We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Enrollment at my university and many others has been adversely impacted by a number of factors, including what is now commonly referred to as the “demographic cliff.” This term denotes an anticipated drop in high-school graduates in 2026 or 2027 (depending on which model one uses), a result of falling birthrates that followed the financial crash of 2008. Declining birthrates are highest in families identified as white, affluent, or both — the segment of the population most likely to produce college students. The Carleton College economics professor Nathan D. Grawe has closely traced this trend, and it’s part of the reason The Chronicle ran a cover story last fall titled “The Shrinking of Higher Ed.”
This fast-approaching drop in potential college students has been exacerbated by several other factors that are creating what Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University, calls not just a “demographic cliff” but a “demographic perfect storm.” Since the beginning of the pandemic, higher ed has lost nearly 1.4 million undergraduates and is nearly 10 percent smaller, in terms of undergraduate enrollment, than it was pre-pandemic. Anti-immigration policies heightened during the Trump presidency have contributed to this, making American colleges less attractive and accessible to international students, even though some recent enrollment figures offer hope for a turnaround.
Another factor is that the American public is losing confidence in higher ed. As tuition increases, a widespread sense has taken hold that four years of college will leave students underemployed or unemployed and carrying a burden of debt. This fearful picture, unfortunately, has some grounding in reality. In April 2022, Dan Bauman reported that the rate of unemployment for new bachelor’s degree recipients had risen from 8.8 percent in 2019 to 12.8 percent in 2020 and to 13.1 percent in 2021. “Prior to 2020,” Bauman wrote, “higher ed could typically count on at least 65 percent of each year’s cohort of graduating high schoolers to seek out a postsecondary education.” That 65 percent dropped to 62.7 percent in 2020 and 61.8 percent in 2021. If this continues, colleges will be receiving an ever-dropping percentage of a high-school population that is itself becoming ever smaller.
Many of us hoped that the sudden decrease in student population that we saw during the pandemic would quickly disappear once the crisis was over. That has not been the case. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that the shrinking is still underway as of this past fall, as undergraduate enrollment fell another 1.1 percent. While some of us hoped students who delayed starting college during the pandemic would begin to appear on campuses, “there’s not a lot of evidence in these numbers that they’re coming back now,” the center’s executive director said.
Many of the students lost are first-generation and people of color. The institutions most likely to be affected are community colleges and regional publics, like mine. More-selective institutions have been largely sheltered in terms of enrollments and finances, although notably Bates College in Maine recently announced it will cut spending by 5 percent.
When even tenured professors have reason to fear for their jobs, adjunct faculty are left feeling more expendable than ever. Most colleges, rather than resorting to the firing of tenured professors, will probably follow the pattern that I am seeing at Buffalo State: letting the adjunct faculty go first. On our campus it began with a reduction in course load for adjunct faculty. It has now evolved into an administrative order to eliminate adjunct positions wherever possible. Slashing adjunct positions is a logical result of declining enrollment: Fewer course sections need instructors. Because adjunct salaries are so low, however, reducing contingent faculty will not solve large budgetary problems, which will likely result in continued layoffs of tenured and tenure-track faculty at some colleges.
Buffalo State has been harder hit than most. We are a public university, largely four-year but with some graduate-level programs, and located in the Northeast — the region seeing the sharpest enrollment downturn. Many of our students, if not the majority, are working-class, first-generation college students, and students of color. Our admissions policy opens its doors to many who would be rejected by more-selective colleges. Ten years ago, we served over 10,000 students per semester, but that number is fast decreasing.
In the fall of 2020, six months into the pandemic, when all coursework was being offered virtually, Buffalo State had an enrollment of 8,339 students. One year later it was down to around 7,200. As the fall 2022 semester began, our enrollment stood at 6,445. Spring enrollment is still in progress, but figures released in December indicate a 17 percent drop from the same time last year. The losses come in nearly all segments of the student population, both undergraduate and graduate. The number of transfer students we usually receive per year has dropped by 1,200 since 2012. (That number is tied to corresponding enrollment drops at our three local community colleges of 40 to 46 percent over the last 10 years.) Since the fall of 2015, our persistence rate has slipped from 89.3 percent to 67.4 percent. Many of our admitted students do not make it past their first year.
Instead of serving 10,000 students as we once did, Buffalo State University faces a future as an institution of 4,000 to 5,000 students. This will necessarily call for a reduced campus work force. Though our student body is down 50 percent from 10 years ago, our number of full-time faculty is still 79 percent of what it was then, and our number of full-time staff is essentially unchanged. Our administration’s current goal is to reduce the campus work force by 10 percent by the fall of 2026, but it seems clear that this is only a first step. Ultimately, “right sizing” the campus budget would require eliminating an estimated 300 full-time employee positions. Contingent faculty, who are hired on a semester-to-semester basis, can of course be eliminated at any time. This process has now begun.
As of last spring, course offerings for the English department had already been reduced by 30 percent. As a result, half of the department’s adjuncts, myself included, saw our course loads reduced from three to two (representing a one-third drop in salary as well). The rest were given only one course, or none. (I and a few others were able to make up for the deficit by teaching a course in the first-year composition program, something I had not done for so long that my favored textbook was now out of print.)
The administration’s latest reductions will end all courses that are deemed nonessential. This includes a significant number of sections of general-education courses, which have been taught largely by adjuncts in the past. The goal, as I understand it, is to ultimately eliminate adjunct faculty altogether, with the exception of those termed “essential,” such as the first-year composition staff.
For now, I retain my three assigned courses for the spring. This is, I am sure, chiefly because of a combination of my seniority and my status as a longtime faculty spouse. I am to teach one first-year composition section, one sophomore-level course in children’s literature (which is required for elementary-education majors and thus deemed essential), and a junior-level Chaucer course, which may not be offered again for some time, since none of the full-time faculty are qualified to teach it. One of these three courses is currently underenrolled, however, and so may still be canceled. For the fall, I have been assigned one course, with a possible second awaiting approval from the dean.
During the Zoom meeting in November, when the department chair informed a group of us about the administrative reductions in adjunct teaching, one of my colleagues summed up the mood with a question: “Is this Armageddon?” No one answered him. Right now, my department chair describes even the junior tenure-track faculty’s status as “precarious.” Our status as adjuncts is no longer precarious; it has already collapsed. As the “demographic cliff” approaches, it seems likely that what is happening now for adjuncts at Buffalo State will also be the new reality for adjuncts nationwide.