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Decreasing enrollments in college -Assumption or Reality?

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We know with certainty that after 1960 American women began having fewer babies. Although 1 in 8 became a mother during each year of the 1950s, only 1 in 14 was doing so by the late 1970s. It is children of this later period-all of them.

Already alive-who will pass through adolescence and become eligible to go to college between now and the late 1990s. In the 1970s, the group aged 18-21 provided two-thirds to three-quarters of all full-time college enrollments and almost 75% of full-time-equivalent enrollments. In absolute numbers; native-born youth of this age-group will become almost 25% fewer between 1980 and the mid-1990s. Those between 22 and 24 years of age, who have heretofore made up another 15% of the full-time and full-time-equivalent student population,

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-20, No. 303 (December 1976). (The standard formula for computing full-time-equivalent enrollments or faculty assumes three part-timers equivalent to one full-timer.)

Diminish correspondingly but on a slightly different schedule. The group aged 18-24 thus is at its lowest only a little more than 20% smaller. If Census Bureau projections of the birthrate for the early 1980s are accurate, the two age-groups will be expanding again by the end of the century. The 18- to 21-year-old cohort will be about 90% of what it was earlier; the 18- to 24-year-old cohort will be well over 80% of its early 1980s total. (See Table 1.4.)

A larger percentage could, of course, end up in college. Over the long term, the proportion of Americans obtaining college degrees has been increasing. It is not unimaginable that college education will someday be as nearly universal as high-school education. The American Council on Education has developed and publicized possible strategies for increasing college enrollments during the 1980s. In releases aimed at com-batting "too much concentration on decline/' the American Federation of Teachers has argued that national attention should go instead to the fact that many millions do not have college degrees.

Realistically, however, it has to be recognized that the hopes of professional educators may not come true. The ratio between each year's 18-year-olds and each year's high-school graduates leveled off in the 1970s. The ratio between high-school graduates and first-time enrollments in colleges similarly leveled off. (See Table 1.5.) Since some high-school students will always fail or drop out, and some who do not will always work instead of going to college, it could be that the levels of the 1970s are plateaus and that the proportions of young people completing high school and entering college will never increase.

Also, it is not wholly impossible that these proportions could decrease. Richard Freeman and some other economists have reasoned that the basic college degree has had declining appeal as it has become worthless in income. White males became able to calculate that over a lifetime the interest on money saved while working for 4 years might match any extra earnings resulting from having a B.A. The estimated rate of return on investment in a B.A. fell from 10% in the early 1970s to only 9% by 1980. When preliminary counts showed college enrollments higher than expected in the fall of 1980, the obvious explanation lay in high unemployment rates and other indications of severe economic recession. If that explanation was valid, the increase is bound to be temporary. If economic conditions become worse, many students will not be able to afford school. If they become better, many will go to work instead of going to school. To be sure, students from older age-groups could lift college enrollment levels even if proportions of younger people going to college remained constant or declined. The 1960s and 1970s saw an increase in numbers of students over 24. The hopes of the American Council on Education and the American Federation of Teachers depend in large part on an acceleration of this trend. The fact is, however, that most of the older undergraduates were still in their twenties or early thirties. By the mid-1990s, any new students under 35 will be simply late registrants from their particular cohort of 18-year-olds. Although students over 35 make up more than a tenth of all enrollments, fewer than one in five are full-time students. Since it takes several part-time students to equal one full-timer in terms of demand for faculty, the impact of this older group on prospective numbers of teaching jobs is comparatively small. (See Table 1.6.) For practical purposes, therefore, projections of the student population can be framed on the basis of estimates of the 18- to 24-year-old population and of the proportion of that population likely to enroll in college.

Even if higher education has declining monetary return, the proportion of young Americans going to college probably will not diminish. The worst likely future is one in which conditions remain much like those of the late 1970s. First-year enrollments would then continue to approximate 60% of each year's 18-year-olds; total enrollments, full-time and part-time, would represent about 40% of the population 118-24; and full-time students would form about three-fifths of this total.

If enrollments should increase, they would probably do so gradually rather than abruptly. The proportion of high-school graduates could go up. Numbers of new students in their late thirties or older could increase. All of these developments could occur simultaneously. But only an extraordinary and unprecedented surge along all these lines could keep numbers of college students at or even near the levels of the late 1970s. If, with all else remaining the same, the number of high-school graduates should approximate 90% of the year's 18-year-olds, or if the number of first-time college enrollments should approximate 90% of the year's high-school graduates, the proportion of the 18- to 24-year-old population in college would increase by about 10%-from 40% to 44%. The actual increment would probably be smaller, for it would almost surely include larger numbers of people unwilling or unable to stay in school for more than a year or two.

Table 1.7 indicates what total and full-time-equivalent enrollments might be if both of these rates should climb or if, for a combination of reasons, the next 20 years should see the college population actually increase to approximate 50% instead of 40% of the population 18 to 24, with three-quarters of the additional students enrolled full-time.

As is apparent, the figures yielded even by this highly optimistic assumption fall far short of satisfying the hopes expressed by educators' organizations. Enrollments still have to be reckoned as dropping significantly below levels of the late 1970s.

On the less optimistic assumption that conditions of the late 1970s persist, with the proportion of full-time students dwindling by about a quarter of a percent a year, total enrollments follow the downward trend of the census projections, and full-time-equivalent enrollments fall by as much as 30% (Table 1.7). Yet these numbers probably embrace the boundaries of reality. What seems almost surely in prospect is a long period in which college enrollments are not increasing and may well be decreasing.

If student-faculty ratios should meanwhile remain constant or possibly even worse, it would follow that employment opportunities in college teaching would fall sharply. Allan Cartter characterized professors as producer goods. Like gem-cutting machines, they create items for consumption. Since each grinds slowly and finely, more have to be added to meet increases in demand, but each lasts a long time. When demand levels off or diminishes, the call for new ones disappears. When enrollments go down, the need for new professors becomes nonexistent. The only new openings stem from resignations, deaths, and retirements, and not all these openings are filled, for some institutions simply reduce staff.

If current ratios were to persist, total numbers of faculty would follow the index numbers in Table 1.7. They would fall either gradually or precipitately. Only in the worst circumstances would the year-to-year drop be as great as to exceed the ordinary rate of attrition due to resignations, deaths, and retirement rates that Cartter calculated as averaging 2% a year. Hence, there would usually be some new openings. The totals, however, would be very far from those of the 1960s and 1970s.

Between 1955 and 1980, demand for new full-time faculty averaged over 27,000 a year. Even with the relative decline in openings in the humanities, the demand for teachers of English, modern languages, history, and philosophy ran over 5000 a year. For a time in the middle of the 1960s, new openings for full-time faculty exceeded the total number of new openings for teachers because institutions were upgrading their staff as well as enlarging it. In the humanities, the number of new posts for full-time faculty averaged for a time over 6500 a year. (See Table 1.8.)

Table 1.9 displays how the previous low and high enrollment projections translate themselves into openings for college teachers if teacher-student ratios and proportions of teachers in the humanities remain roughly the same as at the end of the 1970s. Even with the most optimistic estimates concerning enrollments, total faculty numbers shrink. Numbers of full-time faculty go down even farther. At best, new openings do not come near levels of the past two decades until the very last years of the century. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the highest projectable annual demand for new faculty in all fields is only one-quarter to one-third the average for the quarter-century ending in 1980. Total projectable openings for full-time faculty in the humanities seldom exceed a few hundred a year.

If these projections were to prove realistic, prudent planning would anticipate that, until the very end of the 1990s, average annual full-time career openings in English would be 70-80, those in either modern languages or history 40-50, and those in philosophy fewer than 20.

They thus assume that student-faculty ratios and proportions of faculty in each discipline remain constant. It is more than likely that at least one of these conditions, perhaps both of them, will change.
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