The university system was hit hard by covid. They had the lowest risk population for customers but commitment to removing Trump forced them to take the most extreme measures. This varied state by state and even university by university, but many closed early, went to online or hybrid schooling and now are demanding vaccination for students to return this fall. Other signs point to a hard recovery for colleges nationwide. It will run out of kids.
Before we get to the kids, we should address the customers. The university is a credential system to get access to good jobs. Covid changed that game entirely. A hot running economy that was still debt fueled is now a limping economy that is debt fueled and reliant on massive fiscal stimulus to keep the lights on. The automation revolution that happened in the blue collar world for decades now is poised to attack white collar jobs. Outsourcing and machine learning for contract reading already pecked away at the legal field. Many other white collar industries will be able to replace auditors and other specialists with some refined algo driven programs. Who wants to take on the debt for college now with that economy to graduate into? The debt question was easier twenty years ago when the average student graduated with $16,000 in debt and expectations of growth and a career path. Now the debt and earnings factors are skewed towards not attending university.
Universities will see customers, especially teenage customers who have parents that learned about the college debt game, pass on attending. Universities cannot handle this. Declines in enrollment are real, and the light at the end of the covid tunnel is the oncoming baby bust train. The last batch of 18 year olds who were born in years where American fertility was above 2.0 are entering college age now. The decline that started around the Obama election will bear fruit in the near future. Today’s freshman are the class of ’24 and the class of ’30 is not too far away. They are in the five year plan’s for enrollment now. I live in a college town, thought the student population had dropped, and when I checked enrollment figures, it was true.
What will universities do? They’ll be fighting over fewer students. This explains the open door policy for Chinese students whose numbers boomed through the 2010s and filled the gap, even providing growth in enrollment. This is not about the elite schools. Of course, elite foreign students make up a decent piece of any incoming class. There is a possibility that the wokening at American universities may curb these numbers, but that remains to be seen. These foreign students now make up marginal students for schools you would never suspect as having a foreign contingent that is paying the full ride and subsidizing the others.
That is the other issue. Universities will fight over the smaller number of students with greater aid packages. This goes back to the debt question for individual choices, but it will cause universities to dig into those endowments. The competition will not just be for good potential students to become good potential alumni donors. It will just be for bodies. It matters. If you look at student to employee ratios, you have roughly 4 students to each employee or so. You lose students, and you will have to lose employees or dig deeper into that endowment. But the university is already digging into that endowment to draw more students. They can always make up for it with donations, but how many Americans have a fond memory of college nowadays? Maybe the Ford Foundation and Open Society can write checks to keep all these professors employed.
That is the trick, too. The right wing state governments can clamp down on the woke public universities, which would be great, but what is to stop private foundations from stepping in to fund the same woke programs the state government defunds? Grab a course catalogue to any university, and the history classes are all woke. Are state governments going to defund history programs? It doesn’t matter if they defund the grievance studies departments because that is the dominant framework for other subjects now. James Lindsay points out how we now see the woke perspective everywhere, including medical lysenkoism. The moment some Republican governor defunds their universities, they will get the Georgia voter law treatment and private industry and foundations will step in to make sure the proper policies and choices are made.
Are universities worth saving? There is value in them. There will always be an education system, but it does not have to look like the post-war monstrosity America built. The Swiss had a practical approach and have drifted towards the American style recently. Could a great burning or cataclysm to the system allow something new to form? It might, but the problem is that this is the credential system, the expert manufacturing system and the justification for our current elite’s power. Crashing fertility won’t stop them, but it will gunk up the gears. The likely outcome is we see universities throwing money at students that they get from whatever scraps billionaires throw them and the slush fund the Democrats’ MMT future will provide. This will keep the party going, the perks accumulating and even if there are no students there, the halls will echo with music.