Last year I ventured the hope that one of these letters might start by reporting a “placid, relaxed year” in higher education. Well, 2018 was not yet that kind of year, but it’s fair to say that some of the turmoil and difficulty of recent times did abate a bit.
Tuition across the sector continued to increase, but at an apparently slower pace. I say “apparent” because, especially in the private colleges, the practice of back-door discounting, raising the stated “sticker price” while simultaneously offering bigger and bigger financial aid to favored students, clouds the picture. Reported “net tuition,” which attempts to account for the discounting, climbed 2.8% at private schools, and 1.5% at public institutions. Of course, these are relatively small percentage increases on top of what have become astronomical price levels in so many cases.
Abridgements of free speech and academic integrity diminished somewhat, too. Reported serious incidents of speaker harassment or disinvitations fell from 36 to 9 in 2018, with none reaching the disgraceful level of recent events at Williams, Yale, or Berkeley. At the same time, it’s impossible to know how much of the amelioration is the result of hosts avoiding potentially challenging speakers in the first place. Encouragingly, the number of schools adopting what we refer to as the Chicago Principles, as Purdue did three years ago, rose to 54.
But any honest report on the sector must be on balance highly cautionary. The multiyear decline in enrollments continued, with total student population falling another 1.7%. The flattening pool of 18-year-olds is the primary driver, but it was joined in 2018 by a new factor, the slippage of international student applications.
Between 2017 and ’18, the number of new foreign students coming to study in the U.S., after many years of strong increases, dropped by 6.6%, following a 3.3% decline in the previous year. A growing list of colleges have been aggressively marketing to young people abroad as an offset to their eroding enrollments. In late 2018, our neighbors at the University of Illinois announced that they had taken out an insurance policy, at a premium cost of $424,000, against a loss of international students in future entering classes.
Some have suggested that a more restrictive posture toward immigration by the current national administration is a cause of this reversal, and that may well be a part of the change. But competition is ramping up elsewhere, in places like Australia and the Netherlands, not to mention the inception of new and expanded institutions in China and other sending countries. And all of these alternatives are substantially less expensive than coming to the U.S.
At Purdue, we had anticipated a possible diminution of the flow of international students, and it was one reason for a rebalancing of our enrollment goals which I will discuss later in this letter.