Scaling the Demographic Cliff
By Jim Fong, UPCEA’s Chief Research Officer, and Bruce Etter, UPCEA’s Senior Director of Research and Consulting
When hikers are faced with an obstacle like a cliff, they have several options. One is to go around it but with some mixture of uncertainty and consequences, such as lost time or having to use additional resources. Another choice would be to climb or build something to scale it. Or they can give up and go home, succumbing to the cliff. Higher education is faced with the demographic cliff. We know it is coming. Hikers can see the terrain on a map. They can choose well in advance to navigate around the cliff or wait until it is upon them. The same holds true for higher education. We’ve known about the cliff for years now, if not decades. Many institutions have waited too long to change paths. Others, often stronger name brand or larger institutions, are more forward thinking and have the resources, reserves, and time to navigate around the cliff. Some institutions are going to walk right up to the base of the cliff and try to turn back, only to find that they’ve run out of supplies. They’ll send out a request for help which will go unanswered for some, while others will find a merger partner to help guide them around the cliff. The final group are the innovators, engineers, and entrepreneurs, those who will build a structure over the cliff or navigate its walls and find a more advantageous route that will link them to the future.
The demographic cliff has been approaching for some time now. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, UPCEA institutions were shifting their portfolios to capitalize on opportunities created by the “pig in the python” phenomena where baby boomers were dominating the economy. The demographic cliff is the result of baby boomer birth rates, mentality, and impacts on the economy. As a result, we will continue to see a decline in the number of traditional age college students. This is the demographic cliff facing higher education…not having enough traditional demand given the existing (and growing) supply.
While we’ve made many predictions as to the adverse impact of the demographic cliff, we want them to NOT come true. We are optimistic for higher education. We want to be wrong. We want our peers and colleagues to say that our predictions were wrong. For this to occur, it would mean higher education will have to adopt radical transformation and an all-in mentality.
Adults want meaningful education to guide them through a new economy. With over 39 million adults having some college yet no degree, what they once desired is now seemingly out of reach. Their cliff was finances, family, and questioning whether a degree would give them guaranteed entry to the better half of the economy that they desire. An entire bachelor’s degree, 120 credits, may be their Appalachian Trail. The trek from Georgia to Maine, from credit 1 to credit 120, can be daunting. They’ve tried before and were not successful. Perhaps they made it to mile marker 460, or 25 credits, before they were forced to get off the trail. After time has passed and their economic opportunities have not advanced, they begin thinking about their degree trek once more. While they are wary of attempting another thru hike, they recognize the opportunities that are afforded to those who complete this ambitious goal. However, instead of attempting all 2,200 miles at once, section hiking, stackable credentials, may be more realistic and the optimal choice.
Employers want adaptable education given the volatility and challenges of a new economy. Recent UPCEA studies with Collegis and InsideTrack show that employers value their relationships with colleges and universities, but also welcome new approaches to education, such as microcredentials and badges. Given the changing landscape, many employers feel that they know the terrain better. The Collegis/UPCEA study showed that:
- Employers can assess hikers’ needs better. They want greater input into the curriculum, as they see themselves in a better position to communicate to the higher education community the education and training needs of their employees. The study showed that 27% want to be extremely active in the curriculum design with another 46% very active and 22% somewhat active.
- Employers believe their employees want to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (the degree) but want the ability to section hike (stack credentials) toward their goal. Eighty percent of employers surveyed said that they want stackable pathways to the degree. This can get the employee to the degree, but also allows them to achieve meaningful milestones along way, adapting content as one learns the terrain.
- The quality of the hike matters. Finishing the Appalachian, Pacific Crest or the Continental Divide trails gains an individual reputation and credence with the hiking community, their families and friends. However, there is uncertainty around the quality of a section hike. The survey showed that 46% of employers are unsure of the quality of education of nondegree alternative credentials. As these credentials continue to grow in importance, it is imperative that colleges and universities champion and communicate their quality.
Additional findings from the UPCEA/Collegis research can be found here. A full report on the study will be available soon, and the research will be discussed on a webinar on March 1 at 2:00 PM ET.
The fundamental question has to be asked: What is the role of colleges and universities? With our having worked for a number of land grant institutions and as an adjunct with a number of public, private or community colleges, the mission is clear-to help learners acquire new skills or knowledge that can be applied in society with a meaningful or positive outcome. That outcome could be economic (i.e., preparing for a job) or it could be personal, such as impacting a person’s self-esteem or enlightenment. To serve their mission or purpose, colleges and universities should not be beholden to the thru hike, the 120-credit degree. As most serious hikers know, thru hiking the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail requires more planning and resources. Hiking in sections, like a stackable credential, offers more immediate and tangible benefits.
Change is difficult. Colleges and universities once encouraged potential students to thru hike from Springer Mountain in Georgia (first day of classes) to Mount Katahdin in Maine (graduation). The world has changed through the advancement of technology and the changing of workplace and educational values, as well as generational power and influence. Social media and a holistic lifestyle have increased the value of section hiking and more consistent outdoor activities. To contrast this, millennials in positions of authority pressured into more immediate workplace performance are influencing the value of microcredentials and other forms of education. Thru hikers are important in many jobs, but employers also see value in the section hiker. Higher education will also need to recognize the value that these students can offer. According to the National Student Clearing House, we lost 2 million undergraduate students, or thru hikers, from 17 million in the fall of 2017 to 15 million in 2022. This loss is even more pronounced when looking back to 2010 data with there then being 19 million. Microcredentials and stackable credentials offer individuals an opportunity to get back on the trail and also help institutions offset the losses from the expanding enrollment gap. If we can get more section hikers to embrace education over an extended period of time to complete their hikes, higher education can select a more advantageous route when navigating the demographic cliff.
Lead consultant Jim Fong, the founding director of UPCEA Research and Consulting, has extensive background in marketing at Penn State, as well as experience in private industry. Jim brings a rich understanding of the dynamics driving today’s higher education leaders, providing research-driven strategy and positioning. Jim often presents at UPCEA’s conferences, sharing vital information with attendees.
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