By Thomas K. Lindsay
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the last two years have seen a substantive decrease (930,000) in the number of college enrollments nationally. Aside from the rebounding economy — when jobs are scarce, some high-school grads and adult students see college as a more attractive option — at least two factors account for this decline: the decrease in the number of entering-college-age students in the overall population, and the rising cost of college tuition (and, with it, student-loan debt). As enrollments fall, so does the viability of a large number of colleges and universities, which live or die largely on enrollment numbers from year to year. Amid all this bad news — or rather, in response to it — higher-education reformers may find their leverage enhanced.
The challenges posed to the very survival of a growing number of schools was predictable. Over the past quarter-century, average college tuition has increased 440 percent — faster than general inflation and even health-care costs over the same period. As a consequence, student-loan debt stands at an all-time high of $1.1 trillion. For the first time in history, student debt is greater than total national credit-card debt. Little of this surprises higher-education reformers, who have been arguing for some time that these dramatic increases are unsustainable.