Readers react to the demographic cliff

Yesterday’s post asked my wise, worldly readers how their colleges are preparing for the demographic cliff of 2026, when the smallest birth cohort of 2008 reaches traditional college age. Responses were typically thoughtful.

Several readers told similar stories of the cliff vaguely acknowledged in speeches by campus leaders, but with no discernible connection to action. That was the most common answer, and the one I have no trouble believing. A few others noted that the COVID-related listing crash may not only have overshadowed the cliff, but embodied it; now that we know how to operate with lower enrollments, we need to continue those lessons. I agree on the need to push the lessons forward, although I think the optimistic version of this view understates the essential role that federal stimulus funding has played over the past two years.

A few offered cautious predictions. Louise Couture tweeted that “of the colleges explaining this change, how many are looking to the predatory inclusion of ‘underrepresented students’ as a strategy?” Maureen Murphy struck a similar note, offering that “[f]Enrollment-based funding is a pyramid scheme. We had two years of major learning loss; it’s time to redouble our efforts to train people instead of counting noses. Pam Eddinger in short: “see the mature student as an asset, not as a substitute for traditional-aged students”. I really like these because they recognize the easy trap of treating students (or future students) as means to an end, rather than ends in themselves. I’ve seen enough of that during my days working at DeVry, which was outspoken about being for-profit. The ethical trade-offs that ensue when it’s all about “doing the numbers” are exactly what pulled me away from for-profit organizations and into the world of community colleges. I would hate to see community colleges follow the same path as for-profit institutions. I saw this movie and I don’t like the ending.

Mike Timonin saw the cliff as a moment of truth. “From an adjunct faculty perspective, the administration has been telling us for years – for almost 15 years, even – that enrollment is down this year, and therefore our class may not fill up. It will be interesting to see what happens when it’s actually true…” For that, I’ll just say that context matters. Here, for example, enrollment has been down for at least a decade; COVID has accelerated the decline but hasn’t not triggered. This may not be true everywhere. Yet, insofar as the fact is that underpaying deputies has been a means of delaying the treatment of broader issues of institutional sustainability, it is difficult to argue opposite.

Bliss Austin Spooner noted that the declines highlighted by Grawe are finer than just quadrants of the country. In many ways, they’re about the metro-rural divide: Most of New England may be losing enrollment, but Boston isn’t. This has implications for colleges outside of thriving metropolitan areas.

This is the kind of point that rewards sustained thought. Our politics are already defined to a daunting degree by sheer population density; basically, the higher the population density, the bluer the vote. Over time, this has led to political identification becoming something of a lifestyle brand, which makes real conversation much more difficult. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that community colleges – monuments to the middle class – grew fastest during the post-war boom, when income inequality was at its lowest and “swing voters” were in fact common. Community colleges are monuments to inclusion, equality, and shared ambition. To the extent that the culture as a whole places less value on these, community colleges struggle. This will be more true in areas that were once a strong middle class and have since declined.

It is true that distance education writ large allows for some limited autonomy from the dictates of geography, and that can help to some extent. But when mission statements refer to meeting the needs of the local community, there are political limits to how non-local you want to achieve.

Many responded with the standard playbook of reaching out to mature students and working to improve retention. Both are good ideas in pragmatic and ethical terms. Apart from special cases, however, I doubt either is enough to leave everything else unchanged. To borrow a term from some scientific friends, these movements are necessary but not sufficient.

Nobody had a credible panacea, but I didn’t really expect it. I have, however, drawn hope from the deep ethical concerns that people have brought to the issue. Community colleges are for students; it’s not the other way around. If we can keep our moral compass pointed in the right direction, there is real reason for hope.

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