Year of Discovery (Week 42: Higher Education and Food Quality Decline in the US)

Audrey Cheng
4 min readJan 27, 2022

This week, a constant COVID-free cough accompanied me as I commuted outside in -9 degree weather (Fahrenheit). As the wind lobbied me from side to side, I could hear faint echoes of my friends’ advice last year beckoning me to go to Chicago in the springtime instead of winter. But as I looked upon the piles of fluffy snow, all I could feel was joy and lightness.

This week, I’m sharing a reflection on the decline of higher education in the US and food quality.

Higher Education Decline in the US

Various trends in higher education have caught my eye recently. More than 1 million fewer students are enrolled in US colleges now than before the pandemic began. US colleges have experienced the largest 2-year decrease in enrollment (down 6.5%) in over 50 years from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2021. While enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has trended downwards since 2012, COVID has accelerated the decrease significantly.

Factors like the following are contributing to this:

  • Some of the best global talent is looking outside of the US for higher education and going to places like Canada and the UK (with quality education at more affordable rates).
  • Many youth are choosing employment over education.
  • US visa bans, border walls and immigration restrictions restrict international students.
  • The effects of the “baby bust” after the 2008 financial crisis surface.

By 2038, many of the 4000 colleges in the US may need to close down.

At the same time, the world of work is quickly changing and what talent today expects in terms of location and benefits is different than previous generations. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the number of American expats has doubled. So what does this mean for higher education and the role they play in developing and credentialing talent in the future?

My gut sense is that while elite institutions will still exist, many of the 4000 US universities will close down in my lifetime. The role that the remaining institutions will play will largely depend on whether they will change their opaque decision-making processes and the influence of the key funders contributing to their endowment. Perhaps they’ll become more focused on research and innovation and less on liberal arts. Time will tell, but an upheaval of an existing system will leave an incredible amount of room for a new paradigm for higher education in the US and in the world.

US Food Quality

During my weekly shopping perusing the aisles of grocery stores, I’ve found myself attaching to brands I used to fawn over as a child. After I reminisced on memories with specific items, I also found myself looking at the items with fresh eyes as an adult. What I’ve come to notice is the unbalanced ratio of packaged, processed food items to the whole, nutritious food items that exist within US grocery stores.

Seeing all the packaged goods made me remember a study that listed all of the foods and ingredients sold in the US banned in other parts of the world, namely Europe. Here are a few differences:

In Kenya, I experienced the ratio of whole foods to processed foods to be much higher and healthier for consumers. There were plenty of fruits and vegetables (and even a whole grocery chain built around selling primarily whole foods) and fewer options for packaged food. Coming back to the US, I’m finding that the plethora of choices in packaged foods easily leads to an unbalanced diet. The irony is that while countries chase the economic success the US has achieved, the abundance when left unchecked can create systems that hurt individuals.

My reflection isn’t so much of a surprise to many of us though. After all, the US and its abundance fuels companies tasked to appeal to individual cravings and hit revenue targets to increase their market share. But at what point does unbridled capitalism stop serving the individual?

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Audrey Cheng

Taiwanese American. Curious about ideas and solutions that support human flourishing.