In four years, the number of students graduating from high schools across the country will begin a sudden and precipitous decline, due to a rolling demographic aftershock of the Great Recession. Traumatized by uncertainty and unemployment, people decided to stop having kids during that period. But even as we climbed out of the recession, the birth rate kept dropping, and we are now starting to see the consequences on campuses everywhere. Classes will shrink, year after year, for most of the next two decades. People in the higher education industry call it “the enrollment cliff.”
Among the small number of elite colleges and research universities — think the Princetons and the Penn States — the cliff will be no big deal. These institutions have their pick of applicants and can easily keep classes full.
For everyone else, the consequences could be dire. In some places, the crisis has already begun. College enrollment began slowly receding after the millennial enrollment wave peaked in 2010, particularly in regions that were already experiencing below-average birth rates while simultaneously losing population to out-migration. Starved of students and the tuition revenue they bring, small private colleges in New England have begun to blink off the map. Regional public universities like Ship are enduring painful layoffs and consolidation.
The timing is terrible. Trade policy, de-unionization, corporate consolidation, and substance abuse have already ravaged countless communities, particularly in the post-industrial Northeast and Midwest. In many cases, colleges have been one of the only places that provide good jobs in their communities, offer educational opportunities for locals, and have strong enough roots to stay planted. The enrollment cliff means they might soon dry up and blow away.
This trend will accelerate the winner-take-all dynamic of geographic consolidation that is already upending American politics. College-educated Democrats will increasingly congregate in cities and coastal areas, leaving people without degrees in rural areas and towns. For students who attend less-selective colleges and universities near where they grew up — that is, most college students — the enrollment cliff means fewer options for going to college in person, or none at all.
The empty factories and abandoned shopping malls littering the American landscape may soon be joined by ghost colleges, victims of an existential struggle for reinvention, waged against a ticking clock of shrinking student bodies, coming soon to a town near you.