Higher education faces an uncertain future
In a sign of what might happen globally, state universities and private colleges across the US are facing declining enrollment. Public universities in Illinois, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Massachusetts have all reported problems attracting students. Marty Meehan, the president of the public university system in Massachusetts, which includes five separate schools, recently said there is a demographic problem. Boston.com quoted Meehan as saying that, in the US in 2016, most public universities and more than two-thirds of private universities had lower enrollment than projected. This is a shocking change from the time when university enrollment seemed certain to rise every year.
American schools, in particular, are also facing a decline in foreign students. Whereas once the US was seen by many as the best destination for higher education, the options are much greater today. Enrollment by foreign students in American graduate programs dropped 4 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Some analysts blame this decline on US politics or debates in the US about visa issuance. Others say it is partially a result of a devalued Indian rupee, which makes it harder for Indian students to study in the US.
However, there is a simpler reason that the US is no longer the one and only destination for so many international students: Schools in other countries are catching up to their American counterparts in terms of prestige and quality. According to the 2019 Times Higher Education World University Rankings — largely seen as the most relied-upon international education league table — 41 of the world’s top 100 schools are American. That is still impressive but, in 2010, 53 American schools were in the top 100.
Students around the world now have more options. For example, Japan had set a goal of attracting 300,000 foreign university students by 2020, but it was only about a thousand students shy of that goal by May of last year, according to Nippon.com. The attraction of a Japanese education is the same as that of an American one: The prestige and connections might help the students transition to promising careers. However, there is more to this story. It seems most of the students are actually enrolled in Japanese language schools or training for a trade, not typical university coursework. This is part of a larger global trend: University-age people are foregoing traditional higher education.
Schools in other countries are catching up to their American counterparts in terms of prestige and quality
Ellen R. Wald
A 2018 report by the British Council forecast a severe decline in the growth of “outbound mobility of international students.” The report said that the growth rate would drop from 5.7 percent to 1.7 percent by 2027. This was explained, in large part, by the appearance and expansion of universities across the world. More and more countries are investing in their own higher education systems, sometimes in partnership with foreign institutions.
However, this explosion of new universities and of spots at universities may be negative, as a shortage of students could lead to a surplus of schools. In most of the world, higher education is fully or partially subsidized by the government, so the choice to attend is often easy for qualifying students. Because of government subsidies, the incentives are skewed and it may take a while to observe noticeable trends.
In the US, however, university tuition is expensive, with many adults facing tens of thousands of dollars of college debt years after they graduate. The average cost of attending one year of college at a private university in the US currently exceeds $35,000, according to US News. In America, the market is beginning to make young people aware of opportunities outside of higher education. Earlier this week, CEOs meeting with President Donald Trump said they are working to hire more high school graduates.
In 1971, a court case in the US made it legally risky for employers to use aptitude and IQ tests to determine hiring, as it was decided that such tests could be discriminatory against minorities. As a result, employers began requiring more educational experience to separate job candidates. Eventually, this led to an inflation of credentials, in which college degrees were required even for unrelated jobs in fields like sales, services and administration. As this trend grew in the US, and as business became global, university diplomas came to be seen as necessities everywhere.
Now, with low unemployment in much of the world, young adults may again have the opportunity to find work without university diplomas. That would be ideal, as it would mean more efficient use of resources with less wasted on degrees that are not used.
The biggest fear for universities is that falling enrollment will require them to close programs or schools. When the global recession hit in 2008, many societies saw declines in birth rates. That smaller generation will hit university age in about seven years. Between those demographic changes, a potential drop in outbound mobility of international students and the realization that higher education diplomas are not always unnecessary, we should expect to see a shakeup in higher education in the next decade.
Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy