CommenTerry: Volume Thirty | Eastern North Carolina Now

    Publisher's note: The author of this post is Dr. Terry Stoops, who is the Director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.

No simple explanations for drop in ed school students

    Have recent education reform measures approved by the N.C. General Assembly discouraged college students in our state from entering the teaching profession? Some folks seem to think so. In this week's CommenTerry, I take a closer look at the issue.

    According to a recent WRAL report, enrollment in undergraduate and graduate teaching programs in the UNC System has dropped nearly 18 percent since 2010.

    In response to these findings, a handful of pundits suggested that Republican legislators played a role in discouraging students from entering the teaching profession. Michael Maher, assistant dean of the College of Education at N.C. State and frequent critic of Republican legislators, blamed "a really negative climate around teaching and teachers right now." UNC officials and others claim that state legislators have created this negative climate by "underfunding" and disrespecting public schools. N.C. Public School Forum President and Executive Director Keith Poston declared that that the General Assembly needed to make a "sustained commitment" to the teaching profession in order to avert "a very real teacher shortage crisis on the horizon."

    But how much blame does the Republican majority in the N.C. General Assembly deserve for the drop in education students? The issue is not as cut-and-dry as some would have you believe.

    First, attempts to assign blame to one possible factor are based mostly on speculation and anecdote. We have no empirical research that outlines the many factors that students consider when they choose a major at a UNC System institution.

    Indeed, research studies have failed to identify the combination of factors that college students use to select a major. Higher education researchers have focused on the issue of anticipated earnings, reasoning that college students select a major based on their perceived ability to earn an income both in the short- and long-term. Nevertheless, a number of studies confirm college students do not have consistent access to reliable wage information and interpret the data inconsistently or inaccurately when they do.

    Moreover, a focus on initial or lifetime wages ignores other critical factors, such as the attitudes, aptitudes, and gender roles. Each affects the selection of college major in different ways. Obviously, one's attitudes toward a discipline may be informed by the state and national political environment (to the extent that the student is aware of it), but it is more likely the attitudes are acquired over the 17 or more years prior to enrollment. In addition, aptitudes and ideas about gender roles may limit the choice of major. Students who have struggled in their math courses will typically avoid majoring in engineering or the hard sciences. Likewise, a male student may choose to avoid nursing or elementary education because they are female-dominated fields.

    Second, we should be attentive to enrollment trends generally. According to the WRAL report, of the 14 UNC institutions that offer undergraduate or graduate education degrees, Elizabeth City State, UNC-Asheville, and Winston-Salem State had the largest percentage declines in education school enrollment. Unfortunately, the report failed to mention that some of the drop could be attributed to the fact that all three had lower undergraduate and graduate student enrollment in 2013 than they did in 2010. If total enrollment drops, then there is a good chance that education school enrollment will fall as well.

    Third, North Carolina is following a national trend (See Facts and Stats below). According to U.S. Department of Education data for public and private universities, traditional teacher education enrollment fell 9 percent nationwide between 2010 and 2013. In fact, 28 states and the District of Columbia lost teacher education students over the past three years. The states with the largest declines in enrollment include high teacher salary states such as California and Illinois, and lower salary states including Oklahoma and Alabama, controlled by both Democrats and Republicans. In the Southeast, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina had larger education school enrollment drops than North Carolina.

    The lesson here is that correlation is not the same as causation. Just because Republicans maintain a majority in both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly does not mean that they are necessarily the primary cause of changes that occur during their tenure. Without a doubt, state-level legislation and policy plays a key role in the health of our public institutions, but so do many other factors that fall outside of the authority and control of government.

    Facts and Stats

    Source: U.S. Department of Education, Title II Reports for 2010 and 2013

    Acronym of the Week

    UNC -- University of North Carolina

    Quote of the Week

    "Empirical evidence suggests that anticipated future earnings affect choice of major, but research also suggests that the influence of future earnings on college major decisions may be quite small..."

    - Mark C. Long, Dan Goldhaber, And Nick Huntington-Klein, "Do Students' College Major Choices Respond to Changes in Wages?" National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, January 2014.
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