Justus O'Brien, 1977-78 editiorial assistant, interviewee Richard A. Engels, assistant chief of the Estimates and Projections Branch, Population Division, Bureau of the Census in Washington, D.C. Engels has also served as chief of the Ppulation Research Section for the state of Washington.
O'Brien: Declining enrollments are something we in higher education all worry about. What pattern of decline can we expect?
Engels: Between 1957 and 1977, the number of births declined from 4.3 million to approximately 3.1 million per year. That means that the current volume of births is only about 72 percent of its previous level. This represents a reduction of 1.2 million potential students per year. And, even though there are signs that the number of births has begun to stabilize, the overall decline of potential students that has already occurred extends over a 20-year period.
There will be fewer college-age students perhaps, but many institutions hope to atrract a new breed of students, including older ones. Do you think this will have a balancing effect on enrollments?
I don't think we can get away from the fact that there will be fewer people coming into the whole educational system. Colleges and universities have already been fairly inventive in attracting students during the past five years. Continuing education and technical training will help, but I just don't see that we can come up with enough new students to make a real dent. There is only so much that can done to compensate for the basic decline in the traditional student population.
Given that we accept declining enrollements, what kinds of students outside the traditional college age can our institutions hope to attract?
The ones who are alikely to go back are: (1) the ones just coming out who are unable to find positions, (2)) those who have been out for a few years and were not able to move up as they had hoped, or (3) those who decided they didn't do it right the first time and want to try something else.
So, some of the students colleges hope to attract will be seeking advanced degrees. What, more specifically, is making them go after those degrees?
A major factor will be an anticipated "clogging" of the work force, which will inhibit upward mobility a good bit. The large group of 1980 graduates will go into the work force ahead of a smaller group of 1980 tp 2000 graduates. They will be taking up positions that might have been vacated sooner, had older workers occupied them. So for some time to come, this larger group will be occupying the more attractive managerial positions. On the other hand, if the number of births were the same every year, there would be as many people vacating positions at the other end as there would be new workers replacing them. For the next several years, however, the normal attrition that would help the smaller groups of graduates won't occur.
So they return to college?
Some of them may first end up in jobs that do not demand the skills they were trained for. They will end up working at a level lower than they'd have to, and earning less money than they'd hoped for. That should lead to job dissatisfaction and start a bumping cycle.
What is a "bumping cycle"?
It happens when the demand for college graduates doesn't match the supply. So those who are highly trained end up with the jobs, whether or not their skills are needed. For example, I might hire someone with a Ph.D. when the job really only requires a person with a B.A. or a master's. I can get that person for the same amount of money because he or she needs the job. The B.A. or M.A. who originally wanted the job, and probably should have gotten it under other conditions, will go back to college for a Ph.D., and then bump the next person with a lower degree. So you end up with a great deal of demand for higher education that probably shouldn't have been there in the first place. Of course, this serves as an easy means for upgrading the work force, but it can be hard on the individuals involved. They frequently become dissatisfied with their jobs and move on to something else.
Do you think if insitutions trained undergraduates better to begin with-provided them with a more specialized education-some of this bumping might be avoided?
One off the things we've looked into is how graduates in a particular discipline fit in with the occupational demand in a particular field. In fact, we picked up some information on this from the American Council on Education, which had done a panel study on a group of graduates of five to 10 year ago and compared their educational backgrounds with their occupations. There were the usual hard fits, such as in the technical and health professions, which require specialized training. But there was also a good bit of scatter. I took this as a good sign, as good news for higher education.
Somehow we are giving our graduates a core of knowledge that can be used not across the board but in more than one profession. So you don't have to go back and totally retread if you decide to switch carrers in mid-life.
So some students will return to colleges as a result of occuptional bumping.Yet others, already holding jobs, will draw on a basic core of knowledge -- a general education of sorts that will enable them to switch careers. Which will prevail?
There is some indication that the career switching and the general education pattern will prevail. In most studies of worker supplies, the volume of occupational shifts is astounding. General education is something of a misnomer, however. I like to define it as the acquisition of a general care of knowledge accompanied by some fairly specific technical skills that are transferable to related occupations.
Although "bumping" and job dissatifaction will foster some return to higher education, I suspect that most graduates still tend to pursue a single career path without too much interruption. The hassles of going back to college are often perceived as too great. It's just too much work in many cases. So I guess I'm arguing that, on the whole, we should plan to train them well the first time around and not count on seeing them again.
Which professions have a favorable outlook?
Much of the growth will take place in service occupations -- personal and professional services. Particularly favorable occupations include engineering, physics, scientific technologies, geology, geophysics, life sciences, accounting, dentistry, architecture, and health professions in general. There should be greater competition among librarians and economists and an over-supply in elementary and secondary education, mathematics, law, and political science.
The outlook, then, seems to favor graduates with fairly specialized skills, not the ones with a general education?
The emphasis on specialized skills seems to contradict my earlier remarks concerning the advantages of more general training. Let me clarify that. While the occupations most in demand for the coming years will tend to be those with a "hard" fit between field of study and occupational employment, there is some slippage even there. Those who simply are not interested in these fields can take comfort in the fact that they have some latitude to move should the tighter market conditions force the issue.
Can you give us a summary profile of the college graduate of the '80s within his or her economic and social environment?
In spite of a general shortage of positions for graduates, there will be increasing opportunities for employment in the professional/technical occupations. The location of the position has a good chance of being in the health service industries and the incumbent is likely to have an advanced degree. He or she is likely to have returned to school under pressure of wages and job dissatisfaction Graduates are more likely to be living in a suburban townhouse in a small-to-medium-size southern or western metropolitan area. They will live alone or with a small family. There's a 50 percent chance women graduates will be working whether married or not. Graduates have a good chance of divorcing.
It's also likely that they will have a lower income than anticipated after the "college investment" -- due both to inflation and to competition from oversupplies of graduates. They may not like their work for this and other reasons, and are likely to make a mid-career shift in occupation.