Will Mid-Lifers Save College Campuses?
"50% of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years." - Clayton Christensen (2013)
The late academic Clay Christensen, who coined the term “disruptive innovation,” made this prediction pre-Covid, and next year, we will hit the 10-year timeline of his prediction. While we’re not anywhere close to Christensen’s projections, just in the Bay Area alone, we’ve seen the San Francisco Art Institute, Mills College, and Notre Dame de Namur University all close in the past couple of years.
And the worst is yet to come.
In four years, the number of students graduating from high schools across the country will begin a sudden and precipitous decline due to a rolling demographic aftershock of the Great Recession. Birthrates have dropped nearly 15% in the U.S. since 2007. While the total number of undergraduates nationwide almost doubled from 1985 to 2010, it’s declined by nearly 20% in the past dozen years and will decrease another 15-20% over the next decade.
And, of course, this is happening at the same time that a growing percentage of our population is over 50 years old.
What’s sad is how many of these college closures are happening in the Rust Belt and the Northeast parts of the U.S. At a time when empty factories and abandoned shopping malls have become the norm, local universities—often with a hundred years of heritage—have historically been one of the saving graces, especially in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. Shutting liberal art schools in these communities couldn’t come at a worse time, as many of these places have suffered from rampant opioid addiction.
So, here’s my bright idea for the morning. Over the next decade, how can we socialize this new idea:
We begin to encourage and support people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s to take a gap year to go back to college to earn a one-year diploma dedicated to repurposing and reskilling those likely to work deep into their 70s. Some of these challenged schools could socialize a program like this in which midlife students are in classes alongside their young undergrads. Other schools might entirely remake themselves as a midlife gap year academy, emulating programs like Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute and the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative (you can learn more about these types of programs at the Nexel Collaborative).
A couple of years ago, I co-authored a white paper called The Emergence of Long-Life Learning. For those of you who want to explore how higher education may evolve in the next couple of decades, I think you’d enjoy this geeky read.