Undergraduate enrollment in natural resource programs in the United States: Trends, drivers, and implications for the future of natural resource professions

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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


We gathered undergraduate enrollment data for various fields of study in natural resources (NR) at National Association of University Forest Resources Programs (NAUFRP)–member institutions dating back to 1980. We found that across all geographic regions, enrollment trends were highly cyclical, changing by nearly 50% in a decade or less. Although current aggregate enrollments are roughly equivalent to 1980 levels, student numbers have shifted from traditional consumptive NR fields such as forestry to more interdisciplinary and ecosystem-based programs. Female NR enrollments have steadily increased, reaching 41% in 2012 versus 57% in the undergraduate population as a whole. Forestry, however, had the lowest female enrollment levels in 2012 at just 18%. Minority enrollment has also increased, and as of 2012 comprised about 12% of NR enrollment, up from less than 1% in 1973 but still well below the overall undergraduate level of 40%. Minority representation differs among NR fields of study, with forestry below the average. Minority enrollment in most disciplines is dominated by Hispanics, with notable exceptions being wood science/products (Asians) and recreation (blacks). The dramatic decline in forestry enrollments in both absolute numbers and as a proportion of overall NR enrollments from 1980 to 2012 may be due to a number of factors, including (1) changing public values toward forests and forestry, (2) diversification of NR degree offerings, (3) inflexible, science-based curricula associated with accreditation, certification, and federal Office of Personnel Management standards, (4) perceived lack of jobs and concern about low wages, and (5) little attraction to forestry for women and minorities, two student cohorts that have grown significantly in recent decades. These trends offer both challenges and opportunities for the future of the NR profession and forestry in particular.

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Copyright © 2015 Society of American Foresters. Publisher’s version of record: https://doi.org/10.5849/jof.14-146

Publication Title

Journal of Forestry