Declining enrolments

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.


14 thoughts on “Declining enrolments

  1. Perhaps this is really just a demographic thing combined with public policies that traded off quality for no. of students (quantity) in Europe.

    In Europe you tend to have a population growth rate lower than the US, hence there are fewer students as a proportion of the population that could want to go to university. Therefore any expansion of the university system takes in more students as a proportion of those that want to go. Presumably, sometime or other governements need to stop trading off quality vs. quantity because it begins to have too much detriment, and hence you begin to get plateaus in countries that used such trade-offs as public policy.

    Alternatively, in the US, lots of the universities are of course private, and thus have presumably not traded off quality for quantity as much, since they have not been forced to by the goverment. In addition, the population has also been increasing more, making the discrepancy again bigger.

    This also points to another cause of the fee increases that is not simply due to income inequality. There is also presumably a higher demand in the US compared to Europe for education due to the smaller comparative expansion that happened, if we assume that the increase in demand from students was similar.

  2. I think the decline of foreign student numbers in the US is related in part to the tightening of visa conditions post 9/11 (which are now being loosened again) and in part to the growth of higher ed in Asian countries – a factor that’s also impacting on Oz.

  3. They’re all becoming plumbers because they want shiny new 4WDs? Well not quite it seems although we’re getting some anecdotal stories on MSM of grads droppimg into trades nowadays.

    Now 21, MasterO will gain his electrician’s qualification this year. At 18, MsO has deferred her uni entry til next year and is working full time in an office. With unemployment at record lows for a generation, the firm she works for is struggling to fill all their vacancies as staff move about. Already it looks as if they are interested in training MsO for a higher level position after a few short months in the workforce. By the time she has to make up her mind about starting her uni degree next March, I have a feeling MsO is going to have a rather difficult income choice to make.

  4. I should also point out that MasterO can work plenty of overtime and is continually being pressed by family and friends already, to give up his precious surfing and now footy on weekends, in order to facilitate their electrical upgrade and installation requirements.

    I have noticed an interesting tradeoff for the young O. It’s getting progressively harder to fit the young ladies into all of this. Curiously enough, they’re more often than not, at uni themselves. The latest trier is doing her final year in Occupational Therapy. Perhaps this will qualify her in the long run for MrsO’s quiet aspirations.

  5. John, what’s the breakdown of males to females entering uni these days? Most of MasterO’s mates seem to be bypassing uni for the immediate workforce, while many of their girlfriends are studying.

  6. John, your falling for decades citation is actually a business lobby group at the centre of the American debate over high tech immigration, and this has a strong bearing on the theme of your post.

    Critics of America’s temporary worker program, particularly in IT, ascribe declining participation in engineering and science by American students to the reduced returns for study in those fields, and also to the low incomes for the research assistant positions that students often use to fund their studies.

    They argue that the university sector has deliberately sought an excessive number of overseas applicants for higher degrees in order to keep their own research costs low. Critics such as Norman Matloff of UC Davis were predicting precisely this effect as far back as 1997.

    Also, there’s a longer background. The National Science Foundation was formally reprimanded in a Congressional inquiry in the early 90’s for exagerating the need for engineers and scientists, which created a glut of PhD’s.

    I may provide some references later today. At the moment we’re heading off to junior football.

    The Compete America group and web site is part of the lobbying efforts by business and universities to obtain approval for expansions in the H1-B temporary worker visa program.

  7. Observa, the US report shows a big excess of females over males, reversing the 1970 situation. I don’t have immediate access to Oz data, but I think it’s similar here, though maybe not as marked.

    Tony H. : good points, which I’ll have to come back to.

  8. Observa, John,

    Friday I was at the PhD graduation of my wife and was amazed at the proportion of females to males in the undergraduates. I took a sample of one block of the graduands and found that only 5 of 32 graduands were male (15.6%). That proportion easily repeated over the other 3 seating blocks of graduands. My sampling technique may be also biased to over-estimating the amount of males (hairstyle as basis for selection, as I could only see them from behind while they were seated with their trenchers off).


    At 15, Dreaming Big Dreams: Oh, to Be a Scholar

    MEXICALI, Mexico

    ALICIA Ã?LVAREZ lives two miles from the American border and light-years from the American dream.

    Growing up in Mexicali has made her a realist at 15. She has no taste for romances and soap operas. Harry Potter stories and a horror movie at the mall are as far away as fictions take her from her city’s heat and dust.

    Alicia has a fierce intelligence, and it fires her only soaring ambition: to get a decent education, schooling that could lift her up and out of her surroundings into a better life. It looks to her as likely as a trip to Mars.

    ‘It seems impossible,’ Alicia said with a shy, distant gaze. She has started high school, having proved herself one of the brightest girls in her city, a straight-A student with an exceptional aptitude for math.

    ‘My family has no money for college,’ she said. ‘I probably will never get to a university, though I would love to.

    ‘My education has been hard. My teachers are trained in teaching, not in math and science. It’s a struggle for them to teach me what I need to be taught. To learn what I want to know. And I want to know so much.’

    She finds herself, like her country, poised with one foot in the door of opportunity and one stuck in the poverty and powerlessness of the past. But with her fine mind, the idea of having a better life than one’s parents, while distant, is still a shimmering possibility.

    Her father, David Osuna, 46, works part time selling used cars. He has good weeks and bad weeks. Her mother, Alicia Ã?lvarez, 48, keeps house. They have provided their children with the basics of life: food, clothes, shelter. Their slender, dutiful, deep-thinking daughter is a bit of a mystery to them.

    Alicia’s brothers, David, 21, and Luis, 16, are in awe of her intelligence, respectful, sometimes distant. David is the one in whom she sometimes confides her dreams….

  10. Observa – in 2004, 44.3% of commencing students in Australia were male.

    Neurocomputer – Male graduation rates are in the law 40%s.

    I don’t know the US statistics well, but whatever the medium term trends they are starting from a very high base so we would expect Europe to catch up over time.

  11. On Australian access to places, there is no evidence that capable students of any background are being denied places because they cannot afford it – the full fee places *increase* the opportunities for poorer students because it means relatively well-off students (or students who fancy themselves as well-off in future and take a loan) vacate good HECS places to take their first preference place on full fees.

  12. Andrew, what about the schemes under which full-fee entrants can convert to HECS places on the basis of first year scores. These must deprive more able students (as measured by entry scores) of HECS places.

  13. On the subject of capable students being adequately catered for, I’m not sure if Andrew is referring specifically to Melbourne University. A 04 Feb 2005 story in The Australian (Nursing students miss out on places) reported that La Trobe University turned away 600 qualified students for nursing, having received 2,000 applications, and that Charles Sturt in NSW received 500 applications for 100 places.

    Also, Bob Birrell has a piece in the currrent People and Place that points out the number of people employed as full-time professionals in Australia increased by 22 per cent from 1996 to 2003, but the number of domestic university students increased by only 2.4 per cent during that time. Age/SMH 11 Apr 2005

    The nursing figures are quite interesting. Regarding technology disciplines, there is a wider issue of the attractiveness of careers in those fields that needs to be addressed.

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