people in front of brown building during daytime

Over 1.6 million fewer students are enrolled in higher education in the U.S. compared to before the pandemic. Decreases in university enrollments have likewise occurred around the world.

Japan has shut down 11 and merged 29 universities from 2000 to 2020. The reason is low birth rate where “the number of 18-year-olds here has dropped by nearly half in just three decades, from more than two million in 1990 to 1.1 million now. It’s projected to further decline to 880,000 by 2040, according to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.” The result is that Japan now takes more than nine out of 10 qualified applicants today, compared to six in 10 in 1991.  

Taiwan has likewise seen a dramatic fall in the country’s birth rate. Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has merged many national universities and is now approving the merger of their National Taiwan University of Science and Technology with a private Hwa Hsia University of Technology.

With its recent affluence, South Korea has had a sharp decline in birth rate and subsequent school-age population. With enrollments dropping to 70 percent, Korea’s universities are downsizing, merging or integrating programs in a process that began well before the pandemic. In a society that cares for their community, they worry that “the decline in the number of universities is expected to deal a blow to the welfare of faculty members and regional economies.”

China dramatically expanded its universities to accommodate a growing population of well-educated students since the 1980s. But a dozen new provincial universities planned for this next decade have been put on hold until their economy improves from the pandemic recession.  

In all of these cases, the baseline for college admissions is being held. Students who formerly were not college qualified are still not being admitted. They retain the standardized tests that measure students’ academic abilities: South Korea’s College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), Taiwan’s General Scholastic Ability Test (GSAT) or Joint College Entrance Examination (JCEE), Japan’s National Center Test for University Admissions, and China’s National College Entrance Examination or “Gaokao.”

However, across most U.S. states, we are witnessing a wide range of actions lowering academic requirements and removing the gatekeeping that filtered out students who were not “college able.”  One major U.S. indicator was scores on the ACT or SAT. However, over 1,800 (80 percent) of four-year colleges and universities are now test-optional according to FairTest. This “anti-meritocracy” movement asserts that high scores reflect students from rich families. But many economically-poor student have high scores too. The U.S. has removed an important measure of pre-college knowledge.

Other actions to “eliminate barriers to enrollment” include reducing entry standards and program requirements. California led the way eliminating college algebra for most fields, an action now spreading nationwide. Many state governing board have reduced entrance requirements. High schools offer dual credit courses that earn both high school and college credit, sometimes taught by teachers without any graduate level credentials. One Californian official proposes making 10 college credits a high school graduation requirement. And in some states, college credits are now “earned” for “life experience.”

All states face a major shortage of K-12 teachers, especially in science, math and special education. Interstate agreements now allow full transfer of teachers from a state with low teacher ed requirements into a state that had rigorous professional requirements. Some states are eliminating the PPST and other content exams for entering a teaching field. And the dozen states that never consolidated K-12 schools are providing a 1930s level of education with “teachers” who are little more than babysitters. Some public schools now prevent teachers from flunking students. This dramatically increases H.S. graduation rates and convinces students who are not college-able to apply and attend college. As a result, untenured and adjunct professors in many colleges now face being called in to explain their high D-W-F rates, thus continuing the grade inflation occurring in non-selective colleges.

This trend, underway for decades, is part of the reason for the decline in U.S. accomplishment in science and other academic-dependent fields. Unless this changes, the future belongs to those countries that maintain standards.  

John Richard Schrock