Between 2015 & 2016, domestic student enrollment in American colleges & universities declined 1.4%, according to a survey by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). This decline was seen in all types of undergraduate institutions. As per NSCRC reports, domestic enrollment has been sliding down since 2013.
In 2010, enrollment peaked with over 21 million domestic students. As per the most recent government data available, by 2014, college enrollment numbers had declined by more than 800,00. The two types of colleges with the biggest declines have been community colleges and for-profit universities. Both traditionally attract students from minority & low-income households. The question is why are domestic students giving up on college?
After all, education is the best guarantee of social mobility. A college graduate is likely to earn almost double the income that a high school graduate does. It could be because finances are a challenge. According to former U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, “Too many students and families feel that college is out of reach.” A 4-year degree from a for-profit college often means years of financial debt for the average student.
It sounds plausible that young people who are not from privileged backgrounds don’t want to wait for years before they can see returns from their investment in a college degree. This means they might be moving straight from high school into the workforce. As Mitchell said about the numbers, “Historically, as the economy improves and Americans get back to work, college enrollment declines.”
It suggests that what keeps young Americans out of college is, surprisingly, jobs.
Nevertheless, the trend is hardly a positive one. Economists & educationists are worried that the shrinking domestic market can have significant repercussions on US institutions. One, it can lead to more competition & less collaboration between colleges. Two, popular majors will attract disproportionate funding & resources. And subjects seen as less viable, economically, will suffer. A case in point is President Trump’s proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Third, it could result in diminishing political support for the causes of higher education. Finally, US institutions will depend even more on international students, whose numbers are growing by leaps & bounds.
In the last decade alone, international student numbers grew by almost 40%. Today, there are a million international students studying at various colleges and universities in the US. According to media reports, they contribute almost a third of the annual tuition revenue of public universities. And the figure is quite likely similar for private universities as well.
Not only are international students fueling the US higher education sector, but they are also a key asset for the US tech industry. In 2014-15, of approximately million students studying in the US, about a half were studying STEM subjects, and creating a pipeline for jobs in the US technology sector. According to a report on Immigrants & Billion Dollar Startups published by the National Foundation for American Policy, “nearly one-quarter (20) of the 87 billion-dollar US startup companies - and almost half of the companies with an immigrant founder - had a founder who first came to America as an international student."
The Obama government therefore understood that welcoming international students would be a rewarding decision. In May last year, the US Department of Homeland Security, replaced the 17-month extension of the optional practical training (OPT) for STEM students with a 24-month extension. This change was undeniably attractive to international students, for whom post-study work options are a major draw. In 2016, their numbers in the US reached a record high.
It seemed like a win-win situation.
And then Trump, with his talk of walls, borders, and immigrants, was elected the 45th President of the US. It sparked apprehension among prospective students as well as higher education institutions. The consequences of a drop in international student numbers are potentially disastrous. For higher education in the US, for its tech industry & for international relations.
The UK is a case in point.
The universities are pragmatic about this situation. To ease the apprehensions of prospective students, they have started a YouAreWelcomeHere hashtag. Jessica Sandberg, director of international admissions at Temple University, saw it on social media and thought it sent a relevant message, “It’s important that US universities come together on this and send a unified message to let international students know that nothing has changed.”
Soft power initiatives outside the government are welcome, perhaps even necessary. But, it will remain for President Trump to think hard about what is already great in America; and to understand that in politics, it is important to draw a line between rhetoric & economics.
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