Skip to main content

Higher Education Is Dying

That's what some are claiming, because where prospective students live, households will struggle to afford university.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Aerial view of the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo: Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons)

Aerial view of the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo: Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons)

Is a college degree worth the investment? The question seems absurd given the emphasis on plugging the brain drain and attracting talent. Yet here we are, awash in student loan debt, fretting about a higher education bubble. Pop goes demography:

Of about 450 counties with significantly more younger children than older ones, about 330 have median incomes below $50,000, compared with a median of $52,762 nationally.

By contrast, in many of the highest-income, most-educated counties—which have reliably delivered high-school graduates to colleges—the supply of younger children is dwindling. That pattern is striking in the suburbs of New York City: Long Island; Westchester County, N.Y.; Fairfield County, Conn. In Somerset and Morris Counties, N.J., both with median incomes of more than $98,000, the populations of 4-year-olds compared with 18-year-olds are 26 percent and 32 percent smaller, respectively.

Like a fisherman familiar with the best spots, a college recruiter might look to nearby Hunterdon County, N.J. It's one of the wealthiest in the country, with a median income of $104,000. Nearly half of adults have bachelor's degrees, compared with 28 percent nationally. The future recruiter's problem? For every 10 older teens, Hunterdon has about five 4-year olds. In ponds that have long produced good catches, the fish are disappearing.

Where the prospective students live, households will struggle to afford university. The wealthy places are dying, aging into oblivion (or moving to Florida). Peter Thiel might be onto something.

Peter Thiel sucks at geography. Higher education isn't dying. The economy is diverging, with a few winners and a bunch of losers. The silver lining in the dark clouds of demographic doom:

In purchasing names of prospective students from the College Board and ACT, some enrollment officials are sorting the pool like baseball scouts applying sabermetrics. Analyses of current enrollment to guide recruiting can't focus just on the bread-and-butter student, says Steve Kappler, assistant vice president and head of postsecondary strategy at ACT.

Given the growing population of high-school students who would be the first in their families to go to college, he says, one institution recently asked: Which first-generation students have done well here? It saw success among those with a high "interest-major fit," according to ACT, meaning that the interests they reported on the test's Student Profile Section matched their intended field of study.

The college now plans to recruit more first-generation students with a high interest-major fit and a high "mobility index," a predictor of how far they'll travel to enroll, which ACT added to its menu of characteristics in 2009.

Mobility index? I'd like to see the math behind that model. If there is an effective model out there, it is Pittsburgh. The Steel City dealt with demographic decline before the rest of the nation did. The Pittsburgh eds and meds industry has its Ph.D. in sabermetric demographics, reaching well beyond state borders to fill seats in freshman classes. Regional economist Chris Briem charts out "Distribution By Age of the Population Living in Another State 1 Year Prior."


Given the exodus of the 1980s, Pittsburgh is missing a generation. Children are hard to come by, particularly in the city. Anemic in-migration isn't helping matters. However, note the boom from out of state aged 20 to 24. What demographic bust?

Turns out, in Pittsburgh anyway, children aren't the future. Demography is not destiny. Higher education is undead, a zombie hungry for brains in Monroeville Mall.