The Decline in American Universities, 2011-2024

Like ancient Rome, American universities have not fallen or declined in a day—or even a year. But as good of a date as any to measure the beginning of the decline is 2011. Enrollments started falling that year and since then they have fallen by roughly 15 percent. The ratio of college students to the total American population has declined even more—around 20 percent.

A decline of this magnitude for this long is unique in American history. Underlying this is a sharp decline in public support for universities. At the beginning of this decline, the primary complaint was over costs—colleges were too expensive. Costs had been rising far faster than not only inflation but, more critically, family incomes. In the three decades before 2010, American families could more readily than ever afford big televisions, cell phones, vacation homes, cruises, and other luxuries—but college education was becoming financially more burdensome. Inefficiencies abound. Unlike in the rest of the economy, productivity in higher education was probably falling as the staff to student ratio rose. Buildings were empty too much of the year, faculty were writing a lot of articles of little consequence for miniscule audiences. Administrative bloat was already well under way. All of this is well before the pandemic beginning in 2020.

But the cost explosion is a minor factor in the big enrollment decline from 2010 to 2020. After all, in the previous decade (2000 to 2010) of rapidly rising tuition fees, enrollments rose robustly—by more than one-third. The single event that did more than anything to trigger the decline came on April 4, 2011 when the U.S. Department of Education in a “dear colleague” letter proclaimed that sexual violence on campus led by horny male students was a national problem, mandating remedies making a mockery of traditional Anglo-Saxon procedures of adjudicating wrongful behavior (e.g., no right to cross examine witnesses, prosecutors often serving also as judges or the equivalent). By 2015, these procedures were widely adopted.

The result? An exodus of men from campuses. Between 2015 and 2020, enrollment fell by nearly one million students with 87 percent of the decline being men. College student affairs offices, responding robustly to the Department of Education fatwa, declared a war on men as they administered Star Chamber justice.

An even more sinister university bureaucracy exploded roughly simultaneously, “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) offices. These offices have declared that justice demands that students swear fealty to a “diversity” agenda that evaluates students mainly on race, with a secondary aim at giving favorable status to gays, transgender students and others adjudged disadvantaged by the DEI bureaucracy. The dominant problem today is the fundamental positive rationale for higher education has been imperiled: universities have largely lost their reputation as places for robust debate and consideration of all viewpoints, instead moving towards becoming authoritarian institutions depressingly similar to universities in the old Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Associated with the new woke supremacy centered around “social justice” has come a decline in academic standards and expectations, with even prestigious selective schools dropping such important tools of assessing applicants as entrance examinations like the SAT. Grade inflation, already excessive endemic even in 2010 continued, with most students at our so-called elite universities getting “A” or “A-” grades. With that has come less time spent on academics.

Parents started asking “why send our kids to radical leftish and expensive schools where there is a good chance they either will not graduate or will end up in low paying jobs? The New York Federal Reserve Bank published “underemployment” statistics showing the vocational risks of pursuing a degree were pretty high. College graduates might average lifetime earnings of one million dollars more than high school graduates—but 40 percent or so of college freshmen do not get degrees in any timely fashion.

To be sure, there are enormous variations between schools—a great strength in our university system. Some schools are decidedly non-woke without typical obsessions over people’s skin coloration, religion or national origin. Others want kids with a strong sense of belief in God and rejection of what they regard as the sins and immorality of modern America.

I am cautiously optimistic that market forces, even weakened by the government subsidized environment of higher education, will lead to healthy change. The ultra-woke schools will be punished—already Harvard’s early admissions applications are down substantially—while traditional institutions emphasizing academics will do better. Reports are appearing that applications and enrollments are robust at some schools promoting traditional academic and sometimes religious values. Falling applications at ultra-woke schools will be accompanied by state governments increasingly attacking the instruments of leftish collegiate domination such as DEI. Private donors will start becoming more demanding while making gifts. One aspect of the revival would be to make college comfortable to males again.

This renaissance of campus sanity could be disrupted by the federal government, already the most single negative factor in modern higher education. An activist Department of Education, largely ignoring legislative intent and constitutional restraints, could impede reforms, joined by allies in the accreditation cartel. The 2024 elections should feature higher education issues more than usual.

Photo by Horváth Botond — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 403086857 & adragan — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 268557989 & Edits by Jared Gould


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

2 thoughts on “The Decline in American Universities, 2011-2024

  1. As a Stanford graduate and a former co-leader of Adler’s Great Books, I’m appalled at the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” courses taught in our universities. Funding for higher education should be drastically cut, as funds are wasted on administrative salaries and courses with no educational value (“Diversity, Equity, Inclusion” and/or “Studies” courses such as “Topics in Black Feminist & Queer Theory.”
    Education should focus on works of proven value which prepare students to be responsible citizens. According to a Forbes article of May 3, 2023, just 13 percent of students were deemed “proficient” in U.S. History and just 22 percent in Civics. Our Republic cannot endure without an educated and virtuous citizenry. Encouraging a “victim” mentality instead of good citizenship is criminal, as are the “open borders” of the Biden Administration in which victims of human trafficking, illegal drugs, and potential terrorists freely enter our country.

  2. “…in the previous decade (2000 to 2010) of rapidly rising tuition fees, enrollments rose robustly—by more than one-third.”

    Which means nothing if you fail to account for changes in demographics — the vast but brief increase in 18-22 year olds caused by the so-called “Baby Boomlet” of the 1980s when all the Baby Boomers had their children at pretty much the same time.

    To say that 2011 marked the start of the decline of American higher education is to say that 1970 marked the start of the decline of the railroad industry — while the PennCentral bankruptcy definitely woke people up, the decline actually started more than a quarter century earlier when the railroads started investing their WW-II profits in everything but their railroads.

    Higher education started going downhill in the late 1980’s when the radicals obtained tenure and started taking over — to put things into perspective, the NAS was founded in 1987 and Catherine Lhamon graduated from once all-male Amherst College in 1993. (A few years later, it would admit a majority-female freshman class — six years after that, Amherst would hire an openly-lesbian feminist as it’s President.)

    “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” may be the buzzwords today, but I remember when it was “Political Correctness” and then “Social Justice.” It’s the same pig, just with a different shade of lipstick. And as to the Star Chambers, they arrived in 2008 with the Behavioral Assessment Teams, something way too Orwellian for OCR to conceive of on its own…

    Professor Vedder is right about men being driven out of higher ed, but that’s been happening since the late ’80s — that’s when higher education became majority female, it’s just gotten moreso since then. (The latest figure I’ve seen is 59.5%.) Worse is the six-year graduation rate, in 2018 it was 65% for women and 59% for men. So not only are there fewer men matriculating, a higher percentage of those who do are dropping out.

    And academia is where the railroads were a half century ago — access to knowledge is no longer measured in feet to a large building filled with paper books, no more than access to world markets is measured in feet to a set of steel rails. Conveyance (i.e. teaching) is one thing, but mere access to knowledge is no longer a monopoly academia enjoys — the average 18-year-old with a smartphone has instant access to more factual information than a scholar of the 1920s could obtain in a lifetime.

    Now as to knowing how to sort, categorize, and evaluate that morass of information, those are skills that employers value and they are not ones that colleges are teaching. And as to uniformity of thought, let us not forget where that went in Danvers (not Salem) back in 1691 — or what a man named Hitler was able to do with it 240 years later.

    I’m not convinced higher education can be saved — or is worth saving — but if it is to be saved, it’s going to happen soon and it’s going to have to be done by people who aren’t worried about offending vested interests.

    Or Congress could just not reauthorize the Higher Ed Act and watch the whole thing implode….

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