Demographic Realism and the Crisis of Higher Education

May 11, 2021   •   By Dan Nemser, Brian Whitener

Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education

Nathan D. Grawe

The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes

Nathan D. Grawe

ON JANUARY 21, the president of Marquette University, Michael Lovell, announced that he was laying off 39 staff members. These layoffs were initially framed as part of a substantial restructuring of the university by the administration, which aimed to cut between 225 and 300 jobs in order to address a projected budget deficit. Although the pandemic has thrown budgets into chaos across the sector, at Marquette these moves began long before the pandemic. Back in 2019, the university was already laying off 24 employees and leaving nearly 50 vacancies unfilled, in response to gloomy predictions about future enrollments. As Marquette’s provost, Kimo Ah Yun, told the Marquette Wire, “We are making these decisions precisely because the future of higher education is at an inflection point. The demographic projections have prepared us for that and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of the issues we were already preparing for.”


At Marquette, as at schools across the country, demographics has become synonymous with crisis. With the number of high school graduates projected to decline significantly in the coming years, many colleges expect to face growing difficulties recruiting and enrolling students, putting pressure on the key revenue stream of tuition. But this challenge to business as usual should not be conflated with the way that demographics has come to be deployed by administrators as a new discourse of crisis, used as a lever to push through unprecedented austerity measures and restructurings. The future of higher education does not have to be governed by demographic realism.


The leading spokesperson of this emergent discourse of demographic crisis is the economist Nathan D. Grawe, whose book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education sent a shockwave through higher education’s administrative class. Since 2018, when the book came out, he has been an “in-demand speaker” at events like the Council of Independent Colleges 2020 Presidents Institute and the 2019 Future of Higher Ed conference, where his graphs “elicited gasps” from the deanlets in the audience. For university administrators, Grawe has become a cross between a prophet of doom and a crisis management consultant, sometimes leaning toward one role and sometimes the other. His work has become a ubiquitous point of reference for administrators across the country, at institutions as diverse as Ithaca College, University of Vermont, and Mt. Hood Community College, among many others. Marquette’s plans for restructuring, and the layoffs they entailed, were based on Grawe’s model, and President Lovell specifically referenced Grawe’s book in a 2019 email to the campus community explaining the layoffs, noting that he had asked his University Leadership Council to read it.


Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education lays out a straightforward argument. Since the financial crisis of 2007–’08, the fertility rate has dropped by more than 12 percent in the United States, locking in a significant decline in the traditional college-going population starting in 2026. Using a new model that he calls the Higher Education Demand Index (HEDI), Grawe attempts to predict these changes at a more granular level than prior estimates, taking into account birth rates as well as the probability of college attendance across demographic groupings, including race/ethnicity, family income, and parental education, and isolating regional differences. Among other things, his model shows the sharpest drop in college-going students in the Northeast and Midwest, a decline so significant that population growth in the West and South does not make up the difference.


This granularity is framed as a challenge to the dominant, pessimistic narrative of the impending collapse of higher education as a consequence of demographic change. For Grawe, the available data, general forecasts of high school graduates from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), were too broad to help administrators at different types of institutions appealing to different student populations and located in different regions to navigate demographic changes effectively. By building into his model the previously mentioned factors affecting the probability of college attendance, Grawe aims to provide estimates that are more attuned to the specific conditions in which administrators at different institutions make their decisions. Using his model, Grawe writes in the introduction, “doesn’t simply modify the picture painted by the dominant narrative. Depending on the type of institution considered, it entirely reverses the story line from one of plummeting populations to one of robust growth.”


Grawe’s model does offer a more optimistic forecast of rising demand for a small set of selective colleges and universities, as a result of both the expansion of college attendance in recent decades and the corresponding increase in parental education as well as the forecasted growth of the Asian American population (see below). But the picture for non-elite institutions is broadly similar to, if not markedly worse than, the dominant narrative. Two-year colleges and regional four-year institutions alike will see significant enrollment pressure, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, and “second-tier” national institutions will face serious challenges as competition over students intensifies. In other words, Grawe’s account of the coming demographic crisis continues to have negative if not catastrophic implications for the vast majority of institutions. Overall, things are not looking good. “[W]hile careful study of demographic subgroups is essential for projections of demand for subsectors of higher education,” he writes, “for broad postsecondary enrollment, demographics really is destiny.”


Demographics really is destiny. No institution, no matter where it is and who it aims to serve, will remain unaffected — for better or worse — by what Grawe calls the “birth dearth” and the subsequent collapse of demand for higher education. The prophet comes bearing a theory of crisis. Much as Mark Fisher’s “capitalist realism” captured how capitalism works to produce the belief that there can be no alternatives, Grawe’s demographic realism provides an objective limit that cannot be avoided, overcome, or argued against, as his projections are locked in by a decline in fertility that began a decade before the book’s publication. Population here plays a role similar to the one played for decades by the smoothly misleading charts of university finance executives who insist that “there is no alternative” to layoffs, budget cuts, and program closures. Demographic realism thus shores up these previously effective financial logics which appear to be faltering under the pressure of calls for free college and student debt abolition. Organizing of all kinds has otherwise laid bare administrative fictions about cash-strapped universities needing to invest in debt and labor exploitation.


The assertion of demographics as destiny has unsettling racial implications, though not in the way Grawe intends. As noted above, race is a key variable in his calculations of the probability of college attendance. “Asian Americans and non-Hispanic whites,” he observes, are “substantially more likely” to acquire some postsecondary education, and especially to attend selective institutions, than “non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics.” Built into his model, correlation becomes causation: though the white population is expected to decline, the forecasted growth in Asian American 18-year-olds translates neatly into a projected increase in demand for selective institutions. “[E]lite schools expect healthy demand increases driven by rising levels of parent education and an increasing Asian American population with strong connections to higher education.”


Grawe’s work is not alone in the contemporary discourse in turning to demographics, population, and bodies. From “race realists” who believe in biological racial differences to green fascists who push arguments that the earth’s population has surpassed its “carrying capacity,” much of the resurgent far-right discourse today invests in new forms of populationism. Grawe, of course, advocates for neither of these positions. However, his work does reduce complex social problems to abstract bodies, which in his dataset are raced. Sometimes it is difficult to discern, as Grawe discusses the propensity of different “races” to attend college, if destiny is demographics or just race. Certainly part of the reason Grawe’s particular form of demographic realism has been so immediately convincing to so many is that it reduces complex personhood to the stand-in of race, at least in part, and participates in a general return to the “common sense” of demography and population.


Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education is written with administrators in mind — it is a book for administrators, by an administrator. In the introduction, Grawe underscores his experience as an administrator at Carleton College in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and suggests that his book “promises to be an important guide for those responsible for leading institutions of higher education” through the impending demographic crisis. And yet, the book’s administrative frame strains against the logic of demographic realism, which implies that there is simply not that much that can be done about the crisis. Only schools with “exceptional agility,” he suggests, will be able to “beat the odds.” Frankly, this is not very helpful or inspiring. In the end, the book does not really provide the administrators who make up its target audience with the tools they are hoping for.


It is easy to imagine Grawe’s publisher, seeing the splash his first book made (not to mention his packed schedule of speaking invitations and frequent quotes in the higher education press) yet understanding that the book is not the guide it promises to be, urging him to write a follow-up volume oriented toward administrative responses to the impending crisis. The administrative market demands “solutions” — otherwise what good are all these administrators?


This is where Grawe’s new book comes in. If his first book speaks more like a prophet, the second speaks more like a consultant. As the title suggests, The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes begins with an updated recap of the demographic argument from the previous book, before moving on to a series of chapters identifying and evaluating an array of possible responses, in large part through interviews with college presidents and other high-level administrators. Over six chapters, he discusses the following approaches: recruitment strategies, retention initiatives, program/curriculum reforms, layoffs and cuts, growth plans, and collaborative policy action. And these institutional responses are echoed in a corresponding shift in his position on demographics as destiny. Since “colleges and universities are actively engaging demographic change along multiple dimensions,” Grawe writes, “the demographic trends explored in this and subsequent chapters do not represent higher education’s destiny.”


Even with this repositioning, however, the logic of demographic realism remains intact. The “birth dearth” continues to function as the defining constraint in higher education. This is evident from the start. In the introduction, Grawe draws from an interview with the president of the New England Commission of Higher Education to propose the analogy of a car crash to understand the coming demographic crisis. What kills is not the speed of the car but rather its change in speed. Automotive safety features are designed not to reduce the car’s maximum velocity, then, but to reduce the rate of deceleration by lengthening the time over which energy from a crash is absorbed. “Similarly,” he goes on, “institutions have some control over how much deceleration they experience.” Rather than waiting until the demographic crisis arrives, administrators ought to start responding to the impending crisis now. “[B]y setting out on a path for change today, it is possible to design and implement institutional changes over more time and so reduce the inherent stresses.” He adds: “This is particularly true in the context of long-term commitments such as capital investments and tenure.” Though Grawe claims to have disavowed demographics as destiny, then, his latest work doubles down on demographic realism.


Anyone working at a college or university, particularly over the last 12 months, will have no trouble seeing where this framework leads: Don’t wait! Cut now! Whatever his intentions, whatever complexities he aims to bring into relief, Grawe’s work is a tool, and like any tool it can and will be used in ways that escape the inventor’s grasp. At Marquette and elsewhere, demographic realism is, has been, and will be used to justify all manner of preemptive cuts, layoffs, and restructurings.


Perhaps the most unintentionally revealing part of The Agile College appears in the chapter titled “Reorganization, Rightsizing, and Other Names for Retrenchment.” There, Grawe speaks with John Neuhauser, the former president of St. Michael’s College, a liberal arts college in Vermont, about his program of “rightsizing” (which Grawe glosses as “decreasing institution size”). Grawe explains that in response to demographic challenges and in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the college decided in 2014 to decrease enrollment from about 1,900 to 1,600 students, or around 15 percent, over the course of three or four years. Of course, this would mean eliminating staff and faculty positions as well.


Author and president both judge the plan a success. Curiously, however, neither provides any details about its financial impact. There is no evidence to suggest, for example, that budget projections or net revenue have improved. (In fact, net tuition declined by 15 percent between 2015–2019, and Moody’s downgraded the school’s bond rating from Baa1 to Baa2 last year.) A strange compression occurs, as if, within the logic of demographic realism, reducing enrollment had been the goal in and of itself, rather than the financial sustainability it presumably was intended to achieve.


In fact, more than any other part of the book, this section provides the clearest picture of demographic realism at work. This is because it captures its deployment not as a social scientific theory that explains and clarifies the landscape of higher education but rather as an argument marshaled by administrators in the face of worker resistance. Anyone who has been following the situation at Marquette knows that Grawe’s arguments have been used strategically by administrators, but in his discussion of St. Michael’s College it becomes clear that Grawe is aware of this too. He writes that Neuhauser’s plans for cuts “engendered some resistance,” primarily from faculty members, and accepts the former president’s frame that these faculty were backward-looking and reluctant to change with the times. So how did the administration force their cuts through? The key, he argues, was to persuade the faculty. “If it is easy to imagine why some would oppose a smaller campus, what was persuasive in getting to the downsizing outcome? Neuhauser thinks the strategic assessment, and the demographic arguments in particular, actually carried significant weight.” This is demographic realism in practice: demographics as a rhetorical device to win over, or at least scare and confuse, unwilling workers. Demographic realism breaks down resistance and clears the way for restructuring to move forward.


If this example suggests that demographics is most effective as an argument, the St. Michael’s restructuring case study ends with a scene that perfectly captures its performative character. According to Grawe, Neuhauser says that if he were to do it over again, he would change one small thing. The former president notes that the cuts were accompanied by “strategic investment” as a way to boost morale among remaining faculty, to demonstrate that the college wasn’t just cutting but reorienting. In practice this meant new hires in departments with growing enrollments (primarily in — no surprise here — STEM). Looking back, Neuhauser insists that this was a mistake. “Symbolically,” he tells Grawe, it was vital “to communicate the idea ‘that this was an imminent crisis.’” Grawe goes on: “Neuhauser thinks a hiring moratorium would have served the college more effectively. While it would have disrupted campus relations a bit, he sees that outcome as ‘a price that was worth paying’ to communicate the urgency and necessity of a fundamental change like the one St. Michael’s had embarked on.” Once again, there is not even a gesture that administrative decisions ought to be made with revenue generation or even enrollments in mind. Instead, all that matters is the performance that contributes to a sense of emergency, one that would justify such a major restructuring.


What Grawe gets right across both books is that higher education is in crisis. Yet his work has generated so much interest among administrators at least in part because his crisis theory disturbs nothing of their understanding of the world. The monocausal theorization of “birth dearth” is a set of blinders shutting out every aspect of university political economy that every other sector of university worker knows backward and forward. The crisis in higher education, like the wider economic crisis, has many moving parts. These include the defunding of public education, student debt, tuition limits, vicious mismanagement, and the financialization of everything. But by laying everything at the feet of only one exogenous cause, Grawe allows administrators to frame the whole landscape as a technical problem with only technical fixes. As a part of this administrative logic, his “solutions” operate entirely within official and existing institutional channels.


Reading Grawe against Grawe, organizers at Marquette have pointed out that the administration is “misreading Grawe.” They argued that the university’s stated goal to become a “Hispanic-Serving Institution” could offset the envisioned shrinking pools of white prospective students. Another opportunity in Grawe’s work, which hasn’t received as much attention from campus organizers, is his strikingly optimistic take on the impact of retention initiatives. In his chapter on retention, Grawe notes that attrition is so high — in 2018 “only 62% of students returned to the institution at which they began studies the year before, and more than one in four failed to enroll at any institution in the second year” — that colleges that are able to reduce attrition rates by half could “offset the demographic losses projected in earlier chapters.” These policies represent opportunities with which campus organizers can push back against cuts, challenging the administrative rhetoric of demographic realism.


But beyond individual campuses, there is only so much that recruitment and retention can do within the system of higher education as it is currently organized. In this sense, Grawe’s repeated reminders that enrollment is a zero-sum game, that every college that successfully recruits or retains a student is effectively taking that student away from other colleges, is accurate. Put another way, helping a handful of “agile” institutions to “successfully navigate” the crisis is not the same as resolving or overcoming the crisis. Addressing the crisis from the perspective of the institution, as administrative policies will tend to do, functions as a serious constraint on the political horizon of Grawe’s work.


This is why the second-to-last chapter of The Agile College, on what Grawe calls “collaborative action,” is so disappointing, if not particularly surprising. This chapter aims to explore the kinds of reforms that could be taken if institutions worked together instead of treating each other as “zero-sum competitors.” But Grawe downplays popular proposals that have been taken up by progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Free college is quickly dismissed, because it apparently favors public institutions over private ones, which means that the latter will not support the policy. (Grawe is far more interested in how individual institutions could use “free tuition” as a recruitment strategy.) On student debt, Grawe insists that “the current student loan system works well for many students,” but, after some hemming and hawing, agrees that some sort of income-based repayment program could be “part of the solution.” Debt abolition goes unmentioned.


These overlooked policies would radically reshape the pool of potential students, especially supporting those who are poor, Black, Native, or Latinx. It is worth noting that Grawe briefly acknowledges that “an aggressive tuition reduction policy could substantially alter college attendance patterns in the coming years” in Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, but for some reason this admission does not make it into The Agile College. What is at stake here is less the omission of an important policy response to the crisis than the limits of Grawe’s theory of crisis. To be blunt: A theory of crisis that has no engagement with political economy is either empty rhetoric or, worse, rhetoric that has something to hide.


The point here is worth repeating: Grawe almost admits that there are variables that could completely explain away his theorization of crisis. Drastic tuition reductions, combined with public funding and debt forgiveness, could not only explain away the “birth dearth” but transform higher education in the United States. And for those outside the ivory towers of university administrators, that transformation would not be a problem, it would be a solution. And it could be a revolution.


What if the crisis was coming from inside the house? What if it was already here a decade ago, when a new wave of student mobilization first kicked off? When you start from political economy rather than demographics, the contours and timeline of the crisis of higher education look very different. But readers scanning Grawe’s books for in-depth discussions about student debt, administrative bloat, expensive construction projects, policing, and the adjunctification of academic labor will search in vain.


Can we understand failing retention and declining enrollments without considering that today’s college-age students might have parents still paying off their own student debt? Can an inflation-adjusted increase of tuition of 26 percent at public and 21 percent at private institutions in the last decade really be discussed without student debt and the financialization of universities? What might the future of higher education look like without the debt service and endowment fees and administrative and athletic salaries that clog university balance sheets? Can we imagine a future for universities without police, and with livable conditions for labor? In our previous work, we have argued the current crisis is driven by a tuition limit: students and families are no longer willing to continue paying the premiums that institutions demand of them. The political economy of most institutions of higher education, from their bond issuances to their labor policies, are shaped by a dependence, and desire for, ever-increasing streams of unrestricted revenue, of which tuition is the most dependable source. Did the fertility rate drop? Yes. Does this explain why universities are in crisis? No.


Grawe’s work is limited by its failure to engage with a broader set of factors and lack of political vision. If college was free, if debt was abolished, if students were given more support (both financial and instructional), what would the retention rate be, who would enroll, what other worlds might be possible?


These are important questions, but demographic realism will not answer them. Demographics isn’t destiny, it is simply the most recent version of a long line of self-serving administrative ideologies. To contest these ideas, we would do well to see Grawe’s work for what it is, an attempt to shore up a set of administrative logics and arguments that are committed first and foremost not to making education possible for as many as possible, but to making it efficient for those who profit from it. We have to do so without losing sight of who produced the policies that produced the crisis, a crisis that Grawe’s friends in administration are trying to balance on our backs.


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Dan Nemser is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Infrastructures of Race: Concentration and Biopolitics in Colonial Mexico (University of Texas Press, 2017).


Brian Whitener is an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of South Alabama and author of Crisis Cultures: The Rise of Finance in Mexico and Brazil (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019).