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Freshman class sizes in decline in recent years

December 10, 2019

The freshman class of UW-River Falls has decreased two years in a row. Some theories in the media include declining populations and more students choosing vocational skills training. However, not everybody agrees on this. Perhaps most are missing the real issue schools face: how do students know their education will transfer to a job?

Every now and then, headlines wonder if declining birth rates are causing the population to shrink. But the idea of a declining population is not grounded in reality. Dr. Neil Kraus, a political science professor at UWRF, explains “the Twin Cities metro is growing fairly significantly. We’re in the greater Twin Cities metro in western Wisconsin. St. Croix County, Pierce County, and Polk County are all growing.”

He goes on to say, “The population of the entire US continues to grow, so I don’t put as much stock in birth rates that fluctuate a little bit from year to year. Population grows a little less, so the rate of growth might be slower, by a declining birth rate; which is completely different than a shrinking population.”

Kraus also points out “The enrollment of the university is distinct from the population of the region. So then the question is, why doesn’t the university keep getting bigger?”

Competition from other schools around the area could play a part, Kraus suggests, especially in the Twin Cities. Advertisements for colleges and universities from neighboring states are all over. Another factor is that unemployment rates are currently pretty low. Kraus states, “We know that when unemployment is very low, college attendance does tend to maybe go down a little bit.”

The smaller freshman class this year may well be part of a normal cycle of rise and fall. So, the question remains, why doesn’t the university keep growing?

Some sources say students might be choosing vocational skills training instead of college. Many people can easily see how and where trade skills can be applied to a job. Trade schools are seen by some as a clearer, quicker, and cheaper path to employment. College career pathways aren’t always so clear.

Kraus says “In general, students are concerned about what they’re going to do when they leave here. A lot of students want to know, what they can do with an English major, a sociology major, journalism major, whatever major, besides the obvious maybe couple things. What do graduates do?”

“The larger economy has changed considerably,” Kraus states. “We value certain kinds of work more than others, and there’s been a concerted effort to get rid of labor unions, and all the rest of it. It’s not an inevitable set of changes. But then I think the average 17 to 18-year-old is like, ‘the message is loud and clear, I have to go to college.’”

“All colleges, all universities really, should be cognizant of the fact that we exist in an economy and a labor market.” Kraus encourages everyone to continue to ask themselves questions about the job market, where there are gaps and shortages. Colleges should always be looking into those things, and ready with answers and resources for students. Kraus brings in graduates when he can to talk about the field, what their job is like, and show students what one pathway’s destination might look like.

The problem may not lie only with higher education. Between the 1960s to 1980s, high schools turned their focus away from trade skills and preparing students for the labor market. Instead, they now focus on preparing everyone for college with standardized testing. While this change can give some people opportunities they may not have otherwise realized, it also decreases the opportunities that open up with a high school degree.

With society’s push toward university, many students go to college without really knowing why. If schools keep the goals and needs of their students as a top priority, and continue to adapt to the economy, it can become a little easier to find the way from classes to careers.