Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Burgh Diaspora

pittsburgh-u

Aerial view of the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo: Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons)

Higher Education Is Dying

• January 22, 2014 • 7:00 AM

Aerial view of the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo: Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons)

That’s what some are claiming, because where prospective students live, households will struggle to afford university.

Is a college degree worth the investment? The question seems absurd given the emphasis on plugging the brain drain and attracting talent. Yet here we are, awash in student loan debt, fretting about a higher education bubble. Pop goes demography:

Of about 450 counties with significantly more younger children than older ones, about 330 have median incomes below $50,000, compared with a median of $52,762 nationally.

By contrast, in many of the highest-income, most-educated counties—which have reliably delivered high-school graduates to colleges—the supply of younger children is dwindling. That pattern is striking in the suburbs of New York City: Long Island; Westchester County, N.Y.; Fairfield County, Conn. In Somerset and Morris Counties, N.J., both with median incomes of more than $98,000, the populations of 4-year-olds compared with 18-year-olds are 26 percent and 32 percent smaller, respectively.

Like a fisherman familiar with the best spots, a college recruiter might look to nearby Hunterdon County, N.J. It’s one of the wealthiest in the country, with a median income of $104,000. Nearly half of adults have bachelor’s degrees, compared with 28 percent nationally. The future recruiter’s problem? For every 10 older teens, Hunterdon has about five 4-year olds. In ponds that have long produced good catches, the fish are disappearing.

Where the prospective students live, households will struggle to afford university. The wealthy places are dying, aging into oblivion (or moving to Florida). Peter Thiel might be onto something.

Peter Thiel sucks at geography. Higher education isn’t dying. The economy is diverging, with a few winners and a bunch of losers. The silver lining in the dark clouds of demographic doom:

In purchasing names of prospective students from the College Board and ACT, some enrollment officials are sorting the pool like baseball scouts applying sabermetrics. Analyses of current enrollment to guide recruiting can’t focus just on the bread-and-butter student, says Steve Kappler, assistant vice president and head of postsecondary strategy at ACT.

Given the growing population of high-school students who would be the first in their families to go to college, he says, one institution recently asked: Which first-generation students have done well here? It saw success among those with a high “interest-major fit,” according to ACT, meaning that the interests they reported on the test’s Student Profile Section matched their intended field of study.

The college now plans to recruit more first-generation students with a high interest-major fit and a high “mobility index,” a predictor of how far they’ll travel to enroll, which ACT added to its menu of characteristics in 2009.

Mobility index? I’d like to see the math behind that model. If there is an effective model out there, it is Pittsburgh. The Steel City dealt with demographic decline before the rest of the nation did. The Pittsburgh eds and meds industry has its Ph.D. in sabermetric demographics, reaching well beyond state borders to fill seats in freshman classes. Regional economist Chris Briem charts out “Distribution By Age of the Population Living in Another State 1 Year Prior.”

ACSMigrationPittsburghJan2014c

Given the exodus of the 1980s, Pittsburgh is missing a generation. Children are hard to come by, particularly in the city. Anemic in-migration isn’t helping matters. However, note the boom from out of state aged 20 to 24. What demographic bust?

Turns out, in Pittsburgh anyway, children aren’t the future. Demography is not destiny. Higher education is undead, a zombie hungry for brains in Monroeville Mall.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.