Do We Need More Universities?

August 30, 2022

By Joshua Broggi, PhD

The last ten years of higher education news (in English) has often included gloomy views of academic life written by adjuncts, a story interrupted by coverage of university closures and ever-growing student debt. But for those involved in education technology, there are stories of booming growth. What’s going on?

In 2018 more than 218 US colleges shut down—about 4 per week. Some colleges had multiple campuses; in the period 2014-2018, a total of 1,234 campuses closed in the United States. When an institution shuts down, the negative consequences disproportionately affect those with the lowest incomes. Terrible. [1]

About 4.76% of US colleges closed in 2018. The majority were relatively small—beauty colleges, religious institutes, etc (less than 250 students). About 100 of these institutions shut down with about 1,000 or more students. [2]

In the last 5 years, almost half a million students have been displaced by college closures. All this sounds pretty alarming.

If you drew such a conclusion, then you’d be forgetting the scale of the higher education industry. In the US alone, the autumn of 2019 saw 19.9 million concurrently enrolled students. The 98,063 students affected by closures in 2018 only represented 0.49% of students. [3]

There are a lot of higher education institutions in America. Depending on what you classify as a college (aka "university"), there are 4,583 post-secondary, degree-granting, institutions processing US Federal aid. US higher education grabs the English-language headlines, and that can distort perceptions of the future of the university on a global scale. But we shouldn’t let this bias obscure our view of the overall trend—and that is one of staggering growth.

There are about 27,000 colleges today, serving 207 million students. Let’s say the average university is about 7,666 students. Higher education is doing about $1.9 trillion in annual turnover, representing (roughly) $9,178 per student per year. (Yes, there are several ways to slice the data; if you know a better way, please help.)

Here is the thing: it is hard for us to imagine what growth of 5.68% CARG is going to do to higher education on the ground. Annual spend will grow from $1.9 trillion, where it is now, to about $3.3 trillion in 2030.

Right now 207 million students represent (directly and indirectly) an average of $9,178 a year for a college. Globally, universities are adding about $377 million in growth every day. That’s an added $1.38 trillion over the next decade.

In case you missed it, there were 100 million college students in the year 2000. What we’ve seen since then is staggering growth. By 2014, there were 207 million students. In less than fifteen years, 107 million students enrolled at universities. If you haven’t been paying attention, giant universities have been getting built and filled with students all over the world. I can count at least ten started by colleagues I’ve met at Woolf.

When we talk about 207 million students, it is worth noting that, that means concurrently enrolled students—not the total number of graduates accumulated over the last ten years. Concurrent enrollments require an increase in teaching capacity, not just an increase in throughput ability. That means people studying right now.

In the next ten years, concurrent enrollments will grow even faster. Many factors affect just how fast—especially the population size of secondary school graduates, and relative economic prosperity. From the 207 million students today, we should expect growth to 350 million students ("middle of the road" prediction, IIASA) or 377.4 million students (‘moderate pathway’ prediction, Calderon) in 2030. [4, 5]

Either way, we’re looking at adding 150 million additional, concurrently enrolled students to the higher education system’s existing 207 million students. This marginal increase is greater than all concurrently enrolled students in the year 2000. That increase averages out to about 41,000 additional students per day.


So, the wider global picture is this: we need an increase in college teaching capacity equivalent to 5 midsize universities. Every day. Or we need to increase the teaching capacity of existing institutions. A lot.

As the first global collegiate university, Woolf is on a mission to increase access to world-class higher education by enabling qualified organizations to join as accredited member colleges in weeks, not years.