If higher education is a business, then are students our customers or our products? Well, it depends on when you’re considering them. As applicants for admission and continuing enrollees, they’re the ones we’re here to serve, whether we call them customers, clients, or little hellions.
But as interns, graduates, and alumni, they’re the product we offer up to society and employers. Later, as they advance in their careers and make hires of their own, they become our customers again.
Let’s look at how we in the academy are meeting demand, or rather, how well we’re pacing the conveyor belt.
Go too slow, and the backpacks will pile up at the front door, while at the back door society starves for graduates. Go too fast and at the front door we scrounge for enrollments – effectively, admitting the underqualified – while risking a glut out the other end. (In fact it’s a negligible risk: when we admit the underqualified they don’t come out the back end, and the result is waste rather than glut.)
So, given that we’re aiming for the Goldilocks speed of “just right,” are we there? Yes and no.
For help estimating the output side of demand, many of us like the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. In a seminal 2010 report called Help Wanted, the Center predicted that by 2018 45% of all jobs would require an associate degree or higher. That’s what you get by summing the three shades of blue on the far right column:
We are not meeting that demand. With a couple of years still to go on Georgetown’s deadline, the U.S. Census Bureau says the supply of the U.S. population with an associate degree or higher is more like 35%.
And according to some economists, down that ten-point gap between supply and demand has fallen the middle class.
They argue that the “wage premium” – the additional pay you can expect as a college graduate – is going up, further evidence of degree-holder scarcity. The thinking goes, if we could better supply the market with graduates, then employers wouldn’t have to pay so much extra to hire one, and we’d see significant improvements in both socioeconomic equity and total wealth. (One of the clearest and most convincing summaries of this thinking is available in this working paper from economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz.)
So: put together these different reports and appears we could solve some of our ills if we could hit a 45% rate of degree attainment out the back door, instead of 35%. Goldilocks.
What about the front door? Does 45% of the population even want a college degree? Well, there’s something funny going on here. Per the National Center for Education Statistics, college-going rates among our target population of 18- to 24-year-olds have been going mostly up:
And get a load of the current enrollment rate – it looks a lot like the degree attainment rate we’re aiming for out the back. This suggests that the public has accurately appraised the worth of the degree.
However, that almost spooky synchronization goes arrhythmic when you turn from enrollments to graduates, because not all of our students make it out the back door with a diploma.
Now, the six-year graduation rate for public universities is typically reported at around 50% — significantly off, because it excludes those who transfer, or leave and come back, or take longer than six years. But whatever the real number, all parties agree it’s lower than it should be. And we already have enough backpacks coming in to change the output from this:
That is, without recruiting or admitting a single additional student, existing enrollment would almost precisely match employer demand — both numbers inside that 42-45% zone — if we just graduated the students who come in.
A word of warning: the researchers behind these various analyses used different methodologies, population samples, and historical periods to hit their numbers. They didn’t expect a system-office wonk with some clip art to draw shaky connections and then blog about it, and might be appalled at my conclusion that it’s all about retention.
But I bet they’d agree it’s mostly about retention.
So then what should we conclude? A few things:
- The public knows what it’s doing. Whether we think of them as customers, clients, or widgets, we’re apparently on safe ground listening to our students and their networks of supporters. They do indeed need college, and want it in numbers that come uncannily close to those independently calculated by Ivy League economists.
- Applicants don’t come to universities for “some college.” At state universities all our students want to earn degrees, and we have failed to meet demand, at both doors of the factory, when they leave without one.
- We need better graduation metrics or we can’t even diagnose the problem. The student who took seven years because of a stop-out to care for family, work overseas, or save a community center isn’t a failure but a win. The ones who transfer to get a degree elsewhere shouldn’t be counted as a loss on one side, a win on the other, and a wash for society. They are wins. A few different players are working on better ways to keep score. They can’t get us there soon enough.
Because demand at both ends of the conveyor belt will continue rise, driven by the increasing complexity of work, multiple careers and college enrollments over a lifetime, and a growing number of students bent on customizing their learning, and getting what they need, one way or the other.