Here’s a depressing little set of essays from the Chronicle of Higher Education, that grapple with the enrollment and revenue declines that are starting to hit American higher ed, and which are predicted to get worse over the next decade. (Among the factors driving this are falling birth rates, continually higher attendance costs colliding with largely flat median family incomes, nativist anti-immigration sentiment that makes it more difficult to recruit and admit foreign students, and more generally the relentless right-wing attack on the whole idea of institutions devoted to pursuing critical thinking, in the guise of complaints about “political correctness.”)
What these essays all take for granted is that higher education is a business, and that therefore the solution to all of higher ed’s ills is to find ways to constantly increase the revenue generated by the higher ed “market sector,” by giving customers what they want:
Colleges have to ask: What else can we do to increase revenue that is consistent with our mission? Colleges have historically added programs, increased the size of their student body, or added fees. We are hitting a wall on all of those options.
The enrollment game is fiercely competitive, and every college plays it — which means that every college will have to decrease its dependence on traditional enrollment.
In short, colleges must be willing to radically reimagine their business models. This does not mean redefining who they are and what they do; it’s about doing new things. Partnerships with corporate America, alternative uses for campus buildings, different methods of curricular delivery, and programming and housing for adult and retired populations are just a few options. Colleges should emulate successful businesses — figure out what their “customers” need and design products and experiences to meet those needs.
Note how the idea of figuring out how to function without relying on constant revenue growth is apparently as inconceivable to our academic administrative class as the analogous suggestion in regard to economic growth would be to the mandarins of our political and media ecosystems. This is because, in what is referred to optimistically as “late capitalism,” ever-more growth is always the answer to every question.
And how do you get this non-stop growth? Obviously, by figuring out what the customers want, and giving them more of whatever that should happen to be:
Start by acknowledging that most families view college as a transaction, not as a time of transformation. I think fondly of my undergrad experience where I was drawn by my love of learning, acquiring knowledge for its own sake. Those days are gone. According to the CIRP Freshman Survey, students are going to college (and having their parents pay for college) to get a good job. Understand their pragmatism and embrace it. It is time to prioritize what students want and need over what we want to teach. Heresy, I know.
It doesn’t seem to occur to this educator that, if there were not a significant gap between what our students think they want and what our students actually need, this thing of ours would in fact be completely pointless.
And if you’re not depressed enough yet: