My Daughter is Getting Ready for College. The College Population is about to Crash.

Back in November, my daughter (a junior) visited Bowling Green University. Kelly wants to be a teacher and Bowling Green is a rather excellent university for producing and creating teachers. She rocked the visit – even the Second Life “simulated” classroom activity (I, however, was chagrined at the 15-year-old technology being demoed as “cutting edge”). She came away with a concrete vision of her near future. As a parent, that was a huge win.

A week later, Vox drops this article: The incredible shrinking future of college.

In four years, the number of students graduating from high schools across the country will begin a sudden and precipitous decline, due to a rolling demographic aftershock of the Great Recession. Traumatized by uncertainty and unemployment, people decided to stop having kids during that period. But even as we climbed out of the recession, the birth rate kept dropping, and we are now starting to see the consequences on campuses everywhere. Classes will shrink, year after year, for most of the next two decades. People in the higher education industry call it “the enrollment cliff.”

I would note that plummeting enrollment is a considerable issue K12 schools and is felt more acutely in the now. That’s likely the subject of a future post. As a parent, I’m looking at the economics of college and finding this change affecting the advice I give my kids.

Beyond the lowering birthrates, we also have a moment where the demand for labor is…complicated. As Vox points out:

Colleges found themselves in the extraordinarily lucky position of being the only places legally allowed to sell credentials that unlocked the gateway to a stable, prosperous life.

But we live in a time where those credentials are increasingly being questioned, especially when the cost of those credentials doesn’t match the financial rewards that may come from attending vocational schools. Cue the standard response of “my plumber makes far more money than I do with a degree in history”. For that matter, at Abre we’ll hire a qualified junior developer who attended a coding bootcamp for a few months (as long as they can show their coding chops). It’s not that credentials are bad (they’re important!); it’s just the monopoly on credentialing is breaking up (slowly).

What does all this mean for my daughter?

Probably not a lot. True, she’s more in demand given she’s part of a shrinking supply. I’m sure this affects variables like cost and simple acceptance. But she’s on the winning side of that equation.

Yesterday the 4-inch tome of ACT Prep landed on our front porch. She’ll spend the summer studying and practicing (and likely fretting way too much) because that’s who she is. She doesn’t need to take the ACT to attend Bowling Green (or many other colleges). I suspect one reason is that colleges are doing their best to lower barriers to getting students. And revenue.

Caveat

Lest it be construed that I have a thing against college, please note that I think higher graduation is a wonderful and incredible experience. Learning, growth, becoming a better person, and creating a better world are excellent goals that higher education fosters. The economics of college are what I’m addressing with this post.

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