Some things to consider:
· Traditional residential campuses face overwhelming deferred maintenance, to the point that the challenge may be literally insurmountable for many institutions.
· Competing for students has produced enormous institutional debt, in order to have state-of-the-art residence halls, fitness centers, and student centers. The cost of technology and technical support are a challenge everywhere. Many institutions spend millions of dollars per year on athletic programs, with highly questionable return on that investment.
· Marketing/recruiting costs grow higher, as institutions attempt to draw prospective students away from competitors. In other words, institutions are fighting to maintain class size, in the face of a declining 18-year-old demographic. Private nonprofits continue to increase the level of discounting, in order to fill classes.
· People can argue about tuition and student loan bubbles, but the cost of attendance is problematic, and defenders of tuition increases offer tortured justification or blame cuts in state funding. It doesn’t matter what the explanation is, because good alternatives are developing rapidly.
· Administrators tend to shield faculty from financial and political realities, with the result that faculty members are understandably confused or angry, when they are told that the model no longer works, teaching loads are inadequate, or their institutions are forced to rely on lower-paid adjuncts in order to support all the items in the bullets above.
So what are the solutions?
· Many institutions are paying closer attention to retention. That’s a good thing.
· Programing and services will become more focused and improve over time. That also is a good thing. However, this has to come from a student-centered, learning outcomes point of view and not just an attempt to reduce costs.
· We can hope to increase the proportion of 18-year-olds who go to college, or who come to our particular institution, but the pricing/debt issues suggest that the trend will go toward attending community colleges, university branches, and online institutions. University administrators will find it very difficult to balance a budget, without first- and second-year students.
· We can recruit more international students, more adult learners, and (for publics) more out-of-state students. I doubt that this will be an adequate solution, because institutions either won’t adapt their services to these audiences, losing out to more student-centered competitors, or they will find that the cost of support is excessive, given the continuing needs of their traditional audience.
· Virtually all institutions will expand online offerings, and that could attract new enrollment. However, the most successful online programs will be highly scalable and offered at attractive prices. Over a few years, enrollment will tend to consolidate at some institutions and move away from others. Quality student services will be key.
This isn’t prophecy. It is the obvious conclusion from watching trends across the country, combined with my belief that we are in a disruptive environment, not simply a challenging phase in a funding cycle. For those of us who genuinely care about access and opportunity, the end result may be exciting, creative, and encouraging. To be sure, the effects of change will be different in different sectors of higher education.