and can easily keep classes full.

For everyone else, the consequences could be dire. 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.

The timing is terrible. Trade policy, de-unionization, corporate consolidation, and substance abuse have already ravaged countless communities, particularly in the post-industrial Northeast and Midwest. In many cases, colleges have been one of the only places that provide good jobs in their communities, offer educational opportunities for locals, and have strong enough roots to stay planted. The enrollment cliff means they might soon dry up and blow away.

This trend will accelerate the winner-take-all dynamic of geographic consolidation that is already upending American politics. College-educated Democrats will increasingly congregate in cities and coastal areas, leaving people without degrees in rural areas and towns. For students who attend less-selective colleges and universities near where they grew up — that is, most college students — the enrollment cliff means fewer options for going to college in person, or none at all.

The empty factories and abandoned shopping malls littering the American landscape may soon be joined by ghost colleges, victims of an existential struggle for reinvention, waged against a ticking clock of shrinking student bodies, coming soon to a town near you.

Ship was founded in 1871 as the Cumberland Valley State Normal School, to train young women to be school teachers. It became the State Teachers College in 1927, and stayed that way until something happened that would transform higher education and much else: the baby boom.

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.

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.

This put college leaders in a difficult spot. In the short term, they needed dorms and classrooms and teachers to handle the boomer wave. But birth rates had been declining for nearly 20 years, and they saw what that would mean for them in the near future. The talk then was much like today: Future enrollment trends looked bleak, and some colleges were already struggling.

But the 1980s enrollment cliff never really arrived. Higher education was saved by tectonic shifts in the labor market. As predicted, the number of high school graduates declined, from 3.1 million in 1976 to 2.5 million in 1994. But college enrollment rates actually increased, driven by deindustrialization and the collapse of well-paying blue-collar jobs. In 1975, the percentage of high school graduates who chose to immediately enroll in college was only 51 percent. By 1997, it was 67 percent.

Colleges found themselves in the extraordinarily lucky position of being the only places legally allowed to sell credentials that unlocked the gateway to a stable, prosperous life. That was enough to smooth out the bottom of the demographic trough until the children of the baby boom arrived.

And sure enough, the millennial college years began as expansionary times for places like Ship. From 1985 to 2007, the total number of undergraduates nationwide increased from 10.6 million to 15.6 million. And while birth numbers had been cycling back downward from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, they began to move up again in 2006 and 2007 as older millennials reached parenting age.

Then everything went to hell.

The immediate effect of the Great Recession on higher education was financial. State tax revenues cratered, and university budgets were slashed. From 2009 to 2012, Pennsylvania cut public funding for higher education by more than 19 percent, some $430 million. Nationwide, state funding for college dipped by 9 percent.

But the global financial calamity also created a bomb with an 18-year fuse: Birth rates immediately reversed course and began to plummet. From the early 1970s until 2007, the number of annual births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 stayed between roughly 65 and 70. Starting in 2008, the ratio went down, down, down, to 56 in 2020, the lowest rate in American history. There were 4.3 million births in 2007; last year, there were 3.7 million.

Colleges have been left to manage a complex mix of past, present, and future demographic trends. Early on, state funding cuts were offset by a surge in enrollment and tuition revenue, as laid-off workers went back to college for retraining and the millennial wave peaked in 2010, with a record 18.1 million undergraduates. For some community colleges, the big problem in the late aughts was too many students and not enough money to teach them.

But in the early 2010s, enrollment began to drop. In 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, undergraduate enrollment was down to 16.6 million. (That number could have been worse: Bush-era school reform policies contributed to a rise in the percentage of teenagers graduating from high school, which offset some of the demographic drop.)

The problem now is that colleges have likely hit a ceiling in terms of how many 18-year-olds they can coax onto campus. The percentage of young adults with a high school diploma has reached 94 percent. And the immediate college enrollment rate of high school graduates was flat, right around 70 percent, from 2010 to 2018, before dipping in 2019 and 2020 as the job market heated up for less-skilled, lower-wage jobs.

Some parts of the country are already experiencing an enrollment bust, mainly because of internal migration. According to the census, 327,000 people moved to the Northeast (which includes Pennsylvania) from elsewhere in the United States in 2018-19, while 565,000 moved out, for a net loss of 238,000 people.

By contrast, the South (which includes Texas and Florida) saw a net increase of 263,000 internal migrants, and another 447,000 people arrived from abroad, more than twice the number for the Northeast. Fertility rates are also lower, and falling faster, for white people, and the Northeast and Midwest have proportionally more white people. This was true before the Great Recession, too.

All of which made states like Pennsylvania a kind of canary in the demographic coal mine. In the 2010-11 academic year, Ship enrolled 8,326 students. Last year, the count was down to 5,668.

Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota, has projected all of these trends forward to create what he calls the Higher Education Demand Index, a forecast of college enrollment that takes into account regional differences, various types of colleges, immigration rates, and differences in birth rates and the likelihood of attending higher education among demographic groups.

According to Grawe, highly selective colleges and universities will be least affected. They have power in the marketplace for students, and the United States’ very wealthy, very unequal society has produced a sizable upper class that is eager and able to buy access to sought-after schools. By immunizing themselves from the effects of enrollment decline, elites will shove the problem down the ladder of institutional status and make things worse for everyone else.

The future looks very different in some parts of the country than in others, and will also vary among national four-year universities, regional universities like Ship, and community colleges. Grawe projects that, despite the overall demographic decline, demand for national four-year universities on the West Coast will increase by more than 7.5 percent between now and the mid-2030s. But in states like New York, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Louisiana, it will decline by 15 percent or more.

Demand for regional four-year universities, per Grawe, will drop by at least 7.5 percent across New England, the mid-Atlantic, and Southern states other than Florida and Texas, with smaller declines in the Great Plains. Community colleges will be hit hard in most places other than Florida, which has a robust two-year system with a large Latino population.

Immigration is a factor, and tricky to project far into the future. The Trump administration erected many barriers to legal immigration, while immigration seems to have bounced back under President Joe Biden. But it’s likely that under any circumstances, immigrants will arrive at higher rates in California and Texas than, say, the Northeast or Upper Midwest.

The economy is another headwind. Shippensburg is next to I-81, a pulsing artery of commerce for the Northeast. The first thing you see after turning off the interstate is a 1.7-million-square-foot Procter & Gamble distribution center. There’s an Amazon warehouse at the exit on the other side of town, five miles away. These giant companies have a version of the university’s problem: fewer people of typical employee age in the hiring pool. So they pay more: a minimum of $22 an hour at P&G.

Colleges are offering increasingly expensive, often debt-financed credentials with a long-term payoff that can seem uncertain compared to a steady, increasingly large paycheck in hand. The state of Pennsylvania has made matters worse by chronically underfunding higher education, forcing schools like Ship to charge tuition that doesn’t compare well to other states, or even some private colleges. All of this makes the shrinking pool of 18-year-olds even harder to recruit.

Meanwhile, the pandemic threw millions of students into online classes, and some of them seem to like it there. A recent survey found a small but noteworthy increase in the number of high school juniors and seniors aiming for an online degree. If this continues, it would further burden colleges that have enormous amounts of money tied up in their buildings and physical plants.

Birth rates did not recover after the Great Recession, even as the economy eventually did. Grawe notes that American fertility is now in line with comparable economically advanced nations, and is well below the level needed for the native-born population to sustain itself. The new normal is just normal now. Higher ed’s eight-decade run of unbroken good fortune — always more students, more money, more economic demand, and more social prestige — may be about to end.

As we walked across the Ship campus, president Charles Patterson pointed to the student union named after Anthony Ceddia, who led Ship for a quarter-century and built much of what was around us during the long boom years. Those kinds of presidencies are in the past, Patterson said. “Presidents these days are in the business of deconstruction,” he said — not in the sense of tearing down what their forebears created, but of rethinking and reconfiguring what universities have and who they are, for leaner times.

“Deconstruction” is about to become the watchword in campus boardrooms nationwide. How this affects you depends on whether your local colleges succeed or fail at it.

Public colleges and universities tend not to disappear entirely. They have the backstop of public funding and local political support. But they can diminish over time. Ship is part of the 14-campus Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). As in the rest of the country, system enrollment peaked in 2010-11, 20 years after the top of the millennial birth wave.

But some campuses acted like the students would always keep coming. In 2007, Edinboro College, in the northeast corner of the state near Lake Erie, spent $115 million to construct new dorms. They opened in 2011, when Edinboro had 8,642 students. Last year, it had 4,043. The new dorms are empty, and for sale.

Private colleges are even more vulnerable. Many have small financial endowments and get by year to year on tuition revenue. Unluckily for them, private colleges are disproportionately located in the Northeast and Midwest — the same regions that will be hit hardest by declining enrollment. When they shut down, they leave a void of employment and tax revenue that local communities can’t easily fill.

Finding a good buyer for empty campuses can be difficult. The defunct Marlboro College in Vermont was sold in 2020 to a charter school entrepreneur whose plans to resell it at a seven-figure profit possibly in exchange for a new cryptocurrency called “Chronotanium” were interrupted by his arrest and eventual conviction on federal wire fraud charges. That same year, the former Green Mountain College, also in Vermont, was auctioned off for pennies on the dollar to a liquor entrepreneur whose previous claim to fame included hitting on Anna Kournikova and being fired by Donald Trump on The Apprentice. Neither campus has reopened as an accredited school.

At colleges that survive, as most of them will, the biggest effect of the enrollment cliff will be on how students experience higher learning. Administrators will be hustling to give them new reasons to turn down that $22-an-hour warehouse job. Sports will play a growing role. The biggest athletic schools in America, measured by the percentage of undergraduates who participate in a varsity sport, aren’t the Division I behemoths you watch play football on Saturday afternoons. They’re the Division II, Division III, and NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) schools that are most vulnerable to an enrollment shock. If you loved playing field hockey in high school, the chance to play for the national champions is a powerful draw.

Colleges will very likely step up their use of “enrollment management,” a controversial and sometimes exploitative technique for combining marketing, recruitment, and high-powered number-crunching to maximize tuition revenue from every student.

But the most powerful force driving the post-cliff transformation, by far, will be the labor market. First and foremost, students go to college so they can start a career. As tuition and student debt have increased, on-the-job training has declined, and as the unforgiving job market has raised the bar for well-paying careers, students have moved away from the traditional humanities toward degrees in business, health care, and IT.

The enrollment crisis will shift this trend into overdrive. Ship is responding to all the distribution centers out on I-81 by developing programs in logistics and supply chain management. It’s looking to create more short-term, job-focused certificates that lead up to a bachelor’s degree, and others that supplement BA’s after graduation. Other nearby colleges are expanding nursing programs, developing professional master’s degrees, and creating new courses for adults looking to change careers.

Colleges won’t just be going along with the strengthening alignment of the higher education experience with the labor market. They will be actively promoting it, jettisoning “unprofitable” majors that used to be sheltered inside universities with more than enough students. The next generation of higher education leaders will take scarcity as a given and “return on investment” as both sales pitch and state of mind.

This will be good in some ways and bad in others. Good, if it means colleges are more focused on helping students stay in college and graduate, instead of just maximizing the size of the freshman class. Bad, if academic standards are sacrificed to the “customer is always right” ethos. Good, if colleges build better relationships with local employers so students have a clear path toward a career. Bad, if they cut deals with for-profit companies to spin up overly expensive, debt-financed online degrees.

But there is no arguing with demography. Colleges are about to experience something outside of living memory, and not all of them will make it through.

Is there an upside to all of this? After all, a lot of the students who came through college during the early-century boom years were shackled with student loans and had a hard time launching their careers. Why force someone down a college path that isn’t best for them and load them up with debt when there are good jobs to be found?

These are fair questions, and it’s certainly true that college is not always worth it for everyone. Before the student loan collection system was frozen in 2020, a million people were defaulting on their loans every year.

But people who graduate from places like Carnegie Mellon and Swarthmore aren’t handing their kids a brochure for jobs at the P&G distribution center. They’re sending them back to Carnegie Mellon and Swarthmore, where the humanities are alive and well. The payoff to college, particularly bachelor’s degrees, comes less in the first job than the second and those that follow, on the path to graduate school and management careers.

The financially motivated vocationalization of less selective colleges and universities will further divide students by income and class. First-generation students are not going to discover their calling in academia at the local university if all the quiet and quirky majors have been eliminated in the name of financial efficiency.

If your political leanings are progressive, you may know that Democrats have a concentration problem, clustering in highly educated metropolitan areas in a way that puts them at an electoral disadvantage. People sometimes joke that 150,000 liberals should decamp to Wyoming and grab its two Senate seats. But the enrollment cliff will, no joke, likely make this problem worse, killing some colleges and shrinking others in many of the same Northeastern and Midwestern places that helped Donald Trump overcome a 2.9 million-voter deficit in the 2016 election, while pushing more college-educated voters into states and districts that are already safely in Democratic hands.

In the midst of all the enrollment doomsday prepping and general pessimism, there was a small piece of good news. After a steep 4 percent decline from 2019 to 2020, the number of births in America ticked up by 1 percent in 2021, with the largest increase among women ages 35 to 39.

Perhaps it was an artifact of the lockdown and the downward trend will resume, particularly with a new recession looming. Or it might be something longer-lasting.

Either way, its effects will not be felt for decades. The near future of higher education is one of decline, and its consequences will reshape the American landscape.

Kevin Carey writes about education and other issues. He is a vice president at New America, a think tank in Washington, DC.

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