What Cliff? Data and the Destruction of Public Higher Education


That higher education institutions will face a “demographic cliff” in the years to come has become a common misconception.

But what if there is no cliff? What if we had instead been subjected to a narrative rooted in limited data that serves corporate interests and does real damage to our public institutions?

Advanced by Nathan Grawe in his 2018 book, Demographics and demand for higher education, this thesis asserts that due to demographic changes, the number of potential university students will decline, leading to significant declines in higher education enrolment. Grawe builds on the work of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE), which for many years has predicted fewer future high school graduates. In 2019, The Chronicle of Higher Education followed by “The looming enrollment crisiswhich asserted that “the pool of likely students should become much smaller and more racially diverse.”

Grawe’s thesis focuses on demographics, and his model includes variables based on federal datasets. He states that while he was “looking for better data”, the “best” data he could find was the predictions of high school graduates by WICHE. Yet it does not include the most relevant federal data – the annual projections of education statistics published by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Since 1964, the federal government has regularly published these projections to inform policy makers and the public of educational trends in both K-12 and higher education.

Currently, NCES projects relatively constant number of high school graduates through 2030, with the total number of graduates expected to increase in the mid-2020s, followed by a slight decline, making the projected number for 2029-2030 slightly higher than that of 2016-2017. Additionally, it is important to note that since the 1970s, the total number of high school graduates in the United States declined several times before. More importantly for higher education, NCES projects modest increases enrollment in higher education until 2029.

NCES’ federal projections of high school graduates — which were limited to about eight years — were more accurate than WICHE’s, which go up to 17. In 2003, WICHE projected less than 3.2 million high school graduates for 2017-2018. In 2008, the first year that federal data reached 2017-2018, NCES projected more than 3.3 million high school graduates that year. Current Federal estimates show that well over 3.6 million students graduated from high school in 2017-18, making the long-term federal estimates more accurate than WICHE’s (although both were initially understated). projected). Current federal data also shows that 2013 Federal Projections for 2021-2022 were also much more accurate than WICHE’s March 2008 projections for the same year (again with sub-projections).

WICHE was also wrong in its most recent short-term projections and, in 2020, had to acknowledge that its 2016 projections significantly underestimated the number of graduates for the following year. The NCES projections again turned out to be more accurate. As if to set the record straight, in its 2020 projections, WICHE said the upcoming cliff was actually a “modest decline.”

While WICHE seeks to “support informed policymaking” with “unbiased and objective research,” he has multiple conflicts of interest. He has dozens corporate partners and funders who directly benefit from promoting future enrollment crises and the many products designed to address them, including online education and various data analytics services. In 1989, WICHE created WCET—the WICHE Educational Technology Cooperative—solely to promote the increased use of technology in higher education.

Moreover, WICHE is an interest group with an explicit political program – “priority areas” – which understand “to develop and support technological and other innovations that improve the quality of post-secondary education and reduce costs.

Grawe’s influential book is hyperbolic from cover to cover. He states that “everyone in higher education agrees that dramatic changes in demand are ahead of us”, which is not true. “There is little time left” to sort out the dramatic changes in demand for higher education that Grawe now sees as about 10 years in the future. Inexplicably, he states that the “Great Recession didn’t just delay births, it wiped them out” and posits a “quasi-national collapse of the non-Hispanic white population”, misrepresenting Census projections.

The so-called demographic crisis is being used across the country to overhaul higher education. For example, it is the main argument being Advanced by Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature seeking to radically reshape the University of Wisconsin system. This plan calls for the significant expansion of online education, the regionalization of multi-purpose campuses, the increased specialization of campuses, and the consolidation and elimination of programs, among other longstanding priorities. The report concludes that “unless action is taken now to address the impending demographic crisis and the concomitant decline in enrollment within the UW system, the end result will be the closure of several full campuses.”

Let’s look at some Wisconsin demographics. First, the state increase of the population between 2010 and 2021, and official data estimate that 65 of 72 counties grew in population during this period. Yes, reliable data from researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison predicts slight declines in total K-12 enrollment across the state over the next few years. This is not a ‘looming demographic crisis’, especially since many students do not enroll in higher education immediately after high school.

Moreover, in Wisconsin and across the country, the exact crisis demanding such extreme changes in higher education policy keeps changing. In May 2020, at the very start of the pandemic, the Republican-controlled UW system released a plan to dramatically expand online learning and increase campus specialization in light of the “imminent financial challenges” and “significant costs” of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the post-COVID framework created by the company that has dominated higher education throughout 2020 and into 2021.

But the economic collapse never came. The state currently has low unemployment and a budget surplus of nearly $3 billion. These realities necessitated the creation of a “looming demographic crisis” to even attempt to impose this wildly unpopular and reckless higher education political agenda.

Grawe testified at the Republican hearings that produced the Wisconsin report. His recommendations echoed the companies’ talking points, including the suggestion that we ensure “academic programming is relevant and that students can see how their credentials will be useful after graduation.”

The current context of higher education provides fertile ground for the uncritical acceptance of the demographic cliff. Enrollment in higher education has fallen from its historical level peaks in 2010. And decades of policy decisions have driven higher education to be tuition-driven, one state budget cycle at a time. We are vulnerable to demographic cliff framing due to the politically imposed financial crisis in which we live. Listings dictate everything we do.

In policy terms, then, the demographic cliff is an austerity-driven narrative that assumes public funding will never – and should never – return. The cost of public higher education will be put more on the shoulders of students, which will increase student debt and make higher education even more dependent on tuition fees. Programs should be eliminated, online instruction should be expanded, and if necessary, even entire campuses should be closed. Higher education should be agile because tax increases are out of the question, even as stock markets reach new heights and the incomes and wealth of top earners soar. The interests of corporations and the wealthy will dictate public policy.

If higher education is truly data-driven, we need to consider the issue of data sources. Federal and state agencies have a wealth of data at our disposal. Publications such as the Census and the Department of Labor’s Monthly Employment Report form the basis of our understanding of society. And official population and education data – which comes with no political assumptions, narrative or products for sale – shows a slowly growing population, including enrollments in higher education, in coming years.

The demographic cliff is a manufactured crisis that simultaneously takes advantage of a tuition-dependent higher education system to implement even greater austerity while imposing an educational policy agenda that could never be enacted by political means. normal.


Neil Kraus is a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. He is the author of Majority cities (2013, University of Michigan Press), Race, neighborhoods and community power (2000, SUNY Press), and several articles and book chapters on urban politics and policies, including education. He is finishing a book on the politics of primary and secondary education reform and the growth of economic inequality.

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