When I read in the Los Angeles Times last month about the dire state of Whittier College, I dropped the spoon into my cereal bowl and almost spilled my tea. I grew up in Whittier and am well acquainted with the leafy 136-year-old campus that seems dropped from a quaint New England town. I even took some classes there when I was in high school.
In recent years, however, Whittier’s enrollment and revenue have declined. The article painted a bleak picture of a school in decline, full of damp dormitories and broken toilets.
I wish I could say that such problems are limited to one school, but unfortunately, that is far from the case. In fact, you may have felt like something about the whole college deal was different lately. Disturbingly different.
The country’s colleges and universities grapple with societal, cultural, economic, and demographic forces that influence everything from admissions to academic offerings to financial viability. Where the struggle to adapt to the changing landscape leads to higher education in the long term remains to be seen. However, it is important to pay attention to these mid-flow trends, as some of them are already having a profound effect, as we see in the sad case of Whittier College.
One of the most pressing issues facing higher education today is that overall college enrollment is declining. There are over a million fewer college students now than there were less than four years ago.
There are many reasons behind the declining numbers.
Enrollment had been steadily declining for about a decade before the pandemic. Rising tuition and costs associated with attending college, alarming levels of student loan debt, and other financial stresses are believed to be the main reasons why many college-aged kids choose the workforce rather than pursue an expensive degree.
And shrinking state budgets and shrinking numbers of high school graduates are putting pressure on many colleges and universities.
Then when COVID-19 hit, enrollment dropped after the virus outbreak led to the temporary closure of campuses as colleges and universities shifted to online classes, prompting many students and prospective students to drop out. Many schools have yet to recover from these losses.
Although branded universities and, for the most part, elite private institutions continue to attract record numbers of applications, the outlook is uncertain for smaller, less well-known schools. At least 23 public or nonprofit colleges have closed, merged, or announced they will close in the past three years, and more than half of their students are no longer enrolled elsewhere.
And that doesn’t even include the failures of for-profit schools, which typically close at a much higher rate.
But even major universities are not immune from the problems plaguing their smaller competitors. The Cal State University system, for example—the largest public university system in the country—has lost 27,000 students over the past two years. Earlier this year, it was notified by the state that its campus must boost enrollment or lose some funding.
Low expectations for enrollment, financial problems, pandemic toll—these are all serious problems, to be sure. But something else is going on. Underlying these existential issues is another stark reality – that the basic rationale for college education itself is under attack.
For decades, a university degree was seen as the surest path to prosperity for the middle class. It has also been considered a source of pride, a vital component of the stories we tell ourselves of upward mobility and meritocracy, ideal for families to go after and prove as proof that each generation has outperformed the last.
But reports of people questioning the value of college now saturate the media. It’s elitist, we hear, not worth the high cost, and certainly not worth the debt. We’ve been told that wages are rising and more good jobs are available for those without a degree.
Humanities disciplines come under particularly harsh criticism. Editorials routinely comment on the uselessness of majors like English, philosophy, and art history, because those degrees are believed by many to be dead ends in the job market. Moreover, its relevance in our modern, technology-driven society is increasingly being called into question.
Clearly, students care about such arguments—enrollment has plummeted for many liberal arts staples.
The much-discussed headline of a recent New Yorker article is blunt: “The end of the English major. “
But I think such thinking is misleading. Technology and science graduates tend to have good jobs, but there are plenty of people with liberal arts degrees who are also doing well, thank you very much. It is a mistake to dismiss the value of a comprehensive education that produces critical thinkers who know how to research, study, analyze, and communicate well. Our nation would be poorer without them.
Yes, the number of school-age children is declining, and this is a fact that will affect higher education for the foreseeable future. But when considering the question of costs versus benefits, the solution doesn’t lie in the second part of the equation.
The problem is not the subject matter or the intrinsic value of education. It is the increased cost of the kidney that needs to be addressed.