Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Fun with Demographics
Over at the FACE blog, there's a worthwhile question about the impending drop in the number of 18 year olds. Given FACE's concerns, it's focused on adjunct percentages, though the issues run deeper than that.
Over the past several years, the baby boom echo has made its way through high school, resulting in gradually growing numbers of 18 year olds for the past several years. Depending on your location in the country, that wave is pretty much peaking now, with a non-trivial dropoff forecast for the next several years. At my college, what are we doing to prepare for it?
Given that it isn't terribly hard to predict future age cohorts in the short term – for the most part, the 18 year olds of four years from now are fourteen now – this should be a no-brainer. If the demographic wave is clear and clearly relevant, why wouldn't we position ourselves early to handle it?
I was all set to write something about how hard it is to predict the future, but it seems like optimistic predictions get spread around much more easily and quickly than pessimistic ones. For example, while nobody is talking about fewer 18 year olds two or three years from now, the place is full of predictions of this or that program growing wildly over the next five to ten years. I don't think time, per se, is the issue.
Some of it is probably denial. The thinking is that we'll make it up with dual enrollment programs – supplement the 18 year olds with 16 and 17 year olds – or with working adults, or with senior citizens (the one real growth demographic in my area). Of course, if it were that easy, we would have done it by now. Dual enrollment programs have real promise, but we've found that anything based on the student (or his family) paying will be very small. The working-adults-returning-to-school have been mostly priced out of the area, and the housewives-returning-to-college demographic is an artifact of the seventies and eighties. We're doing well with senior citizens, but they pay next to nothing in tuition. (The payoff with them is largely political – they vote at very high rates, so we want them to feel a stake in the continued success of the college.)
The recession is giving us an enrollment boost right now, which is standard for community colleges. When folks are laid off and having a hard time finding work, the opportunity cost of an education goes down. And when Mom's or Dad's job looks shaky, sending Suzy to Expensive Nothing Special University suddenly looks like an iffier bet. The folks in Admissions are busier than they've been in years, dealing with parents who would have sent their kids someplace else in rosier times. On a selfish level, that's great, since so much of our budget comes from tuition. But the recession is likely to be temporary – I hope! -- and it masks the underlying demographic trend. In a way, it actually makes it harder to have the discussion locally about declining long-term enrollments, since right now enrollments are actually going up.
Looking forward a few years, assuming the recession has passed and the economy is back on track, we'll be hit with a double whammy of fewer 18 year olds and less countercyclical demand. That won't be pretty.
The combination of the glacial pace of academic change and a general ethos of conflict aversion makes it difficult to generate a sense of urgency around a crisis that's merely prospective. The tragedy, of course, is that that's when the cost of dealing with it is lowest.
Wise and worldly readers – have you seen (or participated in) serious collegewide conversations about the imminent drop in numbers of 18 year olds? If you have, what's your college planning to do?
Unless your neck of the woods is far worse off than the nation at large (admittedly likely--where are you again?) unemployment isn't all that high, and we are not actually in a recession.
Having just last week looked at the numbers (and then putting it all in my blog) I found that unemployment is still below 5% (last reported at 4.6%) and since we have yet to have the first quarter of "negative GDP growth" we are at least 6 months away from having "two consecutive quarters" (the official definition of recession.)
Why do I mention this? Just to argue? Nope. You write The recession is giving us an enrollment boost right now, which is standard for community colleges. When folks are laid off and having a hard time finding work, the opportunity cost of an education goes down.
I doubt that the relatively minor increase in unemployment could have a significant impact on your enrollment. Perhaps your next comment, that "fear" drives people to send their children to a CC, may hold water--except most schools are still experiencing increases in enrollment.
Perhaps it's time to dispense with the FUD ("fear, uncertainty, and disinformation" -- a phrase often used in the tech world) and actually deal with the real issues. Political positioning, and demagoguery, may make you feel good about your political choices and prejudices, but allowing that view of the economy to taint your analysis of your work can really just get in the way.
That conversation was circa 1979, however, speculating about whether colleges thirty years in the future would manage the echo any better than they did the boom. There was a surprising level of optimism, IIRC, since it had been so devastating when fixed numbers (and distribution between colleges) of faculty met a declining enrollment that shifted from the social sciences to business and engineering. No one figured the colleges would forget.
My personal assumption in the adjunct debate has been that vague institutional memories of that time are behind the fiscal conservatism when it comes time to create new lines or deal with retirements. The bottom-line question is not if they can be justified today, but if they can be funded over the next 30 years on a per-student basis.
PS - I blogged extensively about the consequences in the physics job market last year. I have no idea if there are similar data for the Evergreen disciplines, but the overall PhD production curves might give a clue.
But there was a lot more inside the latest numbers than met the eye. I watch CNBC in the morning to use changes in the spot price of gas to decide if I need to fill up early before the pump price goes up, so I saw an analysis of the internal numbers on the recent tiny drop in unemployment. It seems there were large losses in manufacturing jobs offset by large gains in service areas like medical support jobs. This is as just as disruptive as layoffs to individual lives.
This is also the place where a CC has a role to play. Returning students are more comfortable starting here. Two of my top students this year had been laid off when their (high-tech) manufacturing company closed down, and one other was a former frito-eater (back-room code slammer, also a manufacturing job) during the dot-com boom. They are off into civil and chemical engineering professional programs at Wannabe Flagship U.
Some increase in enrollment is due to an increase in the fraction that goes to college. Some is due to migration between regions. Some is due to drops in enrollment elsewhere at schools that were not positioned well in the market. I wonder how much of the dustup about U Toledo changing its mission is a hidden argument about the topic you raise in your blog today.
Macrodemographic forces: less people = fewer customers; higher percentage of legal immigrants = fewer customers. Higher percentage of unskilled/illegal immigrants = more customers.
Microeconomic forces: lower corporate/business taxes; lower regulation = more jobs = more occupational churn = good for CCs etc. Lower personal taxes = more people = more customers.
Move to the Southwest and agitate for free trade, lower taxes and less regulation; also push for "immigration reform" or at least push for restricting skilled/professions immigration and increased low skilled immigration. On a side note, you can also agitate for increased birth rates/decreased death rates among unskilled/disadvantadvantaged communities in the US.
What to do about fixed costs, like buildings, I do not know.
My guess -- totally plucked out of the air -- is that Nothing Special State, without having strong political pull like the flagship, with a high proportion of its budget being fixed costs, is at high risk of falling into a falling enrollments induces higher tuition induces falling enrollments vicious cycle. Middle rank SLACs, too. The elite privates have their endowments and their distinctive status to lift them up and the flagship states can garner enough subsidies to keep going. Like CCPhysicist, I suspect that an unspoken motive in the UToledo mess is to make Utoledo distinctive enough that it won't hemorrhage students to Ohio State.
What will happen to CCs, God only knows.
I didn't say that UToledo's (rather its President's) chosen path was necessarily the best one, even to cope with coming demographic changes
But I don't think that relative positions will remain unchanged. Yes, right now, UToledo doesn't compete with Ohio State for students. But given a dearth of 18-year-olds, Ohio State may choose to lower its admission standards rather than shrink its undergraduate population. It may, of course, choose to shrink its undergraduate population rather than compromise its standards. It's difficult to predict.
There are lots of moving parts here. It's not just the demographics. It's how other institutions, some of them with a lot more autonomy, will choose to react to the demographics. And that's what makes it hard to plan.