Sean Creighton
by Sean Creighton
Mon Dec 14th 2009 at 9:02pm UTC

Does Higher Ed Benefit In a Recession?


Because enrollment is trending upward across the country, especially with community colleges seeing double-digit growth in many states, this news becomes fodder to perpetuate a belief that “higher education benefits in a recession.” Is that the real story?

Even in states that have made higher ed a priority, funding for public colleges and universities is inevitably cut or, in the best case scenario, held flat during a serious economic downturn. And, certainly, there are no new public dollars to invest in a recession. How is this a benefit to higher ed? Furthermore, private institutions have seen their endowments drop over 20 percent on average. Harvard saw a whopping 30 percent decline in its endowment, which translates to a loss of tens of billions of dollars. Benefit?

So, what’s the story then? “People benefit from higher education in a recession.” Higher ed is the central place people turn to in an effort to invest in their life, personally and professionally, and transform their future. Fortunately, colleges make adjustments to preserve academic integrity during a recession, accommodating the numerous people who are making the investment in their education at this time.

Do you think this particular enrollment boom is a decade in the making and indicates a massive transition from a manufacturing job-based economy to a creative economy?

8 Responses to “Does Higher Ed Benefit In a Recession?”

  1. Milan Davidovic Says:

    “Do you think this particular enrollment boom is a decade in the making and indicates a massive transition from a manufacturing job-based economy to a creative economy?”

    Perhaps not…

  2. seanrox Says:

    agreed. let’s not discount the role of passion.

  3. David Says:

    Are we creating yet another self generated crisis here? Will this lead to an “education” bubble where everyone has a worthless degree? Let’s learn from what we just went through and look at education as a lifelong endeavor. Integrated into daily life where one doesn’t need a “degree” as much as a constant learning to stay ahead of the curve. Just a thought.

  4. Wendy Says:

    Agree with David. What would benefit the economy more is more integration between the research universities and the private sector. And the opportunity to take one short course, or a 2 day seminar, or attend talks and discussions occasionally is far more suitable to this integration than getting people to attend a degree program full or part time. Almost anyone can spare a couple days once a year for professional development. Fewer can manage their job requirements, raising kids, maintaining a home, etc. and fulfilling degree-oriented course requirements.

  5. Fred Says:

    In order to benefit from life time learning opportunities, the participants in these short courses need to possess underlying math, reading, analytical and articulation skills. My impression (supported by international tests that rank US students somewhere in 12th to 20th place on various measures of competence) is that too many high school graduates lack learning skills. Therefore, the first year or two of college are required for many to learn how to learn.

    I have discussed the difference between French and American schooling with numerous young Americans – the most common retort from Americans is that the French are so rigid in their education that they lack the creative spirit that makes American education great. In response I quote Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind”.

    Too many of our citizens are more interested in short term consumption than long term investment in society by preparing the next generation. Thus they are unwilling to pay the necessary taxes required to educate the young. By the way I am not a teacher and I have many concerns about the way education tax dollars are spent but the problem is not solved by just not providing the needed funds.

  6. David Miller Says:

    Good post Sean. Lots of great comments and I am about to post on a small piece of this debate.

    Higher Ed has always been a place to ‘hide’ during a recession, increase skills, and benefit from the structural/financial/career supports US higher ed offers.

    Many schools depend on govt dollars to function and there are stresses throughout the system right now. School consolidations are being discussed throughout the land and there is some ‘craziness’ gripping public higher education in CA.

    Our system of higher ed is the most diverse in the world and is very ‘american’ in that we let lots of people attempt it (vs entry rates in other countries), but few actually ‘finish’. Part of it, as mentioned above, is that our typical structure is not suited to the modern lifestyle/workstyle that many ‘customers’ of higher ed experience today.

    thanks to all for the great discussion/conversation.

  7. Sean Creighton Says:

    Thanks all for the insightful observations! If there was a massive overhaul of the higher ed system (online and traditional) that accommodated “job requirements, raising kids, maintaining a home” and the “modern lifestyle/workstyle,” would we see a surge in enrollment that makes the an increase during a recession look minuscule? Of course, there are examples of institutions making this shift or those that are built on a model of accommodation, but certainly not as widespread as traditional systems.

    Looking forward to more comments!

  8. Campus Entrepreneurship Says:

    Sean, a ‘massive’ overhaul is impossible given the diversity of our institutions. That said, there are innovators and they will be copied as their models prove successful. That is why Pittsburgh and California are important to watch right now (sorry, plugging my post). Have a great day and happy holidays/new year.