This week, in a meeting, someone asked me what percentage of our enrollment I thought that online classes “should” be. The idea, I think, was that if we had a set goal, we could build staffing and capacity around it.
I responded that what I, or anyone at the college, thought it “should” be really didn’t matter. At this point, higher education is a buyer’s market. We need to meet the demand that exists, and if that means allowing continued growth in online enrollment while classroom enrollments shrink, well, that’s what it means.
That’s a major change.
Much of higher education is based on the premise of a seller’s market. In a seller’s market, the institution can decide the terms on which it will accept students. At the very elite, exclusive places, that’s still largely true. Swarthmore turns away far more than it admits, and it does so on its own terms. But most of us aren’t Swarthmore.
In the world of private colleges, anxiety about enrollment tends to play out in discussions of “discount rates,” or the distance from reality that a given sticker price represents. It’s not unusual for smallish private colleges now to have discount rates over 50%, which is pretty alarming to anyone who takes listed tuition literally. At community colleges, where we don’t have that option, anxiety over enrollments tends to play out in layoffs and unreplaced retirements.
The shift to a buyer’s market is more pronounced in some parts of the country than others. The Northeast has the mixed blessing of a rich higher ed landscape combined with declining numbers of 18 year olds. That tilts a buyer’s market even more in the buyer’s favor, much to the anxiety of the sellers.
The upside of a buyer’s market is that access should be easier. The downside is that neither price nor quality are as straightforward in this market as in most. Sticker price and net price are only loosely correlated, and price and quality aren’t correlated at all. Prospective students have only vague and indirect measures of quality, and quality in any given program can shift abruptly if layoffs happen or retirements go unreplaced. (I’ve been learning that firsthand as The Boy has started looking at colleges for himself. He’s thinking he wants to be a doctor, so he’s looking for schools known for pre-med. Even after years of railing in public against ratings schemes of various sorts, I immediately Google “best pre-med colleges…”) In a market as deeply confused as this one, the standard comparison-shopping model isn’t a good fit.
What percentage of our offerings should be online? The market will tell us, in its way. The discount rate on my personal opinion is pretty steep.
Speaking of The Boy, file this one under “parental brags.”
He’s working on a series of letters for his girlfriend for Christmas. A couple nights ago, he finished one that he thought turned out particularly well. He walked into the living room, walked up to me, and said -- without snark or irony --
“Thank you for teaching me how to write well.”
Some Dads take pride in the game-winning touchdown or the rebuilt engine.
I’ll take this one.