US Higher Ed Headed for a Crash, Analysts Predict

Bells have been tolling for America’s higher education system for a long time, but they’ve never before tolled louder than they are now. Thanks to new economic realities like lower middle-class wages, higher levels of debt and higher unemployment, the entire higher education sector may be headed for an upheaval that could see many a prominent player come out the other side greatly diminished or maybe not even come out at all.

Jon Marcus of the Hechinger Report succinctly lays out the problems facing colleges and universities today. Lower enrollment numbers combined with increased price sensitivity from families and potential students means that schools have to offer bigger and bigger incentives to keep people coming to their campus. And too many schools simply can not afford to do this long term. A recent report by Bain & Company concluded that more than a third of all accredited colleges and universities throughout the country will be unable to keep their doors open in only a few years.

“As the price keeps going up, within 10 years our price tag will be over $75,000,” said Julie Richardson, dean of admissions at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. “That’s a number that begins to concern a lot of people.”

So does Hampshire’s discount rate—the proportion of its tuition revenue that goes back out the door in the form of financial aid—which Richardson said is 46 percent.

On the annual Department of Education report ranking colleges’ financial stability, more than 150 rated an F based on the data collected in 2011. It’s unlikely that their financial prognosis has become any sunnier since then. As a matter of fact, as Marcus reports, a few have already closed including small non-profits in Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and one for profit school in Ohio. Marcus adds that a number have filed for bankruptcy.

Although the wretched state of the higher education system and its uncertain future can hardly even be considered news outside academia, those who reside inside the ivory tower don’t seem to be heeding the alarms.

Robert Zemsky, chairman of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education and the author of a new book proposing educational reforms called Checklist for Change, said academic faculty are part of the problem. He said many hope things will just get better.

“The faculty aren’t convinced that change is necessary,” said Zemsky, who also teaches at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “We faculty—and it is we faculty—are encamped north of Armageddon. We can sort of look over the horizon and see the chaos.

We’re on the sideline. And that’s terrible that the faculty, writ large, are on the sideline.”