Maybe higher education has reached its peak. Not the Harvards and Yales of the world, but the institutions that make up the rest of the industry—the regional public schools who saw decades of growth and are now facing major budget cuts and the smaller, less-selective private colleges that have exorbitant sticker prices while the number of students enrolling in them declines.
Higher ed is often described as a bubble—and much like the housing market in 2008, the thought goes, it will ultimately burst. But what if it’s less of a sudden pop and more of a long, slow slide, and we are already on the way down?
Bryan Alexander started grappling with the idea of “peak higher education” in 2013—inspired by the notion of “peak car,” “peak oil,” and other so-called “peaks.” At the time, there were signs that the industry was already struggling. The number of students enrolled in higher education had dropped by a little over 450,000 after years of booming growth, the proportion of part-time faculty—more commonly referred to as adjuncts—had steadily become a more significant part of the professorship, and there was a general skepticism about the skyrocketing costs of college and concerns over whether a degree was worth it. Taken individually, he said, each sign was troubling enough. But when looked at together, they represented the outlines of a bleak future for higher education. Alexander, a self-described higher-education futurist and a former English professor, came to the conclusion that after nearly a half century of growth, higher education might be as big as it could get. It would, he reasoned, only get smaller from there.