Losing Our Heads over Heady Predictions

Demographics are working against our colleges and universities. The number of graduating seniors, especially those from families who can pay full tuition, is dropping. So colleges and universities have more seats than there will be students to fill them. This story has been told again and again, so it’s difficult to make it interesting. But Douglas Belkin of the Wall Street Journal gives it a go.
First, he quotes Michael Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, who tells us that the private-college “business model is fundamentally breaking apart at the seams.” We know matters are serious because the business model is not only breaking apart but doing so fundamentally and also at the seams. Horn ventures the prediction that one third of colleges will be out of business in fifteen years. This ups the ante on Sebastian Thrun, who has said that nearly all colleges and universities will be out of business in fifty years. Maybe tomorrow a Vice President of Creative Destruction will make a fresh splash by predicting that forty percent of colleges will be out of business in thirty years. Why not, as long as people in the disruption business making up numbers is standard fare?
Second, he tells us that it’s happening already. He names four colleges that have recently gone out of business. One, Lon Morris College, was a junior college in Texas, a state which is experiencing an increase in graduating seniors. Another, Saint Paul’s, was a historically black college. A third, Chester College, was a small college devoted to the fine arts. And the last is Atlantic Union College, which had been in dire straits for well over a decade before it finally closed its doors. Never mind; it’s a trend. The dominoes are falling.
The economic downturn really has caused some colleges to close, and as I noted, colleges and universities are fishing in a smaller pool of potential students. 
Who knows? Maybe one-third of colleges really will be out of business in fifteen years. These are heady days for predictions of doom and gloom. So let me make one: in 31 years and 6 months, 42.9 percent of colleges will go out of business, or maybe it will be 72.9 percent. I’m really not sure.
Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at Ursinus College.

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