Monday, January 14, 2013

Thinking about academic innovation in a context of declining demand for education

Over the past decade, colleges and universities have become adept at offering new or revised academic programs to respond to changes in the marketplace for students.  So, if the number of transfer students in your area is in decline, seek more freshmen.  If your MBA program is dropping off, then add a program in health sciences.  If demand for traditional undergraduate programs slackens, then add new pricing schemes or new modes of delivery.

This remains a smart approach to adjusting to the sort we have had over the last decade where demand for education continued to increase but was distributed differently than in the past.

Three recent studies suggest, though, that overall demand for higher education has flattened or is in decline. The Council of Graduate Schools reports that overall enrollment in graduate programs fell in 2011 for the second consecutive year.  NAICU, passing along federal data, notes that overall enrollment in undergraduate programs declined last year.  And WICHE's new study of high school graduation suggests that the number of students graduating high school will decline for the next couple of years before flattening out.

This is not to say that there will be no mid-level changes in demand.  To the contrary, WICHE is clear on changes in the ethnicity of new college-goers, and it seems likely that more students will continue to be willing to take online courses.  But whereas in the past realignments of student interest took place in a context of overall growth in enrollment, these changes will take place in a period of flat or declining enrollment.

What does this shift mean?  A couple of thoughts:

  • Campuses cannot count on a rising tide of enrollment to protect them from misguided guesses about where new demand would lie, as they could in past years.
  • Because there is not a naturally increasing enrollment, new programs or approaches will need to pay for themselves almost immediately, or be replaced.
  • Without a safety net, campuses (especially small ones) will need to get better at certain types of new programs or enrollment initiatives.  That is, they will need to become specialists in innovation rather than generalists.
  • Schools will need to get better at thinking about geography, academic preparation, and diversity as the  variables in their academic innovations, rather than putting new academic programs at the foreground and worrying about the make-up of the students interested in them later.
  • It will be harder for institutions to start or sustain loss-leader programs, that is, programs that do not bring in revenue but which garner some attention for the institution.  (In this context, one has to wonder how long even large universities will be able to maintain their MOOCs without meaningful enrollment, student success, and revenue associated with them.)

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