The first question to be asked when considering a career as a college professor concerns the number of such opportunities there are likely to be during the next decade or two. To estimate this number is not simple. To estimate openings in particular disciplines is harder still. Associations of engineers have regularly projected shortages and then after a few years had to say red-facedly that in actuality surpluses had developed. As Richard Freeman has explained, forecasts attracted college freshmen and sophomores to engineering and thus created a later glut. Anyone trying to project demand for college teachers has to take warning from this example and also to bear in mind the possible influence of some event not now foreseen.
Demand for college teachers, however, is not quite the same as demand for engineers. New jobs for engineers can be created by new technology, by shifts in public interest-as from clean air to energy-or by many other changes; however, new jobs for college teachers can develop from one of only three conditions: (a) more students; (b) fewer students per teacher; and (c) replacement needs created by deaths, retirements, and resignations.
Since most of the college-age population has already been born, the pool of potential students is known, and projections can be made of numbers likely to attend college. Extrapolation from historical evidence on student-teacher ratios, turnover rates, and proportions in particular fields can yield projections of numbers of openings for teachers. A review of what such extrapolation would have yielded in the past suggests that the projections deserve to be taken seriously.
To go on to estimate demand for faculty would have involved more guesswork. Although historical data on population and enrollment trends might have been suspect, they were wonderfully precise as compared with data on faculty, for criteria used to distinguish full-timers from part-timers and senior faculty from junior faculty varied from institution to institution and year to year. (Who are considered faculty and who are not, how they are counted and by whom, it should be said, remain unclear.)
A projection of full-time faculty would have been equally near the bull's-eye. What developed in aggregate enrollments, faculty, and even full-time faculty fell well within the range of what would have been projected. A guess as to faculty totals in the humanities would have been off by around 25%. Still, rehearsal of what could have been predicted just on the basis of the national birthrate lends some force to an assumption that birthrate data provide at least a clue to what we are likely to see during the next 18-20 years. A larger percentage could, of course, end up in college. Over the long term, the proportion of Americans obtaining college degrees has been increasing. It is not unimaginable that college education will someday be as nearly universal as high-school education.
Also, it is not wholly impossible that these proportions could decrease. Richard Freeman and some other economists have reasoned that the basic college degree has had declining appeal as it has become worthless in income. White males became able to calculate that over a lifetime the interest on money saved while working for 4 years might match any extra earnings resulting from having a B.A.
To be sure, students from older age-groups could lift college enrollment levels even if proportions of younger people going to college remained constant or declined. The hopes of the American Council on Education and the American Federation of Teachers depend in large part on an acceleration of this trend. The fact is, however, that most of the older undergraduates were still in their twenties or early thirties. Even if higher education has declining monetary return, the proportion of young Americans going to college probably will not diminish.
The worst likely future is one in which first-year enrollments would continue to approximate 60% of each year's 18-year-olds; total enrollments, full-time and part-time, would represent about 40% of the population 118-24; and full-time students would form about three-fifths of this total. If enrollments should increase, they would probably do so gradually rather than abruptly. The proportion of high-school graduates could go up. So could the rate at which high-school graduates go on to college. Numbers of new students in their late thirties or older could increase.
All of these developments could occur simultaneously. But only an extraordinary and unprecedented surge along all these lines could keep numbers of college students at or even near the levels of the late 1970s. If, with all else remaining the same, the number of high-school graduates should approximate 90% of the year's 18-year-olds, or if the number of first-time college enrollments should approximate 90% of the year's high-school graduates, the proportion of the 18- to 24-year-old population in college would increase by about 10%-from 40% to 44%.
The actual increment would probably be smaller, for it would almost. If student-faculty ratios should meanwhile remain constant or possibly even worse, it would follow that employment opportunities in college teaching would fall sharply. Allan Cartter characterized professors as producer goods. Like gem-cutting machines, they create items for consumption.
Since each grinds slowly and finely, more have to be added to meet increases in demand, but each lasts a long time. When demand levels off or diminishes, the call for new ones disappears. When enrollments go down, the need for new professors becomes nonexistent. The only new openings stem from resignations, deaths, and retirements, and not all these openings are filled, for some institutions simply reduce staff.