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

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.


October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.


October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.


October 28 • 2:00 AM

Who Funded That? The Names and Numbers Behind the Research in Our Latest Issue

This list includes studies cited in our pages that received funding from a source other than the researchers’ home institutions. Only principal or corresponding authors are listed.


October 27 • 4:00 PM

School Shootings: What’s Different About Europe?

There may be a lot of issues at play, but it’s undeniable that the ease of access to guns in the United States is a major contributing factor to our ongoing school shooting crisis.


October 27 • 2:00 PM

The Best Investigative Reporting on Campaign Finance Since 2012

From dark money to a mysterious super PAC donor, here are a few of the best investigations of money in politics since the last elections.


October 27 • 12:00 PM

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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