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Worse Before It Gets Better

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I dunno if you need to be a “futurist” to take note of the problem with higher education but nevertheless worth paying some attention to…

Now, five years on, he says the “depressing” hypothesis is playing out. In the spring of 2013, there were 19,105,651 students enrolled in higher ed; this spring, there were 17,839,330, according to recently released data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That represents a roughly 7-percent decrease—and is driven largely by declining enrollments in the for-profit and community-college sectors, as well as stagnant enrollments among four-year non-profit public and private institutions. And the trend of declining enrollment in higher education is likely to continue, he argues, for a couple of reasons, but most notably, a declining birth rate means that there will be fewer 18-year-olds entering academe, and there are fewer international and immigrant students to fill those seats.

The drop in international students isn’t accidental, of course; the GOP sees the higher education industry as an enemy of its interests (and frankly they’re not wrong), has noted that the industry is increasingly dependent on international students, and has taken steps to limit the growth of this population. Universities and colleges that survived by charging foreign students full freight tuition are going to have to pay the piper at some point because there aren’t going to be more freshmen. Moreover, Alexander isn’t wrong about the overproduction of Ph.Ds; as a profession we’ve known for a good long time that major programs produce more doctorates than they can reasonably place, resulting in a permanent pool of underemployed academics.

Maybe its just the frustration of this grant application talking, but so much of academic life is spinning the roulette wheel and declaring yourself meritocratically deserving after you hit “31.” It’s not a bad job, but we do enormous amounts of work for effectively free at the best of times, and this work often results in nothing at all (a failed manuscript, a failed grant application). I’ve written exactly one letter of recommendation for a Ph.D. program in the last decade, and while I don’t regret that deeply idiosyncratic case my standard advice to students with questions about careers in academia is “do not under any circumstances contemplate a career in academia.”

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