This Might Not be the Best Answer to Our Enrollment Crisis

A poster of four students of varying races and genders sitting on a set of steps. From left to right, they hold: a tambourine, a video game controller and headset, a measuring tape, and a microphone. The text at the top says, "Find Your Club or Start Your Own. Bachata. E-Sports. Fashion. K-Pop. We've got it all. A degree for every dream. Apply Now CUNY The City University of New York"Figure 1 – A subway ad for for CUNY highlighting different clubs

The other day, on my way to work, I was staring at an ad that was posted on the wall of the train (Figure 1). I got interested and I took a photograph of it. The next day, I took the subway again to work and advertisements like that above and that shown in Figure 2 were posted throughout the car. I went to Google and checked for images matching the phrase “A degree for every dream.” I got a handful. Most of them promised a good, productive time for students attending CUNY at very competitive prices.

A female-presenting Asian student and a male-presenting African American student wear blue caps and gowns and stand in front of a series of tall buildings. The text at the top says "CUNY The City University of New York Apply Now." Below, it says, "Degrees without the debt: 2.8K+ world-class programs across 25 colleges in NYC"Figure 2 – Another subway ad specifies the number of programs that CUNY runs

A few days back, I took part in my college’s faculty council meeting, where elected members of the faculty discuss college business. At the beginning of the meeting, approximately 50 students marched in, demanding the resignation of the president in the context of her perceived attitude toward a student demonstration about the Israel-Hamas war. The students cited a list of student clubs that agreed with them. Not many people knew how many students were in these clubs but the statement was taken as representing the student population. Not surprisingly, many other schools have found themselves in a similar situation, with Harvard getting the most publicity. Harvard’s president stated that neither a single club nor even 30 clubs could speak for the university as a whole.

A bit more relevant to many universities, including my own, was the budgetary necessity to adapt to the reality of decreasing enrollment. Some universities needed to close (mostly small, private, for-profit ones, but also some public, non-profit ones). Many also had to cut program availabilities. Running a school with decreased enrollment (September 27, 2022) was part of my earlier “campus as a lab” series of blogs and the topic (how to run a school under these conditions) was also incorporated into the curriculum of our School of Education.

More general coverage can be found in a Brookings article. The intro paragraphs and some examples of “solutions,” are given below:

Is college worth it? The public is increasingly skeptical. A Wall Street Journal/NORC poll this year found 56% of adults said a four-year college was “not worth the cost,” up from 40% in 2013. This perception is perhaps unsurprising given rising media and political attention to the negative consequences of student loan debt. The labor force is also relatively strong, even for workers with no college experience, making it costlier to pause or defer employment. Political discourse around college (and education broadly) has also become more partisan, with Republicans becoming increasingly skeptical around the value of college.

However, on average, college completion still pays off. College graduates earn more, experience lower unemployment, pay more in taxes, and are less likely to engage in criminal behavior. College graduates overwhelmingly believe college was a good personal investment. Despite these benefits, college enrollment has declined for years, with more dramatic drops since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This post examines the root causes of declining enrollment and what policies can effectively encourage college enrollment.

Two proposed solutions are detailed in the article:

College enrollment efforts must go beyond high schoolers.

Cost remains key barrier—and solution—to enrollment.

Both solutions require structural changes and can be competitively applied to CUNY. However, neither of them is even hinted at in the ad campaign.

Below, one can find more details written by the Pew Research Center about enrollment efforts that go beyond high schoolers:

Several policy and market-based solutions have been promoted to address the loss of employment and wages forecast by technologists and economists. A key idea emerging from many conversations, including one of the lynchpin discussions at the World Economic Forum in 2016, is that changes in educational and learning environments are necessary to help people stay employable in the labor force of the future. Among the six overall findings in a new 184-page report from the National Academies of Sciences, the experts recommended: “The education system will need to adapt to prepare individuals for the changing labor market. At the same time, recent IT advances offer new and potentially more widely accessible ways to access education.”

Jobholders themselves have internalized this insight: A 2016 Pew Research Center survey, “The State of American Jobs,” found that 87% of workers believe it will be essential for them to get training and develop new job skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with changes in the workplace. This survey noted that employment is much higher among jobs that require an average or above-average level of preparation (including education, experience and job training); average or above-average interpersonal, management and communication skills; and higher levels of analytical skills, such as critical thinking and computer skills.

A greater variety of options to confront the declining trends is described by WICHE (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education). Some productive outcomes are mentioned, as are many consequences:

While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend, declining enrollments have been negatively impacting institutional budgets for nearly a decade. For a deeper look into the reasons why college enrollments are declining, see our earlier post, College Enrollment: Cliffs, Shifts, and Lifts. Higher education institutions are responding to the ensuing financial instability in ways that are both predictable and creative. A surprising selection of colleges and universities are thriving despite the culling of institutions and programs happening around them. Below are some of the most common responses to declining enrollments.

Cutting programs

Some schools have chosen to cut programs as a way to shore up finances. The majority of these programs are deemed low-enrollment and fall within undergraduate humanities: mostly religious studies, philosophy, English, creative writing, languages, history, fine arts, and classics. However, social sciences and natural sciences are not exempt from being cut. Several schools have slated the elimination of sociology, economics, political science, geography, mathematics, environmental studies, and geology. Outside of the liberal arts, programs in risk include business, journalism/communication, education, nursing, and family & consumer sciences. Graduate programs recommended for phasing out largely reflect their undergraduate counterparts; while certificate programs being cut often are tied to specific skills and careers such as health studies, criminal justice, gerontology, speech and communication disorders, and hospitality management.

Additional consequences covered by the same publication are headlined below:

Cutting Personnel

Institutional Closings

Institutional Mergers/Consolidation

Resource Sharing

Expanding Online Offerings

New Admissions Strategies

Additional Funding

Poaching Students/Offering Safe Haven to Students

Thriving Despite Declining Enrollments

None of them (that I saw) mentioned why students should spend time right now to make their lives more productive. The poster in the opening picture from last week’s blog, “There are no jobs on a dead planet” still holds true.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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4 Responses to This Might Not be the Best Answer to Our Enrollment Crisis

  1. Vanessa Cruz says:

    I actually think that this is a fine way to market CUNY to students, whether they’re in highschool or not. Degrees without Debt is a catchy slogan, the ad is on the train so everyone can see it, and I remember one that I saw an ad where the graduate was a mom. So, I believe that the ads are targeting a large age demographic. I think it’s really sad that as a response to declining enrollment, colleges are cutting staff and programs. It’s understandable, because with less enrollment there’s less money. However, cutting programs and staff will just cause a snowball effect and there will continue to be less enrollment, because schools that cut staff and programs will have less to offer to potential students.

  2. VingGa Kong says:

    Hi Professor,

    This blog was really interesting in the sense that it was focused on talking about enrollment and possible solutions to the decrease. Advocating for college admissions beyond high schoolers was one of the solution. Although I think it is a good thought, something that I’m thinking about based on personal experience includes the fact that most people who aren’t high schoolers don’t really care about CUNY ads or college ads. Even high schoolers that are in the lower years don’t think about college yet because it’s still “too early”. Although I don’t have any good solutions to this, I just believe that advocating to the younger years beyond high school juniors or seniors might not be the best solution because they don’t even think to that far. Even if they were to see those ads, they would bat an eye and tell themselves that it’s still so far away so they’ll think about it later.

    Thank you,

  3. Denise Gonzalez says:

    The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) and the Pew Research Center have both noted the fall in college enrollment, which is a trend driven by factors like growing expenses, an active job market, and skepticism about the value of a college education. Educational institutions must take into account the suggested solutions, which include the necessity of addressing the cost barrier and expanding enrollment efforts beyond high school students. A major a deterrent for many potential students is the escalating cost of pursuing higher education, which includes tuition, living expenses, and other related charges. A growing number of people are worried about student loan debt and whether or not the cost of a college education will pay off in terms of future employment and income possibilities. Decisions regarding whether to immediately enter the employment after high school or pursue more education might be influenced by a robust labor market.

  4. Carina Alessandro says:

    Because it was listed as holding a solution, I wanted to know the changing rates of enrollment according to age groups as well as those specific to changes in prices. The statista page, “Share of adult population enrolled in college or other higher education in the United States from 1970 to 2020, by age group” offers insight on the age group factor: they have all slightly declined from 2013, with ages 18-21 experience the greatest change, but the 25-34 age range experiencing a lesser decline but larger proportion of decline (because it’s a smaller percentage of enrollment in general). This might give some insight on problems with age diversity, but it doesn’t offer anything on the possible market for students older than 34. Secondly, while I couldn’t find information comparing specific prices ranges, in my search I found a paper called, “The Rising Cost of Higher Education: A Supply & Demand Analysis,” by Helen Li, which had many tables showing enrollment rates over time for different types of colleges and explored changing productivity in colleges to change total enrollment. It might be interesting to explore for someone especially interested in this topic, in my opinion. As the paper addresses supply and demand in colleges, interestingly, it’s conclusion states, “ this thesis found that given the substantial increase in the demand for higher education, the trend in rising tuition prices is not that unusual. With growing wage differentials between college and high school graduates, more students have elected to attend college, driving up the demand for higher education. […] However, because higher education and similar industries fall victim to the cost disease phenomenon, technological advance, when not coupled with productivity growth, may inadvertently drive up costs (i.e. professor’s wages).”

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