Why Your Little Alma Mater May Go Extinct

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The Wall Street Journal has a sobering note today on higher education. After soaring for decades, college enrollments have actually declined for the classes scheduled to enter this fall.

"Enrollment rates for numerous smaller and lesser-known colleges and universities are falling this year, due to a decline in the U.S. college-age population, years of rising tuition, increasing popularity of Internet courses and a weak job market for recent graduates. ...

"After decades of growth, college enrollment nationally dropped 2.3 percent this spring, compared with spring 2012, according to a report released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The decline is poised to continue. The number of U.S. high-school graduates peaked at 3.4 million in 2010-2011 and is projected to fall to 3.2 million by 2013-14, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. The dip in graduates has been particularly pronounced in the Midwest and the South."

My first thought was "good." The college students I meet today seem to endure excessive admissions agony, in large part because getting into a good school is so much harder than it used to be. I could never be admitted to any of the schools I went to today, because they've gotten so much more selective since I applied. Most of the people I know say the same. Harvard now rejects almost 19 out of every 20 people who apply. Penn, my alma mater, rejects five out of six.

The result is that upper middle class kids spend their high school years desperately trying to acquire the credentials to get into a top school -- "founding" dubious charities, doing "enriching" academic programs and "volunteer" work that will give them something about which to write an essay showcasing their ability to confront the tough realities of poverty, class and social obligation. Of course, later they may need to learn to engage in crass hypocrisy and button polishing to get ahead in their careers, but I don't think starting that sort of education so early is a good idea.

These kids are in a demographic bulge, the echo of the baby boom. It's nice to hear that the pressure is easing off.

But according to the Journal, those programs are more selective than ever -- seven out of eight Ivy League schools increased their selectivity this year. Enrollment is crashing at less selective schools that serve specialty niches or lower-middle-class strivers.

Of course, I should have known this. Market disruptions are rarely distributed evenly across an industry; they tend to hit the most vulnerable players. The strongest brands can actually pick up business as the weaker ones fail.

Many of the hard-hit schools seem to be historically black colleges. Here in Washington, for instance, Howard University is in the middle of a bruising board fight, thanks in part to falling enrollments. Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, vice chairwoman of the board of trustees, prophesied that "Howard will not be here in three years if we don't make some crucial decisions now." This strikes me as unlikely -- Howard was founded by a congressional grant after the Civil War, and I doubt that Congress will let it go under. But the threat is undoubtedly real for other historically black schools.

The concentration of enrollment declines among the schools that serve poor and minority communities raises some uncomfortable questions. On a positive note, this may mean that kids have access to a better class of school. On the other hand, it may mean that the schools best equipped to serve those kids fold, leaving nothing in their place. While I'm on the record as saying that we should probably send fewer kids to college, this isn't the way that I wanted to accomplish that. Rather, I wanted us to stop relying on rank credentialism, and to think harder about viable alternatives for kids who may not be academically inclined.

Right now, the educational system doesn't do a very good job of opening up opportunities to kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. And it does a real disservice to the marginal kids who may end up leaving school with a lot of debt and no diploma. But it's probably better than nothing -- which is, right now, all we have to replace it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net