College education’s demographic bomb

It’s no secret Americans are having fewer babies, and the U.S. population would be shrinking without immigration, because its birth rate has fallen below the death rate. This has many implications, but few industries are more directly impacted than higher education. As Vox explains (here),

“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.'”

The result, of course, will be a hollowing out of the education landscape:

“The empty factories and abandoned shopping malls littering the American landscape may soon be joined by ghost colleges ….”

This would have happened sooner if more high school grads hadn’t opted for college to avoid the fate of their blue-collar parents. That sustained overbuilt and overstaffed campuses for a time. But then, Vox says, “everything went to hell.”

Then came the Great Recession, which led to states slashing higher education funding. Next, the pandemic forced classes online, degrading the quality of education and leading many students to question the value of what they were paying for. And now a labor shortage and rising wages give youngsters an alternative to pursuing a degree. “Colleges,” Vox says, “are about to experience something outside of living memory, and not all of them will make it through.”

Some will fare better than others. Elite colleges will still be able to fill classrooms and charge high tuition. Higher education will continue in high demand on the west and east coasts, where prosperity and people with liberal values are concentrated. Florida and Texas, which are experiencing population influxes, have thriving campuses. The hollowing out will come in the midwest and rust belt states that have lost both prosperity and population.

For many colleges, surviving will require a greater vocational orientation. Students want job prospects. That’s what they’re paying, going into debt, for. More business books and less Chaucer will be read. But one thing won’t change: Partisans not cut from college cloth will still bleat about “basketweaving” courses long after those classes are gone.

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