A second demographic cliff adds to the urgency of change

One of the most common annual refrains I’ve heard over my decades on faculty and in higher education administration has been “Let’s increase the freshman class by 10% to next fall! “

Motivated by the need to generate more money for tuition and accommodation, universities have sought to increase the number of undergraduate students on campus. Prospects for such increases darken as the ‘demographic cliff’ predicted by up to 15 percent drop in freshman outlook approaches, starting in 2025 due to the declining birth rate during the 2008 recession and for years afterwards. These babies who disappeared in 2008 would have started entering university 17 years later, in 2025.

Now we are seeing another big drop in births in 2020, with births down 4% on the year, but notably accelerating to 8% in December. as the impact of COVID was felt earlier in the year, reducing births nine months later. It remains to be seen how long and how large the drop will be this year. This new birth drop echo will begin to reach colleges by 2037.

These declines come against the backdrop of a half-dozen years of annual decline in births in the United States. Yet the birth rate is not the only trend threatening higher education as we know it today. There are growing factors that deter prospective students from investing heavily in degrees and instead of choosing to opt for online alternatives to traditional higher education:

Speaking to the Financial Times, Kirill Pyshkin, senior portfolio manager at Credit Suisse, compared the disruption to what happened in the film industry a few years ago: “It’s Netflix’s moment of the education. Sean Gallagher, executive professor of education policy at Northeastern University and founder of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern, agrees: “This seems like a catalyst moment. As has happened with the rapid digitization of so many other areas of our daily lives, we have probably acquired in a matter of months a level of interest and participation in online education that would have manifested steadily over the course of time. years.

Meanwhile, Coursera – the large-scale, for-profit online diploma, certificate and course provider – reported first-quarter earnings. Last year Coursera reported 70 million learners with over 200 partners. This year, profits were up more than 70 percent from the first quarter of last year, to some $ 50 million. Meanwhile, Google has announced his massive new career certificates in an array of fields, with costs starting as low as $ 39 per month. Microsoft and, of course, LinkedIn are also the main providers of professional certifications.

A Strada Education Network COVID-19 Work and Education survey found that one in four Americans plan to enroll in an education program in the next six months, and they also expressed a preference for non-degree programs, job training, and online options. We wonder if these will be hosted by universities.

Workers aren’t the only ones expressing little interest in four-year degree programs. More and more CEOs are dropping the baccalaureate as a condition of hiring, as you can find described in this interesting discussion on LinkedIn.

In short, competition is increasing rapidly; the pool of “traditional” students is evaporating; employers drop educational requirements; and, with student debt now exceeding $ 1.7 trillion, we all know families are looking for more profitable paths to the knowledge and skills they seek. “The fundamental economic model for the delivery of education is broken”, says Rick Beyer, Principal Investigator and Practice Area Manager for Mergers and Memberships at the Association of University and College Boards of Trustees. “The era of consolidation started a few years ago. It will continue. We will see more closures.”

So what are the positives of post-secondary learning?

Online learning tops the list despite bad press for hastily rolled out distance learning over the past year. Mature students, in particular, prefer the flexibility and mobility of the Internet. Enrollment in online programs has continued to increase while overall tertiary education enrollments have declined in each of the past twelve years.

The sharing of institutional courses is growing. Increasingly, colleges are seeing enrollments plummet in certain disciplines such as foreign languages ​​and certain humanities. Sharing faculty and courses with other institutions under similar circumstances can save money while still serving students and potentially preserving an institution.

Certification and accreditation are two areas that offer opportunities for expansion. These shorter online opportunities deliver career rewards in less time at a lower cost than a degree. It is hoped that these programs will attract a greater number of students eager to retrain, upgrade and obtain diplomas to enter new fields.

Millions of former students have completed some degree work, but without a degree they have nothing of substance to mark their learning achievements. A grant from the Lumina Foundation funded an initiative to create a “Credentials as You Go” method provide additional references to progress to a bachelor’s degree.

Is your institution impervious to these changes? How are your demographics evolving, short term and long term based on these trends? What are you doing to meet the learning needs of new groups of adult learners?

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