Can America’s Colleges and Universities Be Saved?

American colleges and universities continue to lose students steadily.

The latest statistics confirm their continuing decline. Here’s some headline numbers:

  • The number of total enrolled postsecondary students declined 3.3 percent year-over-year, the most significant rate of decline in enrollment since 1951. This number has declined nearly 10 percent since 2010, from 21 million to 19 million.
  • College enrollment totaled 15.9 million undergraduate students nationwide in Fall 2020, a 4.3 percent decline year-over-year. This number has declined more than 12 percent since 2010, from 18.1 million to 15.9 million.
  • Full-time college enrollment has declined more than 11 percent since 2010, from 13.1 million to 11.6 million.
  • Community college enrollment declined by 10 percent in 2020 alone. California’s community colleges lost 17 percent of their total, about 300,000 students, between Fall 2019 and Fall 2021.
  • Men are barely 41 percent of students enrolled in college, they are six percentage points less likely to complete college than women, and the hemorrhage of male enrollment continues unabated.
  • The proportion of college-age Americans (18-29) enrolled in higher education has been declining since 2016.
  • Seventy-five nonprofit colleges and universities have closed or merged since 2016, more than one percent of the total.

In other words, the structural crisis in higher education that the National Association of Scholars (NAS) diagnosed early in the COVID pandemic, in our Critical Care recommendations, continues to afflict American higher education. America’s colleges and universities cannot staunch their bleeding, no matter how many transfusions of taxpayer dollars they receive from the federal and state governments.

The higher education establishment and its political allies recommend different “reforms” that boil down to increasing government subsidies for American higher education. No-strings debt forgiveness is the most popular such reform in 2022—and it is especially popular with colleges and universities because it means they can continue to produce college graduates who cannot hope to pay back their college debts, and stick the taxpayer with the tab. When you’re in a hole, you’re supposed to stop digging; the current debt-relief plans are jackhammer shovels.

America’s current model of higher education cannot be sustained. Woke seminaries, made even more repellent to students of all races by the current determination to impose loyalty tests to the so-called “anti-racism” ideology, provide at best a hollow credential for a white-collar job. They simply aren’t worth the money—and ever-increasing numbers of Americans realize that. Students and parents are voting with their pocketbooks and their feet.

American universities, abandoning their civic mission, have attempted to make ends meet by enrolling ever greater numbers of foreign students—but the number of foreign students declined by 15 percent during the pandemic school year of 2020-2021, and there is no sign those numbers will rebound. Many colleges and universities also have abandoned standardized tests for their admission requirements, disguising the frantic search for paying students as equity—but in doing so they have abandoned the attractiveness of college for young Americans who actually want something more than remedial courses from a college. American policymakers should focus on major reforms that make American higher education worth the price.

NAS has provided a series of recommendations for how colleges should reform themselves, in works such as Critical Care, Freedom to Learn, and Priced Out. Colleges must assume responsibility for a portion of college loans; they must re-establish rigor in their admissions and the standards; and they must remove the administrative bureaucracies that enforce authoritarian ideology (and choke professors with busywork). The federal government must stop subsidizing dysfunctional practices. It should also refrain from worsening higher education’s troubles—for example, by imposing suspensions of due process on colleges, in ways that will further discourage men from enrolling in college. We have elaborated these recommendations in great detail, but they boil down to restoring accountability in higher education, both to make our colleges affordable and to actually educate students.

NAS made these recommendations because American higher education has been dying for many years. The pandemic further weakened our colleges and universities. They are appreciably closer to their death-beds. Their ideological fervor increases their danger, because the higher education establishment has grown deaf to any counsel for reform.

We urge American citizens and policymakers to reform our higher education system while there is still time.

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