In his article for The Atlantic, Adam Harris paints an exceedingly gloomy picture of how the future might look for most colleges in the US. The statistics he cited confirm that college enrollment is down 7% in the past five years but admit that most of the decline is due to decreased enrollment at for-profit colleges.
There is nothing magic or particularly foreboding about the decline that has been seen in college enrollment since 2013. Anyone who can compare the population growth numbers from one year to the next could have come to the same conclusion. There are fewer and fewer Americans turning 18 and graduating high school. The population bubble has moved through the teen years and is now somewhere in the 20’s. If there are fewer high school seniors applying to college, it makes perfectly good sense that the result would be fewer students in college.
There is however, a real area of concern for colleges that Mr. Harris failed to mention. If we continue to strap our average college graduates with 20 to 30 thousand dollars of debt, they will not be able to save enough money to educate their children. Young graduates who start a family a year or two after graduation will pay on their loans for 10 to 15 years easily. In this scenario, families could still be paying on the parents’ student loans and have a child in high school preparing to apply to college. I believe the college debt from one generation will begin to compromise the ability of the following generation to continue their education after high school. When that reality is combined with the continually decreasing numbers of teens reaching college age, our institutions of higher learning may be forced to abandon their current business models.
Now is the time for innovators at the college level to begin exploring ideas that are way outside the box and adjust recruitment, course and financial aid offerings. Those who can adjust quickly enough to the new normal will survive and maybe even thrive. Those who do not will likely go the way of the dinosaur.