Home of learning loses out to uppity neighbours

August 3, 2001

New England, the undisputed home of higher education in the United States, is confronting a sudden erosion of its dominance.

The region's disproportionate share of the country's university students has shrunk in the past ten years to about the same as its percentage of the national population.

Research and development dollars earmarked for New England colleges have also fallen from a robust 10 per cent of the total to less than 8 per cent. That has meant the loss of about $1 billion (£700 million)in the past three years.

John Hoy, president of the New England Board of Higher Education, said: "We kept hoping this year that the numbers would turn up. But we're seeing a steady decline in our national share."

The effect of all this is by no means academic. Along with financial services, health care and high technology, higher education is one of the area's four biggest industries and the decline of market share is contributing to a high-tech labour shortage.

Richard Freeland, president of Northeastern University, said: "We can no longer take it for granted that people will flock to New England from all over the country to go to school and then stay."

New England remains a hub of higher education, with 0 colleges and universities employing 28,000 faculty and enrolling nearly 800,000 students. Yet while college enrolment grew nationally by 21 per cent between 1985 and 1995, it rose only 8 per cent in parts of New England.

This is partly because New England is producing too few traditional college-age students. Nationally, there has been a 4.3 per cent increase in the number of 18 to 21-year-olds in the past ten years, while New England has seen a fall of nearly 12 per cent. By 2012, the number of highschool graduates is expected to grow by 31 per cent in the west and 23 per cent in the south, but by just 17 per cent in the northeast.

New England's universities are also the most expensive, with tuition fees 30 per cent higher than the national average. They face increasing competition from cheaper universities elsewhere whose prestige is on the rise. "Institutions across the country that ten years ago New Englanders had never heard of have emerged as very strong competitive institutions," Mr Hoy said.

Even Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been affected. In a milestone event in 1990, the National Science Board awarded a $61 million federal magnet lab to Florida State University instead of MIT, which had expected to get the money. The board said Florida State had shown a stronger commitment to the project.

Since that time, New England's share of university R&D expenditure has continued to sink. While the region still gets more R&D money per capita than the national average, R&D grants to New England universities are growing more slowly than in the nation as a whole.

Cost efficiencies and other reforms have been recommended. But higher education is historically resistant to change - particularly New England schools, which are steeped in tradition.

Harry Osgood, higher education specialist for the state of Maine, said:

"The times are teasing out a willingness to recognise that things are not as they have always been. I don't think there's a faculty member in New England who would deny that."

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