The Coming College Storm

My private college tuition in 1968 was $2,800, 50 years later it’s $50,000. Meanwhile, state support for public colleges has diminished and educational value has changed both for better and for worse.

Green Mountain College’s closure last month is an indicator of the changes roiling the college marketplace and, as is so often the case, we see little more than hand-wringing, appeals for more money, and the reapplication of shop-worn tools to stave off the inevitable.

For those who must measure student debt against educational and future employment value, the value equation for college has diminished. Student debt now tops a trillion and a half trillion dollars. Demographically, there are fewer college-bound students and those remaining are either privileged and undeterred by high tuitions or reluctant to acquire crippling debt. Current White House xenophobic policies have reduced foreign applications. Statistics about college graduation rates and future income expectations are also skewed by luminary exceptions like Bezos, Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, and others.

For years, the U.S. News college ranking service has reflected distorted values and triggered competition among colleges that added little beyond expense to the core educational mission – student centers, elite apartments, pools, shops, and fitness centers.

Competition, long the core belief system of capitalism, hasn’t worked in either health care or education, both traditionally mission-driven enterprises. If every college competes for every student’s interest, every college will eventually bankrupt itself for a shrinking market share. But if every college were to establish a center of excellence in the humanities, science, business, or public policy, it could then focus limited resources on being the best.

Colleges that ignore these headwinds and don’t rethink traditional college governance, tenured faculty, and the idea that college is a finite experience rather than a life-long endeavor and simply turn to philanthropy to offset operating losses will soon learn that charity can’t shore up an eroding value equation. This kind of preemptive change is disruptive, but the best teachers and educational institutions will survive and thrive. Nor will it be easy, but institutions that understand changing economic and demographic patterns, are willing to reconfigure faculty, administrative, and governance relationships, and focus on their core excellence will weather the storm.