Media outlets reported that enrollment in UNC education schools increased last year.  WUNC initially reported that it was a 16 percent jump, but according to WRAL, the actual increase was around 6 percent. UNC teacher preparation program enrollment now exceeds 14,000, an improvement from last year but nowhere near the 18,000+ students enrolled in 2010.

WUNC and WRAL focused on state-level factors that led to the recent dip in enrollment and only touched on other possible explanations.  While it would be foolish to dismiss the ways that local and state policy may encourage or discourage high school graduates from pursuing a career in teaching, this is a case when public policy reveals its limitations.

How do college-bound students choosing a field of study?  Much of the research literature confirms that expected earnings and perceived ability are two key factors used to select a major, but they may not be the most important ones.

In a 2015 study published in The Review of Economic Studies, researchers Matthew Wiswall and Basit Zafar found that the choice of major is largely based on “other” factors.  They write, “However, even with our rich data on beliefs across a variety of pecuniary and non-pecuniary aspects of majors, major-choices in our data are still largely the result of heterogeneity in major specific and unobserved ‘tastes.’’  They continue, “In our framework, tastes encompass preferences for major-specific outcomes realized in college (such as the enjoyability of coursework), or major-specific post-graduation outcomes (such as non-pecuniary aspects of jobs).”

In other words, policies that focus on increasing expected earnings, such as annual raises in teacher compensation, only go so far in drawing students to the teaching profession. “Taste” factors appear to be discouraging members of the millennial generation from entering the public school classroom.  While salary growth is a consideration, so too are major-specific post-graduation outcomes, such as career advancement and development, autonomy, and working conditions.  A few of these concerns may be addressed by ditching experienced-based salary schedules, top-down policy structures, and other occupational relics.

Of course, enrollment declines are not just a North Carolina phenomenon.  A quick survey of federal Title II data for all accredited teaching programs indicates that most states and the District of Columbia had a sharp decline in enrollment.  Only five states – Vermont, Arizona, Washington, New Hampshire, and Utah – had an increase from 2010 to 2015 (latest available).  Ten states, including a few that top teacher salary rankings, had at least half the number of students in 2015 than they did in 2010.  In fact, North Carolina’s 12 percent drop was one of the lowest in the nation during that period.

It is important to note that graduates of teacher education programs may not remain in the state where they received their training.  Another feature of the millennial generation is that they are amenable to crossing state lines to obtain a teaching position.  But their willingness depends on the quality of life in the destination state.  (Come for the teaching, stay for the beaching.)  North Carolina public schools typically import 1,000 – 2,000 teachers each year.  We also lose hundreds of teachers to other states for various reasons. The North Carolina General Assembly should craft education, tax, and infrastructure policies that entice recent education school graduates from inferior states to migrate and stay in North Carolina.

The state legislature may craft “teacher friendly” policies that increase the likelihood that a college-bound student will pursue an education degree.  But they are incapable of changing the mindset of a generation that finds the teaching profession to be a staid, unfulfilling enterprise.  It is a challenge that most states, including North Carolina, are trying to overcome.  The recent enrollment increase in UNC teacher education programs is an encouraging sign.  Given the recent history of dismal enrollment numbers in North Carolina institutions and beyond, we should welcome any increase, regardless of how small it may be.