How to Fix the Crisis of Trust in Higher Education

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been keeping track of every report I see about major budget shortfalls at universities. The general trend seems to be that the schools facing these shortfalls have declining enrollments, and state and federal funding is not meeting the financial gaps left by fewer students. Every week it seems there’s fresh bad news. Here’s a sampling:

“SUNY Warns of Future $1B Deficit Without Higher Tuition or More Aid” — The Times Union, Jan. 2.

“As Covid-19 relief funding runs out, UConn is expecting a $70 million deficit in fiscal year 2025, which begins in July” — The Connecticut Mirror, Jan. 23.

“Penn State Plans Nearly $100M in Cuts for FY26 Budget” — Higher Ed Dive, Jan. 24.

“As U. of Arizona Confronts Budget Cuts, Workers and Students Brace for the Worst” — The New York Times, Feb. 21.

And those are all public universities. There are several private colleges, less-selective schools in particular, that are in dire shape — including schools in the New York metro area that are selling off some of their real estate in order to make ends meet, according to reporting from The Times’s Sharon Otterman. Josh Moody at Inside Higher Ed clocked 14 four-year nonprofit institutions that closed their doors in 2023, and those schools “largely fit the same profile: mostly small, private, tuition-dependent institutions with meager endowments that have seen enrollment slipping for years and have been unable to recover from those sustained losses.”

A few long-term trends have combined to create this growing crisis. One is the declining birthrate since the Great Recession, which is causing an “enrollment cliff” based on the numbers of potential students turning 18 over the next decade. The other is the decline in Americans’ confidence in higher education. According to Gallup, in terms of party identification, that decline is sharpest among Republicans. Still, all of the demographic groups that Gallup assessed registered a significant decline in confidence since 2015.

This matters for the future of work in America, not just for the young people who may be missing out on the wage premium attached to a college education. In his 2018 book, “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College, writes, “Analysts estimate we would need to increase degree production by approximately 40 percent to meet work force needs in coming years.” But it’s not just our national economic need that’s at stake. We need an educated population to meet the civic and intellectual challenges of the 21st century — challenges that seem to be moving ever faster as technology continues its rudderless and frequently inhumane progress.

I called Grawe, who is also the author of the 2021 book “The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes,” to ask how colleges and universities can help address the issues of fewer students and declining confidence. (As a side note: The most selective institutions will be just fine — for all the concern lately about their reputations, they are in no danger of enrollment declines or budget shortfalls.)

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