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Enrollment Shifts

02 Feb Posted by in Administration, Faculty | Comments
Enrollment Shifts

At Mason, and nationally, student choices are changing. The shifts offer both promise and problem, and they deserve some systematic attention.

First, of course, there is a steady increase in students interested in science, engineering, and health professions. This is probably a largely good development, though it stresses faculty and facilities that are relatively expensive at a time of continued budget constraints. Three worries beyond the adjustment issues: first, predictably some students, hoping for majors that will lead to jobs, actually would do better in other fields, and we need to be ready to help them with advice and, sometimes, flexibility in responses to changes of mind. And second, we know that in some cases the jobs are not there are clearly as some public advocates continue to believe, so we need to provide realistic data and not just cheerleading. Third, and finally, these are areas in which student preparation, from their high schools, is often particularly deficient, and this needs attention as well – at the college level but in larger educational discussions as well. Overall, however, strike one up for a positive trend.

Majors and graduate programs in the humanities show some decline – which is not a new response to a troubled economic climate but inevitably and properly produces concerns about maintaining educational breadth. Some creative repackaging, as in encouraging active minors or interdisciplinary combinations, may help here.

The national collapse of law school enrollments is well known. There is some belief that this year may be the low point, and student interest. and relevant jobs, will begin picking up. For the moment, however, many institutions have had to scramble to gain as much enrollment as possible, seeking to maintain a healthy educational framework on the assumption that the crisis is temporary. It is interesting to consider social effects from at least a temporary decline in supply, but I leave that to others.

The other area that’s suffering is teacher training and retraining, where enrollments are also dropping, particularly at the Masters level.  This is a newer and slightly less severe problem, in sheer enrollment terms, than the law school crisis, but it is beginning to warrant attention. As with law, we will need to experiment with tuition levels in order to fill as many existing seats as possible; and additional online delivery is clearly called for. Further, slower increases in P-12 student populations nationwide may justify some reduction in teacher training. But I worry, on this one, that we have a broader problem, at least until local budgets improve and facilitate additional jobs, but also support for additional training, for teachers. We risk seeing both the supply and the effective educational levels of teachers begin to deteriorate, and this has impacts well beyond the challenge of adjusting to changes in enrollment levels. Responsible education schools need to help lead a discussion, involving local and state officials as well as university leaders, on ways to maintain and enhance educational possibilities for teachers, at least until the current crisis passes. I think some active imagination is called for.

And at the university level, given the changes around us, we need to maintain an active dialogue around the interesting shifts in enrollment patterns and how we can most responsibly react. At places like Mason, where overall enrollments remain strong and growing, there is no crisis involved, but we certainly need to recognize some of the challenges that this kind of rebalancing entails.