There is mounting evidence that the American university is in decline, probably not a temporary phenomenon related to the covid-19 pandemic. Start with enrollments: in the year I was born, 1940, only about 11 of every 1,000 Americans attended college. That figure grew explosively in the middle and some of the late 20th century, to over 20 by 1960, 40 by 1970, and 50 by 1980. This was American higher educations Golden Age. There was then a growth pause, but another surge in the first decade of the 21st century, reaching about 65 college students per 1,000 Americans by 2010. But a decline then began: while this falls enrollments are extremely hard to predict, a moderately optimistic guess, assuming under 10% decline from last fall, would be about 50 of every 1,000 Americans will be in collegewhat it was in 1980 and a 23% decline in a decade.
Other indicators support this. In say 1970 or even 2000, it was clear American universities dominated the world in cutting edge research; by 2020, our lead is being eroded by rapid growth of excellence, especially in the STEM disciplines, in China and some European and Asian locales. American university expenditures as a shar of GDP are falling somewhat as well.
Why the decline? Let me suggest seven reasons. First, for decades economists have recognized that college is primarily a screening device for separating the bright and diligent from those who are less productive. With declining academic standards (students studying fewer hours for higher grades), the diploma is a less reliable indicator of potential worker qualityhence the sharp decline in enrollment at lower quality schools even as the higher standard elite schools flourish. The pecuniary benefits of college have stagnated, maybe even declined.
Second, college costs have risen not only in real terms, but also relative to income growth: the financial burden of going to college has grown until recentlycosts have been rising relative to benefits.
Third, people are discovering cheaper, less risky ways of certifying vocational competency, things like coding academies that in a year or two prepare students with needed skills for high paying jobs. A year spent learning to be a welder likely will have a greater payoff than four or five years spent earning a bachelors degree in gender studies from the College of Last Resort.
Fourth, sadly America is transitioning from being a high growth, risk-taking entrepreneurial society to being an aging low growth debt-ridden welfare state. Thus support for basic research is politically less sexy than a generation or two ago. Meanwhile, such research support is increasing rapidly in growing nations elsewhere.
Fifth, Americans apparently dislike having young people around, and colleges are primarily for persons under 25. Birth rates are at a record low; demographic projections show little or no growth in Americans in the key 18-22 age group any time soon. Additionally, we are increasingly hostile towards immigrants, who tend on average to be younger, often with small children.
Sixth, the boom in international enrollments for American universities is temporarily ended by pandemic concerns, but may suffer longer term by the increasing prestige of cheaper foreign universities, lowering international U.S. enrollments and even leading to more out-migration of Americans to good English speaking foreign universities.
Seventh, American universities have lost some popular political support, in part because of excessive campus intolerance of views deviating from the dominant left-wing campus progressive perspective that large portions of the potential college-going American population find uncomfortable, almost un-American. Campus protests, the Cancel Culture, and other suppression of intellectual diversity and heated but civilized debate put off many Americans, as a good deal of polling by Pew and Gallup has indicated.
American universities have become too arrogant, bloated with expensive non-academic apparatchiks, and too far out of the mainstream of American life. They have been doing less for more, and America is getting sick and tired of it. The ongoing market correction that will kill off some schools and scare most others could, in time, be a salutary lesson for university leaders, leading to a return to the basics of non-nonsense teaching of virtue, knowledge, and beauty, and encouraging innovation and enterprise. For Americas sake, lets hope so.