Implications of the Changing U.S. Labor Market for Higher Education

Richard B. Freeman

NBER Working Paper No. 697
Issued in June 1981
NBER Program(s):Labor Studies

This paper examines evidence regarding the impact of the changed labor market on the higher educational system. Four basic propositions can be drawn from the paper's findings. Firstly, the labor market for the highly educated underwent a downturn in the 1970s, reducing the relative earnings of new college graduates and forcing them into jobs not normally considered as requiring college training. Secondly, this downturn resulted in a leveling off, and, in the case of white males, a sharp decline, in college enrollment. Statistical and survey questionnaire data show that this is due to the economic responsiveness of potential students to market incentives. The effects of this labor market change were most severe in the liberal arts, teaching, and academic and research-oriented occupations. In other business-oriented fields such as management and accounting, and in engineering, economic opportunities remained substantial or in some cases improved. Consistent with these changes were changes in enrollments and degrees. Depressed job markets experienced rapid declines in enrollment, while fields such as engineering experienced an increase in enrollment. Concurrently, professional schools benefited while liberal arts schools suffered from labor market induced patterns of change in enrollment.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w0697

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