Newbury College, a small Massachusetts college, closed its doors in May. Following Vermont’s Burlington College, New York’s Dowling College and Kentucky’s St. Catharine College, Newbury is the latest in what will be a growing list of closures.
The number of students per four-year nonprofit college dropped 4 percent from 2011 through 2015. The U.S. Department of Education projects that enrollments will grow for the next five years before declining again. When the decline resumes, we’ll see more colleges closing, and those closures will be concentrated among smaller institutions. Newbury, like 40 percent of American colleges, had fewer than 1,000 students. Large institutions can shed dozens of students annually without even noticing, but losing that many students poses an existential threat to a small college.
This is a harbinger of a coming reorganization of higher education in the United States that will end in one of two ways: renaissance or ossification.
We know how renaissance works. When businesses are forced to sink or swim in competitive seas, entrepreneurs find ways to make products and services better and cheaper. Nothing focuses attention on serving stakeholders like the prospect of losing access to those stakeholders’ wallets. Competition has spurred innovations in how we communicate (smartphones, Skype, Zoom), how we move around (Uber, Lyft), where we stay (Airbnb), where we buy things (eBay, Amazon), and how we pay for it all (PayPal, Venmo). These innovations have given us new products and forced the old products to improve.
Where have we not seen a renaissance? Mostly in industries that are heavily regulated or protected from competition like the Post Office, Amtrak, health insurance, and public schools. And this brings us to the coming higher education reorganization. In their quest for votes, politicians are talking about making college “free.” What they really mean is forcing people who don’t go to college to pay for those who do.
But that road leads to ossification. The greater the role government plays, the more college administrators will turn their attention away from satisfying parents, students, and prospective employers toward satisfying politicians and bureaucrats. In turn, politicians and bureaucrats will demand a greater say in how colleges are run.
When politicians are done handing out financial largesse in exchange for educators’ and students’ votes, and colleges are done passing on that largesse to their favored constituents, colleges will turn to the government and ask for still more money. They’ll say that they can deliver better educations if only they had more technology, better facilities, lower student-teacher ratios, and better-paid faculty. If only the government would give them more of the taxpayers’ money, they would perform educational wonders. This is always what happens when the people who decide how much to pay for a thing and the people who have to come up with the money to pay for that thing aren’t the same people.
The road to renaissance lies in throwing higher education to the competition of the marketplace. Do away with all government support of higher education. With government funding gone, accrediting bodies will lose the influence they wield in deciding which colleges are and are not eligible for government money. Those accrediting bodies aren’t driven by competition. They are a guild whose member colleges benefit from keeping out upstart competitors. What will emerge is what emerges in every competitive market. Entrepreneurs will find ways to provide educations that students want at prices they are willing to pay.
Inserting the government between the students and the schools, through government lending, subsidized interest rates, and student loan forgiveness, has muted competition. What has emerged are faculty who encourage students to pursue low-value majors, academic committees that design curricula less around improving education than around keeping favored departments open and low-demand faculty employed, and administrators who admit students based on their ability to pay rather than their ability to succeed.
If we double down by expanding the government’s role in the education market, we will exacerbate these problems. The way to solve these problems is to make institutions of higher education directly accountable to parents, students, and prospective employers by removing the government’s influence.
More small colleges will join Newbury in the coming years. What emerges when the dust settles, renaissance or ossification, depends on what we do next.