Prism - January 2002
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Last Word

By William Wresch

Colleges Are Contributing Less, Not More, to Economic Development

Academic 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.

But sometimes 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 Wisconsin—like most universities in the United States—is actually doing less each year, not more, to develop the workforce.

His argument 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.

After 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 first—business, engineering, and computer science—they granted tens of thousands fewer degrees.

Which majors are growing? Psychology, social sciences, health professions, education, English. The only natural science that is attracting more majors is biology.

If you 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 science—and why business majors and engineering majors fell in numbers during the same period.

The National 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 declined significantly.

However, 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.

Another 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.

The current 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.

In our 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.

We would 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.


William Wresch is associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.
Reprinted from the Chronicle of Higher Education


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