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W. JOSEPH KING: Colleges' struggle

Great Recession still a factor by W. Joseph King Special to the Democrat-Gazette | May 11, 2019 at 1:58 a.m.

Yale or Lyon? Not a question commonly asked. Yet, in a perfect illustration of the titanic shift occurring in higher education, a high school senior withdrew her deposit from Lyon College in Batesville after hearing only last week that she'd been removed from the waitlist at Yale and was admitted there.

Yale is, of course, located in a region where high school graduation rates and the number of college-going students are declining precipitously (the other two regions being the Ohio Valley and the Midwest). This is due largely to the Great Recession's negative effect on fertility, which has persisted for almost a decade.

According to Nathan Grawe, author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, college-going graduates will decline over 15 percent between 2012 and 2029 in these three geographic swaths, home to hundreds of colleges and universities. In fact, they have the highest density of institutions of higher education in the United States.

It is no surprise that colleges and universities in certain regions are already struggling with this quickly declining demographic. The surprise may be that many wealthy, elite institutions are suffering a similar fate. Earlier this year, Oberlin College, the University of Chicago, and Washington University in St. Louis all extended their application deadlines.

In Harvard's 2017 financial report, the authors wrote, "This year's operating surplus ... may represent a high-water mark for the foreseeable future, due to the broad and ongoing revenue pressures in higher education." The report goes on to note, "revenues are under pressure as student numbers have plateaued [and] tuition costs reach limits of affordability." Many state universities and community colleges have experienced particularly sharp enrollment declines. The enrollments at Chicago State University, Southern Illinois Carbondale, and Eastern Illinois University have all declined over 35 percent. Illinois community colleges have experienced a 21 percent drop in enrollment over the past 10 years, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

Students and their parents are contending with the combined effects of nearly 20 years of stagnant median family income and declining net worth of more than $40,000 since 2007, according to the Federal Reserve. This makes the decision-making process much more sensitive to cost.

A better way to think about the college-decision process would be to base it on value and affordability. Students and their families are looking for the most value from the options that they can afford. In the case of Yale versus Lyon, the student clearly made a choice based on perceived value.

However, an examination of our comparative outcomes is interesting. Lyon's medical school acceptance rate is 87 percent while Yale's is 83 percent (the national average is 41 percent). In overall outcomes, 99 percent of Lyon's 2018 graduates were employed or in graduate or professional school within six months of graduation; Yale had 95 percent. Lyon accomplished these outcomes with 43 percent first-generation college students filling its seats, while Yale did it with 18 percent.

Depending on how you judge value, the decision might not be as obvious as it seemed.

As for the student who chose Yale, we certainly hope that she succeeds. However, if things do not work out for her in New Haven, we will welcome her home at Lyon with open arms.


W. Joseph King is president of Lyon College. He is co-author, along with Brian C. Mitchell, of How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Editorial on 05/11/2019

Print Headline: W. JOSEPH KING: Colleges' struggle


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