Colleges of Education Struggle with Low Enrollment, Dearth of Underrepresented Students

The rise in teacher protests this past spring — in which educators across the U.S. staged walkouts and went on strike to demand better wages and school resources — highlighted the increasingly contentious nature of the teaching profession. And, according to a report released August 9 by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), schools of education are feeling the sting.

The number of bachelor’s degrees conferred to education majors declined by 15 percent between 2006 and 2015, according to the report. By contrast, the number of those awarded in all other fields increased during that same time period. In addition, a comparison of 2018 statistics with those of the early 1970s reveals that the number of undergraduates pursuing degrees in education is nearly half what it was 40 years ago.

The report attributes this decline in part to expanded career opportunities for college-educated women — one-third of whom earned degrees in education in the 1970s. Researchers say the primary reason today’s students shun teacher preparation programs, however, is the growing perception that teaching is an undesirable career. Common complaints about the profession include copious amounts of paperwork, a lack of professional autonomy, and low wages.

There is also evidence that education degree programs are suffering from declining enrollment because of their failure to attract diverse students. According to the AACTE report, only 25 percent of those earning undergraduate degrees and certificates from colleges of education are people of color. The lack of diversity among new teachers is increasingly problematic as 52 percent of K-12 public school students are from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

The study also addresses the problem of low teacher retention rates. About half of college graduates who enter the field of education leave the profession within a few years. In response, colleges and universities are revamping their curricula to better prepare future educators for the practical challenges they will face in the classroom. Updates include an increased focus on cultural competence and working with diverse students as well as changing the way teacher candidates are assessed. Instead of using standardized tests, for example, many colleges are now evaluating prospective teachers based on performance of job-related tasks, such as writing unit plans or designing lessons that accommodate students with special needs.

Schools of education must also focus on recruiting candidates for high-needs areas, such as special education, bilingual education, and high school math and science, says AACTE. Researchers recommend offering incentives, such as tuition assistance, to attract more young people — especially those from underrepresented groups — to education programs in these fields.