Hope lives in the cracks.
This week I’ve been awash in data, from various sources. On campus, we had our first real “Data Day,” in which we made actual posters of all manner of IR data and shared it with the entire faculty and staff. The idea was to provide a common factual base for on-campus discussions of policy, innovations, and planning. I don’t know if everybody “got” the subtext, but I did see some folks lingering at particular posters for extended periods, pointing at individual numbers and talking to each other. To the extent that we can replace hunch or anecdote with fact, I have to believe we’ll be better off, even if some of the facts weren’t terribly encouraging in themselves.
Earlier this week, the Chronicle published one of the more disturbing data-driven pieces I’ve seen in a while. It was about the number of 18 year olds projected to live in various areas over the next fourteen years. You can enter the name of a county, and it will show you the number of students projected to reach traditional college-going age for the next fourteen years. The larger narrative was about the decline of “prime suspects” for enrollment at many traditional colleges in most parts of the country, including my neck of the woods.
The Chronicle piece is easy to nitpick in its particulars, but hard to ignore in its sweep. Yes, people move between the ages of, say, four and eighteen, so you can’t just take the number of four year olds now and assume it’ll be the number of eighteen year olds in fourteen years. Yes, community colleges in particular draw on a much broader pool of potential students than just eighteen year olds. And to the extent that we’re able to make progress on reducing racial disparities in college enrollment and graduation, the impact of some of the projected changes on colleges may be mitigated. That’’s a case in which we can do well -- better than we otherwise would, anyway -- by doing good. It’s lovely when incentives align like that.
All of that said, though, the spectre of colleges competing against each other for a steadily declining pool of students is vivid, plausible, and ugly. It does not bode well for the folks who work in the sector. Higher education is structured to grow. Even stasis presents a strain. Sustained, long-term shrinkage will not be pretty.
(Admittedly, I’m reflecting my region. Some parts of the country are growing much more quickly, and are still lightly served by colleges. I’m focused here on the Northeast, especially outside of the tentpole cities.)
Given dreary data, it’s tempting and understandable to want to look away. Transparency can reveal uncomfortable things. The prospect of a clearer look at just how difficult things will be can be kind of depressing.
Here’s where I have to fall back on a couple of core convictions.
The first is that it’s better to know than not to know. If we have a sense of the demographic waves to come, we can strategize. If we don’t, we can’t do much more than guess. I’d rather have a hand in shaping the future than just give up and get buffeted by the fates. That’s true whether we’re talking about academic planning, enrollment, finances, or whatever else.
And the second, which stands in some tension with the first, is that even when we know, we know less than we think we do. Hope lives in the cracks.
I don’t know what the next hot industries will be, or where the next breakthrough will occur. I’ve lived through enough hot-cold-hot-cold cycles with various industries at this point to have a healthy skepticism of long-term projections. Some changes are linear, and some are more like dams breaking -- nothing but creaking for a long time, and then all at once. And sometimes the changes that initially look like threats turn out to be opportunities.
So yes, it’s helpful to see the data. It’s even more helpful when it’s taken as advisory to action, rather than as gospel. Even when we have to swallow hard first.