A Higher Education Apocalypse?

In last week’s newsletter, we highlighted a U.S. News article titled “The Higher Education Apocalypse.” A dramatic title to be sure, and of course drama sells magazines. However, the thinking aligns with other things I’ve read, from Kevin Carey’s great 2015 book “The End of College.” I will admit that the US News article, despite its provocative title, was pretty well substantiated, both in its data and in its reliance on respected experts like Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who predicts that as many as half of all universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.

I have to balance those futurist projections against my experience last week, sitting in an auditorium with my 11th grade son as his principal told us how area colleges are more competitive than ever before: Thanks to an ever-increasing number of applications, they’re raising admissions standards and accepting a lower percentage of applicants than ever before.

So, what gives?

I do think there are clouds on the horizon: As noted in the US News article “Scholars estimate that nearly 2.3 million fewer babies were born between 2008 and 2013, which, when combined with an expansion of higher education offerings in the decades preceding that, mean too many slots compared to the number of applicants.” Those born in 2008 will be turning 18 in 2024 – just five years from now – so we’re right on the cusp of a deepening of the 18-24 population decline.

And it’s also true that the cost of a four-year college degree continues to increase, while it’s becoming acceptable to openly debate the value one gets for that investment – meaning more alternatives will become available and accepted.

Even though employers will start to accept more forms of proof of preparedness for work, there will still be a certain cachet with the four-year degree, even though it primarily signals persistence and the ability to think at a certain level. And if a school has branded itself well – like the ones in my area have (UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State, etc.), they’ll continue to see high demand and exclusivity.

So, it makes sense that my son is going to face both high costs and a challenging acceptance process if he decides to pursue higher education – but the story for his son may be very different.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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