Menus Subscribe Search

Burgh Diaspora

harvard-gate

Harvard University's iron gate in Cambridge, Massachusett. (Photo: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock)

Ironic Demographics: The Higher Education Bubble

• April 14, 2014 • 11:59 AM

Harvard University's iron gate in Cambridge, Massachusett. (Photo: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock)

Demographic decline is shrinking the pool of applicants for all but a handful of global superbrands, 80 percent of which are located in the United States.

In case you haven’t heard, higher education is dying. Tuition is too damn high. Demographic decline is shrinking the pool of applicants. For example, in Poland:

After growing rapidly for two decades, higher education enrollments peaked in 2009, having risen fivefold to almost 2 million. This year, the numbers have tailed off and are set to fall farther, even though Poland’s university enrollment rate is the fourth highest among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations.

By 2020, the number of 19-year-olds in Poland will be about 361,500 – almost half the level of 2002’s high-water mark, when those born at the height of the baby boom of the early to mid-1980s reached university age, according to a report published by the Perspektywy Education Foundation.

“By 2016, the number of places on offer in state universities will be equal to the number of teenagers graduating from high school,” explains Witold Bielecki, rector of Kozminski University in Warsaw, one of Poland’s most highly regarded private universities.

Poland has reached peak college student. It’s all downhill from here. Unless Poland does a better job of attracting freshmen from other countries (“exporting” higher education). In that competitive global space, the rich get richer:

Top universities in the UK’s regions are sliding down the international league table as the US institutions cement their dominance and universities in Seoul and Hong Kong are rising quickly through the ranks, according to new research.

The latest Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings show a widening gap between a “golden triangle” of institutions in London, Oxford and Cambridge, while Bristol has become the latest respected institution to drop out of the top 100. This follows the fall of Leeds, which lost its top 100 place last year, and Sheffield, which dropped out in 2012.

As usual, the elite group of global “superbrands’’ dominates the top 10, headed by Harvard University, followed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. Cambridge was the highest-placed UK institution in fourth, followed by Oxford in fifth. In total, the US has eight of the top 10 places.

Emphasis added. Superbrand universities don’t worry about the higher education bubble and demographic doom. The world is their oyster. Demand outstrips supply, the higher ed gap between the haves and the have nots widens:

Bruce Poch, a former admissions dean at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., said he saw “the opposite of a virtuous cycle at work” in admissions. “Kids see that the admit rates are brutal and dropping, and it looks more like a crapshoot,” he said. “So they send more apps, which forces the colleges to lower their admit rates, which spurs the kids next year to send even more apps.”

For most of the past six decades, overall enrollment boomed, while the number of seats at elite colleges and universities grew much more slowly, making them steadily more selective. Enrollment peaked in 2011, and it has dropped a bit each year since then, prompting speculation that entry to competitive colleges would become marginally easier. Instead, counselors and admissions officers say, the pool of high-achieving applicants continues to grow, fed partly by a rising number from overseas.

At the same time, students send more applications than they once did, abetted by the electronic forms that have become nearly universal and uniform applications that can make adding one more college to the list just a matter of a click. Seven years ago, 315 colleges and universities accepted the most widely used form, the Common Application; this year, 517 did.

As in Poland, the United States has hit peak college student. Unlike Poland, some universities (i.e. superbrands) saw admission rates get even lower. Demographics be damned, not all higher education markets are created equal.

Before dooming regional eds and meds, check to see if services are exported. Tradable eds and meds are the cornerstone of a divergent Legacy Economy. Tuition and health care costs are never too damn high. Geography matters. Whereas the Innovation Economy is dying. Wages are too damn high. Geography is dead.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.