What’s Putting the “Doom” in Higher Ed? The Answer: Bad Reporting

Travis Burchart
9 min readJan 23, 2024

Higher education is growing … not everywhere but in many places. I work for a university that’s grown for 15 straight years. And last fall, we enrolled our largest freshman class in history. We’re not alone:

When it comes to higher ed, reporters loathe a good story. “Scary” — enrollment declines, campus closures, changing opinions — is what sells. But how scary is the story? Is higher ed truly scary or is it — like good fiction — made to be scary?

“Colleges” Is a Very Broad Word

Consider this recent article from Olivia Sanchez of The Hechinger Report:

Experts predicted dozens of colleges would close in 2023 — and they were right

The generic “colleges” is faceless, invoking all of higher education. Without qualifiers, it’s a broad, reckless, pandemic word, the way “fish” is reckless if you’re talking about “shark” attacks. Get past the title, and “colleges” gets a little more specific:

At least 30 colleges closed their only or final campus in the first 10 months of 2023, including 14 nonprofit colleges and 16 for-profit colleges, according to an analysis of federal data by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, or SHEEO.

So “dozens of colleges” actually means:

· a dozen for-profit colleges.

· a dozen nonprofit colleges.

The distinction is critical because historically, closures dominate for-profits:[1]

The research covers July 2004 to June 2020, a period during which nearly 12,000 campuses closed. It looked at closures at 467 institutions covering 143,000 students. Over 100,000 of those students attended colleges that closed abruptly.

The effects aren’t felt evenly. Nearly 83% of students who experienced closures were studying at for-profit colleges. [emphasis added] The majority of students faced sudden closures rather than ones conducted in an orderly fashion.

Thus, history shows that “college” closures are mostly for-profits, a distinction that’s ignored by the all-encompassing (and more scary) title. Despite this, The Hechinger Report ups the ante for non-profits:

Among nonprofits, this [i.e., 14 nonprofit closures] came on the heels of 2022, when 23 of them closed, along with 25 for-profit institutions. Before 2022, the greatest number of nonprofit colleges that closed in a single year was 13.

For non-profits, dark clouds are assumably descending. With the “greatest number” of non-profit closures now eclipsed, greater numbers must be on the horizon, right? Even assuming this to be true, what exactly do these “numbers” mean? What kinds of colleges are actually closing?

Which “Colleges” Are “Closing”?

Derek Newton, writing for Forbes, recently dug deeper into the “colleges” behind “college closures.” Examining data from Higher Ed Dive, Newton noted that recorded “closures” include:[2]

· A branch campus closing but with the main school remaining fully open, serving more than 20,000 students.

· The cessation of a joint venture, with one school eventually splitting into two schools.

· Instances in which a non-profit school was acquired by a public school or larger non-profit, operating thereafter as a branch or satellite campus.

· In 12 listed closures, the details were a straightforward acquisition in which the institution structure or name changed but the “footprint” of the school remained unchanged.

· A significant portion of the closed schools were obscenely small. One served just 80 students. Another had an enrollment of 74. A third served only 41 students.

· A few of the schools on the closure list were, it seems, never accredited or sanctioned to provide student loans or federal student aid.

· More than half of schools on the closure list were religious schools — Bible colleges, seminary schools, catholic schools.[3]

Newton goes on to say:

When you actually look at the data, it certainly seems as though those who have been inaccurately warning us about the catastrophic future of higher education will count any closure in their column, regardless of what or why. [emphasis added]

“Dozens of colleges” closed — as reported by The Hechinger Report — is a broad, scary “fact,” one that threatens Stanford and MIT and Harvard and any college like them. Readers don’t know that by “colleges,” The Hechinger Report means something historically one-sided, institutionally narrow, and potentially overinflated.

A Big Guess about the Future

“College closures” — today at least — isn’t the pandemic many make it out to be. Far from it! But what about tomorrow … what about the future of higher education? According to The Hechinger Report:

By 2030, 449 colleges are expected to see a 25 percent decline in enrollment and 182 colleges are expected to see a 50 percent decline, according to an EAB analysis of federal enrollment data. By 2035, those numbers are expected to rise to 534 colleges expecting a 25 percent decline and 227 colleges expecting a 50 percent decline; by 2040, a total of 566 colleges are expected to see a 25 percent decline and 247 are expected to see a 50 percent decline, according to EAB’s analysis.

By anyone’s standards, this is a shockingly accurate prediction, a prediction that spans the next two decades. Using data, EAB can tell — looking ahead 16 years — that exactly 566 colleges will see (or “are expected” to see) a 25% decline in enrollment. Such precision conveys certainty.

In 1998, Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, predicted this:

The growth of the Internet will slow drastically. Most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.

Maybe, like Krugman, EAB will be wide of the mark … maybe very wide. But as reported, EAB’s prediction appears to be more fact than possibility. EAB looks ahead 16 years and prophesies collapse with exactitude[4]; it leaves little doubt about the future of higher education.

The Hechinger Report treats skepticism as merely a sidenote[5], but one would think that EAB’s remarkable precision — projected over 6200 days — would raise questions. That’s because predictive precision, as noted by The Black Swan author Nicholas Taleb, is highly questionable:

[A fallacy in forecasting] lies in the failure to take into account forecast degradation as the projected period lengthens. We do not realize the full extent of the difference between near and far futures. … [Another] fallacy, and perhaps the gravest, concerns a misunderstanding of the random character of the variables being forecast. [T]hese variables can accommodate far more optimistic — or far more pessimistic — scenarios than are currently expected. … What is the implication here? Even if you agree with a given forecast, you have to worry about the real possibility of significant divergence from it. [emphasis added] … It is often said that “is wise he who can see things coming.” Perhaps the wise one is the one who knows that he cannot see things far away.[6]

The Hechinger Report seems unworried about any “real possibility of significant divergence.” Will EAB be correct? Maybe. But at the very least, predictions should be questioned, not passively absorbed. Highlighting this passivity, The Hechinger Report allows EAB to further frame the story:

Hundreds of colleges are expected to see significant enrollment declines in the coming years, according to David Attis, managing director of research at the education consulting company EAB. Among the reasons, he said, are declining birthrates, smaller shares of students choosing college, and college-going students veering toward larger and more selective institutions.

The listed reasons are valid, but as Taleb notes (and the article ignores):

· We don’t fully realize the difference between now and then.

· We misunderstand the random character of the variables (i.e., birthrates, student shares, and college selection) being forecast.

Creating the “Doom” in “Doomsday”

I don’t fault EAB for its predictions. They sell services (good services) to colleges and universities; in their own words, they “solve education’s toughest challenges.” Enrollment decline is a tough challenge, and being a smart company means talking about your customers’ challenges. That’s good business.

But I do fault The Hechinger Report … I fault them for failing to raise questions and for leaning into one side — the scary side — of the story. EAB looks 16 years ahead and says 566 colleges will lose a quarter of their students. Big, exact numbers “sound” scary, but it’s just a scary guess. The Hechinger Report accepts this guess with little pushback; 2040 seems ironclad.

The Hechinger Report gives you a scare with the broad, encompassing “colleges.” Even if you get past the title,[7] few specifics are given about 1) which “colleges” exactly or 2) what exactly defines a “closing.” The article doubles down on the scare with predictions and precision … 566 colleges … 25% decline … the year 2040. It all betrays a kind of fiction … that doomsday has happened and doomsday is still to come.

[1] The article later admits this:

Over the past two decades, far more for-profit colleges closed each year than nonprofits. An average of nine nonprofit colleges closed each year, compared to an average of 47 for-profit colleges.

[2] For its closure data, The Hechinger Report cites the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). Normally, a link to the SHEEO data would be provided, but there is none (nor could I find the data online). Regardless, SHEEO, in past research on college closures, acknowledges that “college” isn’t the broad term people make it out to be:

Closures were relatively evenly dispersed across the country, but mostly concentrated in the Southeast (24.6%), followed by the Great Lakes (18.0%), Far West (16.3%), and Plains regions (12.6%) (Figure 2). These regions are also the areas of the country where the largest numbers of private for-profit institutions are located. Many of the closed institutions were primarily or entirely online or were geographically dispersed branch campuses. [emphasis added]

[3] I am employed at a faith-based university, and despite Newton’s observation, our university is thriving in terms of record enrollment and campus expansion. The closure of some faith-based institutions (i.e., Bible colleges/seminaries) doesn’t necessarily correlate with the decline of faith-based “universities.” In fact, as reported by Christianity Today:

Eleven evangelical college and universities have announced record enrollment this fall [2023] — which is a record for breaking records, as far as anyone in Christian higher education remembers.

[4] Does The Hechinger Report cite this prediction because it’s good science or because it’s good “sizzle”? Jon Robinson, writing for Nasdaq, makes this point about bold, confident predictions:

[T]he firms making bold, confident calls about the market often grab more attention and short-term inflows than a competitor who’s offering plain ol’ vanilla (even if it’s the best vanilla in the game). Human nature usually draws investors’ attention toward “sizzle” and shiny objects.

[5] The Hechinger Report gives a small nod to the reality that EAB’s analysis is merely a prediction:

These are predictions, of course, and they certainly don’t ensure that all those colleges will close.

But it’s just one sentence, tossed in after some very specific, shocking, and eye-catching data. Moreover, as written, the article implies again and again that many colleges are “ensured” to close. The Hechinger Report’s one caveat means little when the overall theme is that mass “college” closures are a forgone conclusion.

[6] Warren Buffett once said “Forecasts may tell you a great deal about the forecaster; they tell you nothing about the future.”

[7] Many people won’t read the article. They’ll stop at the title and later regurgitate its broad idea: “I saw something that says colleges are closing in America.” Is this the reader’s fault? To some degree yes, but bad reading doesn’t begin with a bad reader … it begins with bad writing.

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Travis Burchart

Social media expert, higher education advocate, writer, Founding Fathers fan, lawyer in a past life