Colleges Helped Cause the Enrollment Crash

Having abandoned traditionalism, universities are getting their just desserts.

There is considerable talk these days about the enrollment crash in higher education, especially in liberal-arts education. The Chronicle of Higher Education has been expressing worry about this crisis for several years and has provided evidence supporting it.

In 2019, Bucknell University’s former vice president for enrollment management, Bill Conley, penned one such article, describing how college enrollment constriction had long been predicted and was finally manifesting itself. Endlessly rising tuition, stagnating American wages, and a steady decline in the birth rate could point in only one direction. As Conley put it, “Those who saw modest high-school graduation dips by 2020 as surmountable must now absorb the statistical reality: Things are only going to get worse.”

Endlessly rising tuition, stagnating American wages, and a steady decline in the birth rate can point in only one direction.Conley focused on the demographics (in short, Americans are producing many fewer children) and the drop in demand for higher education. He did not speculate much on the why.

Another CHE article from early 2021, by economics professor Nathan Grawe, equally avoided discussion of the causes of the enrollment decline but offered tips to institutions on how to weather the storm. His recipe was for colleges and universities to fully embrace methods such as test-optional admissions to admit students who could not otherwise make the grade. He admitted, however, that this would do nothing to grow the overall pot of potential students given the demographic decline.

Grawe ended with “reason(s) to be optimistic about higher education’s future,” though it is not clear why he thinks this a reasonable conclusion from the data. Recent numbers confirm Conley’s dire prediction from 2019. As of this fall, the total number of enrolled undergraduates in the country is down almost 10 percent, which amounts to almost a million and a half fewer college students in the past two years alone.

But at the same time enrollment in four-year institutions is falling, two-year colleges and skilled trade programs are experiencing growth. Evidence suggests that potential students and their parents are working carefully through the math, comparing the cost of education to the eventual pay rates of graduates. Many are changing course on where to invest their education dollars.

The economics are certainly a big part of what is going on. When a commodity becomes so expensive and its perceived value drops so low, a downturn in consumption is expectable. Economics is not everything, however. Unexplored in the Chronicle’s investigation of this matter is the way the culture of higher education has operated to undermine its own continuing existence.

The unrelentingly, radicalizing social-justice spirit of contemporary higher education includes open denunciation of people at the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum. They have long made up the lion’s share of families paying full tuition, shouldering a disproportionate part of the work of making higher education economically feasible.

Wealthy students, and especially wealthy white students, are an unwieldy burden on the new mission of higher education.I have heard that denunciatory sentiment expressed dozens of times on my campus by faculty members. Wealthy students, and especially wealthy white students, are described as an unwieldy burden on the new mission of higher education, which is, of course, social justice. These “privileged brats” too often chafe under ideological programming designed to make them feel responsibility for things that happened before their birth. They take up spaces that might be more fruitfully given to students from “historically disadvantaged groups,” who can be counted on to be more amenable to indoctrination given their reliance on a system of redistribution for their presence on college campuses.

No opportunity is missed to paint the full-tuition students (and their parents) as reactionary enemies of the new calling of higher education. The critics seldom consider the economics of removing students who pay the full ticket and replacing them with others who rely heavily on financial aid.

The stupidification and politicization of our standards and curricula are part of the effort, alluded to by Grawe, to bring in a broader spectrum of students. (Sadly, he doesn’t name it for what it is.) On this topic, almost no one wants to talk about the obvious fact that standardized tests are not the only thing that will have to go. Traditional grading systems, in which only a minority of students achieve excellence and the majority by definition do average work, are also an impediment to the goals of social justice.

In most of the humanities and social sciences—especially the overtly political “Studies” fields—rigor has fallen completely into the abyss. Social-science disciplines that were once oriented toward the scientific method and quantification are now essentially just applications of the catchall “cause” of oppression as the answer to all questions. Humanities fields that formerly required students to read the wide canon of Western literature and history now use graphic novels and television programs as their central texts.

Grade inflation is a fact, and every honest observer inside the institutions knows it. The activist professoriate, however, denies it, since it starkly reveals what corners have been cut to make room for the new, “diverse” student body.

Parents and potential students are learning about all of this, if slowly and imperfectly. They are voting with their feet against an expensive but obviously dumbed-down “education” that does not increase job prospects for grads but actively promotes emotion and ideology in the place of knowledge.

Our colleges preach a culture that’s inimical to the birth and raising of children.The demographic revolution that has produced many fewer children per family is affected strongly by economic factors, but it’s impossible to deny that our colleges preach a culture that’s inimical to the birth and raising of children.

I sometimes ask students to think seriously about the question of whether every paid job in the external workforce offers a greater contribution to human flourishing than the domestic work done by parents—female and male—who dedicate the lion’s share of their work-lives to childcare and the maintenance of the home. Why do so many Americans think that someone working, e.g., in an advertising company, trying to dream up ways to influence people to buy the latest piece of communicative technology, is doing more important work than a mother or a father caring for her or his children?

Higher education bolsters the culture that preaches the message that families aren’t particularly important.

Whole departments (Women’s Studies, for example) and parts of others (much of the social sciences) are dedicated to propagating the line that everything about the traditional sex-based division of labor (men predominantly working outside the home, women predominantly working inside it) and the traditional approach to family (married two-parent couples and children) were evil manifestations of patriarchal oppression rather than successful responses to social needs.

The demographic revolution did not come from the sky. It came in large part from feminism and progressive ideology about the family. The institutions of higher education have been a central site for the dissemination of those ideas.

The aftermath of the Dobbs decision provides a lucid recent example. At many campuses, “seminars” and “teach-ins” on “reproductive rights” sprouted up after Dobbs like grass in the springtime. What is meant by “reproductive rights”? The protection of the Roe-invented “right” to abort, of course, but, more broadly, a cultural framework in which pregnancy and childbirth are essentially negative things. In that view, the most important goals are the blending of the sexes into an unvarying sameness and the generation of high incomes.

Many women who go into college desiring children come out of it with a quite different view.This cultural logic requires women to see family and children as possible impediments to such goals, and many women who go into college desiring children come out of it with a quite different view. Men, too, are rigorously socialized there into this new feminist culture.

The stupidification of curricula goes hand in hand with the stupidification of the faculty. As new approaches to “knowledge” have arisen, reducing knowledge to a few universal claims (“It’s structural racism”; “It’s patriarchy”), the professorial class has been transformed. Given our new class of students—weakly qualified, tepid about learning, and in need of coaxing to stay the course in college—we need a new type of professor.

The traditional professor was a receptacle of hard-won knowledge in a discipline that she or he had been hired to transmit to students. That professor has now been replaced by a hybrid cheerleader/mental-health therapist/counselor/entertainment facilitator/social worker/pseudo-parent/friend and confidante.

Think what you like about the new job description of professors. There is no way someone can spend considerable time doing all those jobs and remain a scholar and teacher.

Another force driving the rejection of higher education in many quarters is the steady drift into ideological conformity. Diversity is everywhere on campus, but nowhere is there much talk about diverse ideas, diverse politics, and diverse worldviews.

Sources like the Chronicle, so interested in talking about the demographic crisis, never mention the factors contributing to it that I have discussed here. Higher education is going to get what it deserves because it has failed to sustain its traditional mission and traditional culture.

Alexander Riley is a professor of sociology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.