When looking at long-term trends for higher education, it is useful to step back and look at the big picture. With this goal in mind, consider the comparison of post-secondary enrollment in degree-granting programs to the total number of jobs (both based on the US). The enrollment data is based on the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) and the employment data is based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics and its Current Population Survey (CPS). To get the big picture I decided to keep this simple – combining full-time and part-time enrollment, and combining full-time and part-time employment. To see the trends, I normalized both data series to 1980.
When you look at the data from 1970 – 2012, the results could explain some significant pressures experienced by higher education institutions. In a nutshell – this time is different, we are in uncharted territory.
While the data speaks for itself, I would like to make a few points.
- The dominant feature of this data is that enrollment and employment started to diverge in an unprecedented fashion roughly in 2006. Enrollment growth accelerated at the same time that employment dropped, and there has not been a significant correction to this imbalance. Prior to this divergence, the growth of enrollment and total employment roughly tracked each other. We are now in uncharted territory. The magnitude of the divergence is roughly four times larger than any previous period.
- I do not believe that the sole purpose of higher education is college = get a degree = get a job. However, the availability of jobs for college graduates is one of the biggest drivers of the student debt level, which now exceeds auto loan and credit card debt.
- I think the biggest impact from this macro-economic trend is on those institutions most closely aligned to the goal of getting a job – community and technical colleges and much of the for-profit sector.
- I chose the date range (at Michael’s suggestion) to allow a comparison of the most recent recession (2008 – 2009) to previous recessions (notably 1973 – 75, 1980 – 82, 1990 – 91, and 2001). The conventional wisdom holds that enrollment jumps when employment drops, and the data does show some divergence followed a few years later by a correction. What is different this time is A) the magnitude of the divergence and B) the start of the divergence fully two years before the recession started in 2008.
- However bad this data is in terms of an imbalance between enrollment and employment, the reality is likely worse. Tyler Durden at Zerohedge posted similar employment data separated by workers aged 25-54 and aged 55-69. The former is essentially flat while most job growth in the past few years has been by those 55 and older. College graduates, however, are predominantly below 54.
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Update: So Dayna Catropa and I were pondering similar questions today. Her post at IHE is worth reading.