institutions around the United States are wooing legislators with claims
that they can help their states' economies. In Wisconsin, politicians
have heard those claims and believed them. After years of mediocre economic
development in the state, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents
and the governor's office organized statewide meetings to consider
ways of improving the economy.
As a 27-year
veteran of the system, I am delighted that the governor and other state
leaders are finally appreciating us, talking repeatedly of leveraging
our resources. Of course, the university system is a major factor in
development efforts. We can point to large numbers of research projects
that have spawned new businesses, and to professors-turned-entrepreneurs
who are building important new companies.
we make claims that are less credible. One is that we will provide the
workforce of the future. At a state meeting of university human-resources
directors last fall, a researcher for a taxpayers' group presented
a very disturbing picture of our efforts. In his view, the University
of Wisconsinlike most universities in the United Statesis
actually doing less each year, not more, to develop the workforce.
noted that our students are moving from the natural sciences to the
social sciences. Therefore, we are producing fewer graduates who can
contribute to economic development, especially in the area of technology.
his presentation, I took a look at the statistics myself. I found that
the taxpayers' researcher was right. Although American colleges
and universities granted 185,000 more bachelor's degrees in 1997
than in 1985, in the areas that economic developers would look at firstbusiness,
engineering, and computer sciencethey granted tens of thousands
majors are growing? Psychology, social sciences, health professions,
education, English. The only natural science that is attracting more
majors is biology.
knew nothing about the United States except what our college students
have been majoring in, you might conclude that computers and the Internet
were just an 80s fad, and that Americans no longer want to make
or sell things, preferring jobs that let them help people through counseling,
nursing, therapy, and education. That might explain why, although the
number of computer science majors and psychology majors were virtually
the same in 1985, by 1997, there were three times as many students majoring
in psychology as in computer scienceand why business majors and
engineering majors fell in numbers during the same period.
Center for Education Statistics has a more plausible explanation: gender.
Enrollment growth since the 1980s has been much higher for women than
for men. Between the academic years 1991-92 and 1996-97, for example,
the number of male college graduates grew 42 percent, while the number
of female graduates grew 56 percent. During that same period, the number
of degrees in biological sciences, a field popular with women, rose
49 percent. The numbers in fields like engineering, computer science,
and information technology, in which most of the majors are male, have
the growing number of female college students doesn't seem sufficient
to account for the changes in the popularity of various majors. Male
enrollments may not have grown much in the past dozen years, but they
haven't declined 40 percent, as computer-science majors have.
possible explanation is math. As a former chairman of a mathematics
department, I first reacted to the statistics I downloaded by noting
that all of the majors in decline require calculus, while those showing
significant growth can be completed with no more than high-school mathematics.
But that explanation, too, seems simplistic since calculus was hardly
invented in 1985, when those trends started.
situation probably has multiple causes. Our institutions may be making
direct economic contributions through research results or through the
activities of faculty entrepreneurs, but when we assert that academe
is a growing factor in the development of our workforce, we are wrong.
With fewer engineering, business, and information-technology majors
graduating each year, colleges are contributing less, not more, to the
kind of workforce that states are pursuing.
zeal to announce our readiness to help our regions become the next Silicon
Valley, universities need to be careful not to promise more than we
can deliver. For many and complex reasons, we are not the resource for
economic development that our public pronouncements make us out to be.
We are institutions that serve the interests of students, as well as
those of employers and local governments, and our students have spoken
quite loudly about where their interests lie.
do well to try to understand the reasons for our students' choices
of majors. In the meantime, we need to be more honest with ourselves
and with the public about what contributions we can and cannot make
to the economic development of our regions.
Wresch is associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University
of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.
Reprinted from the Chronicle of Higher Education