Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Enrollment Cliff

In 2007-2008 the sub-prime mortgage debacle led to the Great Recession, which in turn led to a drop in the birth rate. Fourteen years later, the Denver Colorado public school board is debating whether to close ten schools in the city/county due to low enrollment (and reduced tax income). Jefferson County Colorado (where I live) is having similar discussions. As you might guess, this is controversial with parents.

A week ago I read this in Vox


which I'm now seeing referenced other places: colleges and universities are facing a similar "enrollment cliff", not just due to the birth rate, but from high school students selecting career paths other than college.

Pursuing a career path that does not include a college degree is a decision which I do not disagree - not every career requires a college degree, contrary to popular opinion (mostly from college marketing departments). And some extraordinary individuals can get all the training and knowledge they need through rigorous self-directed learning, even in technology fields like mine. (It's been my privilege to work with a few terrific folks like this.) But they are the exception, not the rule. Not every person has that skill set.

(I am deeply cynical however of major tech giants telling high school students that they do not need a college degree to work in the tech field, merely a certificate from specialized training. This is in not untrue. But they omit the words "perhaps for a while, and maybe at a lower salary". I wonder if the long term effect of this will be to encourage unionization in the tech field. [I don't object to this, either.])

Why do I care? For years I've been on an advisory board for the computer science department at my alma mater, so am aware of the impacts of not just enrollment but - to be honest - fads in the technology fields have on academia. And I'm watching this traveling wave of change move through the elementary and high schools, to the colleges and universities, and finally to employers.

I put my money where my mouth is on both sides of this: some years ago I endowed a modest scholarship at my alma mater in honor of my mentor and thesis advisor, the late great Bob Dixon, and I annually donate to support a lab at my alma mater that provides facilities and tools for students to do their own projects for self-directed learning (basically a makerspace supported by the computer science department).

I've also made it pretty obvious where I stand on continuous self-directed learning, by constantly doing technology projects of my own, having over thirty open-source software repositories on GitHub, and writing about all of it in this blog since 2006.

An old friend, university classmate, former fellow university employee, and one-time flat-mate of mine remarked recently that colleges are part of a free-market and are going to have to learn cost control. I agree. Although I'm concerned as much with the second order effects of this wave on our society as I am with the effects on, for example, my alma mater.