The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes, by Nathan Grawe

Gabriel Paquette enjoys a bold attempt to offer solutions for universities threatened by shrinking student numbers and declining revenues

February 11, 2021
Man in boat shaped like a car with the American flag
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In 2018, Nathan Grawe’s Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education introduced a new cause for pessimism about the future of colleges and universities in the US. During the great recession of 2008, fewer Americans had children. The lower fertility rate resulted in a “birth dearth” with long-term consequences. The pool of prospective university students will decline precipitously by the mid-2020s and appears unlikely to rebound.

Although a handful of institutions – highly selective elite colleges in the main – are insulated, most will be affected adversely by this demographic shock. For those in the north-east and the upper Midwest, the data portend calamity. Grawe’s book evoked a gloomy panorama of plummeting enrolments and plunging tuition fee revenues. Institutional closures and mergers would multiply. The grim prognosis for those spared the worst is retrenchment and contraction.

In The Agile College, however, Grawe disputes the notion that demography is destiny and counsels against despair. Embracing the concepts of anti-fragility and resiliency, he argues that demographic disruption can be mitigated and managed through “proactive measures” to prepare for a “less forgiving future”. He inventories the mechanisms and tools available to vulnerable institutions. And he challenges them to rethink size and scope, academic priorities, institutional identity, target student population and budget models.

Grawe’s book is unapologetically empirical, focusing on specific programmes, policies and approaches already piloted with success. It is a satisfying melange of nuanced economic analysis and ethnography. Models worthy of emulation are complemented with cautionary tales of well-intentioned reforms gone awry. Grawe even playfully floats a borderline cockeyed idea: founding an institution on the lines of the International Monetary Fund to provide “bridge funds to schools attempting to make investments in structural changes”, to transform themselves before catastrophe strikes.

There is a refreshing absence of sentimentality and obfuscating jargon in The Agile College. While optimistic, Grawe is never Panglossian. Ramping up recruitment efforts, he contends, is an intuitive response to a shrinking applicant pool. But every other college will follow suit, intensifying competition and demoralising leadership at considerable expense. “Clearly, as a mathematical truism,” he observes, “it isn’t possible for everyone to outcompete everyone else.”

Admissions alone are not a path to salvation. A more efficacious strategy to mitigate demographic decline is the retention of students already on campus. Casting this goal as a collective responsibility, Wheaton College in Massachusetts promised its faculty and staff an across-the-board 1 per cent pay rise if the college achieved a 90 per cent first-year retention rate.

Another strategy is brand differentiation. Grawe notes that 41,000 degree programmes were added across US colleges and universities between 2012 and 2018. Yet few of them were distinguishable from those offered at competitor institutions. The book lauds liberal arts colleges that have repackaged existing, underutilised resources and personnel instead of launching new initiatives. Scripps College in California established Public Humanities Clinics, which demonstrated that disciplines pilloried for their purported lack of relevance could be harnessed to address pressing policy issues, from education to healthcare to housing.

Enrolment declines will necessitate substantial cuts and closures. The Agile College convincingly shows that succumbing to despondency is a premature response to the impending demographic disruption.

Gabriel Paquette is professor of history, and vice-provost for academic affairs, at the University of Oregon.

The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes
By Nathan Grawe
Johns Hopkins University Press, 264pp, £24.95
ISBN 9781421440231
Published 12 January 2021

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