The higher education system in America has gone through notable change over the past 150 years, but it has always been growing. Even as the standards changed and the costs rose, there have always been more students, and more colleges, from year to year.
But it’s also been clear for several years now that the traditional college funding model is falling apart – soaring costs and reliance on international students means that even a small downturn could cause much of the higher ed system to come tumbling down.
Now a new piece in Inside Higher Ed points out that we have in fact entered a steady period of declining enrollment for the first time – that the college system is indeed crumbling, and there are good reasons to think it’s never going back.
Education Innovation Is Working
“There have been plenty (of colleges closing),” writes Ray Schroeder, a senior fellow at the Association for Leaders in Online and Professional Education, and “in just the past four years there have been 95 college mergers, which is more than four times as many as in the prior 18 years, with more on the way.”
Yet enrollment is still declining in the institutions that remain. Meanwhile student debt has increased, now up to an estimated $1.75 trillion.
The only parts of the higher education system that are growing are the non-traditional ones: online and distance education. (Here at Calbright our own enrollment numbers have more than tripled during the past two years.) At the same time, more and more employers are opting out of requiring college degrees entirely, and are hiring for the skills people have. Companies are even setting up their own training programs, creating a kind of “alternative education system.”
A College Education Has To Support You
While traditional higher education has been good at supporting traditional students, those are often the students who need it least. This is why, even as more Americans got college degrees, the education gap kept growing. The traditional education model was broken: the new approaches are much needed reform.
But new approaches to higher education also have to serve students, not just become another set of hoops to jump through. They have to be accessible and support students’ career goals and the economy overall.
The lack of enrollment in community colleges, for example, could cause a significant economic slowdown as key industries have trouble finding qualified workers.
Studies have shown that coding boot camps and alternative education options don’t help students as effectively as promised, while public education institutions (especially low-cost ones, like community colleges) are the most effective at helping students achieve their goals.
Certificate Programs to Boost Your Career
This is true whether or not public colleges offer traditional degrees or not; certificate programs from public institutions are proving just as effective at helping students boost their careers, especially as more and more businesses are hiring for skills rather than degrees.
As Schroeder notes:
“All these factors combine to make the future of higher education look far less bright than it did decades ago. We can expect more campus closures and mergers with the inevitable fallout of jobs and disruption of careers. Those colleges and universities that survive and thrive will be the ones who find new ways to offer affordable and effective programs that serve both students and employers.”
So while the future of “traditional higher education” as an industry is less rosy than in the past, the students themselves can be fine if public institutions are able to continue innovating and retain public support.