The cost of running a college — new buildings, higher administrative expenses — keeps going up. But sluggish middle-class wages mean fewer Americans can afford to pay.
Small schools in the Midwest and Northeast are especially vulnerable — and Horn, the Harvard researcher, said new forms of education will bring even more pressure.
"I think we're gonna see, basically, faster and cheaper programs emerge," he said. "I also think we're gonna see a lot of mobile learning programs come up, where you can literally just pop on your phone, learn a few things. And so I think we're gonna see a lot more of these sort of flexible, affordable, convenient programs."
But what these college alternatives will mean for students — and the families paying their way — is less clear.
"There are huge parts of society that have to shift with that," Horn said. "It's not just expectations, it's how employers hire and a huge reason people are going to school is for social reasons."
It's not clear what will happen to Green Mountain College, either. Allen said the asking price is $23 million, and that he's received interest from international high schools and a group hoping to educate veterans.
But another college seems unlikely. "This problem is not going away," Allen said. "The demographics are not going to change, and the fact that college is not affordable for a lot of folks is not going to change in the near term."