I was struck by this Guardian story headlined US university enrolment ‘in decline’. We are seeing static or declining new domestic enrolments here in Australia, and it seems the same is true in Canada also. But I was unsure about the US and the Guardian story was lacking detail.
It is old news that the number of US students in areas like engineering and computer science has been falling for decades, and, since Bush came into office (and particularly since 9/11/01) foreign student numbers are also falling. But I had the impression that this was more than offset by increased numbers in law, business and other fields.
Checking at the National Centre for Educational Statistics yields a mixed picture. The total of undergraduate students is rising, but so is the population. Although participation has risen since 1970, participation rates for most age groups have been stable since about 1990 (There’s a graph over the fold), while rates in Europe have risen greatly.
What is going on here?
Although there are many possibilities, it seems likely that this is a second-round effect of growing income inequality. The huge increase in income inequality over the past thirty years has been cushioned, for the poor, by increased access to credit, which has meant a much smaller increase in consumption inequality. But almost certainly that has excluded lots of families from saving for university education for their childrens. At the same time, the increased wealth of the top two quintiles has allowed, and encouraged, universities to raise tuition charges and offer more lavish facilities.
The costs of this will be borne in the future as able kids from poor families are denied education. We in Australia are going down the same path. So-called ‘full fee’ places are little more than a device for kids from wealthy families, their tertiary scores already artificially boosted by private schools, to buy their way into a second shot at a publicly-funded place in their preferred institution. As I’ve pointed out before, once you allow large and growing inequality in outcomes, equality of opportunity is doomed to disappear.
It’s well known that high levels of inequality are bad for long-term growth. Unequal access to education is probably the biggest single reason for this. It looks as if the US and Australia may already be in the early stages of this process, along, perhaps, with other English-speaking countries.