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The New Century's Boom in Planning School Enrollments

Enrollments are up at the nation's top planning schools, but will the trend continue?
June 24, 2002, 12am PDT | Dowell Myers
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Dowell MyersAs we move into the 21st century, planning schools nation-wide are experiencing a profound boom in applications for their graduate professional degrees in urban planning. Many of the schools are hard-pressed to cope and have been forced to cap their enrollments at levels dictated by limitations of room capacities or available faculty.

A recent survey I conducted of the “Big 12” planning schools found widespread incidence of surging applications and enrollments over the past two years. The Big 12, defined for the survey based on enrollment levels and faculty size, includes MIT, UC-Berkeley, North Carolina, USC, UCLA, Rutgers, Cornell, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois-Urbana/Champaign and Illinois-Chicago, and Georgia Tech. Where capacity is available, current enrollments for fall 2002 are running an average of 40% ahead of last year, repeating approximately the same rate of increase as experienced in 2001 over 2000. Sources of increases are primarily among domestic applicants, but substantial growth is also being drawn from abroad, especially from Chinese and Indian applicants.

Explanations for the boom in planning enrollments are several-fold. The current recession is obviously an impetus, as would-be students have fewer job prospects to entice them away from school. However, long-time observers assert that the current run-up in enrollments has proceeded far more vigorously than in past recessions. All the more remarkable is that the current recession has also been much milder and would not be expected to raise enrollments so much.

More important may be a resurgent interest in the public service professions, fueled in part by a post-September 11 service ethic. But the upsurge, experienced also in public policy and public administration programs, predates that event and appears rooted in a broader, liberal and community-oriented ethic. Surveys of college freshmen show the 1980s trend emphasizing self-serving individualism began to be reversed in the mid-1990s. Other evidence of growing interest in urban affairs is found in the dramatic rise in undergraduate applications to major central city-located universities such as Columbia, NYU, or USC.

The growing popularity of urban planning issues has also fueled student interest in the planning profession. The last great boom in planning enrollments coincided with the activist era of the 1960s, but the current popularity may even exceed that. Issues of smart growth, sprawl, New Urbanism, sustainability, housing affordability, traffic congestion, and the like, have risen to unusually high prominence in both local and national political dialogue. In fact, Paul Farmer, executive director of the American Planning Association, has concluded that “people are more concerned about planning issues today than at any time since the 1920s.”

When will the planning student boom reach its peak? Obviously we can only speculate, but there are clues suggesting it should continue for at least several more years, if not longer. An observation made by John Landis, chair of the planning program at UC-Berkeley, is that new applicants for planning graduate school do not decide at age 25 that they suddenly want to solve urban problems. Rather, the seeds of interest are planted while they are undergraduates, when they are learning about the world around them and thinking about their potential contributions. In this view, the current harvest of graduate applicants is a delayed product of current events from 4-5 years ago. In that case, the current favorable environment for planning should continue to yield a large stream of applicants for at least several years ahead.

Adding support to that prophecy, the previous peak year for master’s in planning enrollments was 1975, lagging a few years behind the events of the 1960s. Not to be missed are the added effects of globalization and world urbanization which are stimulating increased international student enrollments, and the age structure of the domestic population which will yield increases in the numbers of young adults in their mid-20s through the current decade.

The current boom in graduate enrollments in urban planning has no end in sight. Until the early indicators turn negative—a return of individualism or conservatism among college freshmen—or whenever urban problems and solutions disappear from current public commentary (highly unlikely), we must presume the graduate planning enrollments will continue to rise. The only dark cloud is the looming problem of capacity constraints in the nation’s urban planning programs.

Dowell Myers is the director of the Master of Planning Program at the University of Southern California School of Policy, Planning and Development.

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