Enrollment Down at Colleges of Arts and Sciences

Posted By Terri Williams on July 2, 2015 at 10:42 am
Enrollment Down at Colleges of Arts and Sciences

Colleges of arts and sciences have always played a major role among U.S. colleges and universities. But will a shift in student behavior, combined with budget cuts, herald their demise?

For instance, 45% of Stanford University’s faculty in its main undergraduate division is in the humanities – yet only 15% of the school’s students are in humanities programs. Of course, Stanford is located in Silicon Valley and known for its STEM programs, so it may come as no surprise that there are no humanities programs in the school’s top five most popular majors. However, other colleges are struggling with arts and sciences as well. According to an article in the New York Times, Edinboro University in Pennsylvania has closed its philosophy, German, and world languages and culture degree programs to new students, although currently enrolled students will be able to finish their degrees in these subjects. And over the past 10 years, Harvard University has experienced a 20% decline in humanities majors.

What’s happening to arts and sciences?


Indiana University, Bloomington campus. Source: Indiana University Admissions Department

At Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, the College of Arts and Sciences is the school’s largest college. However, there has been an increase in the number of students who earn credits through community colleges, or through advanced placement courses during high school. Ohio State University is experiencing the same problem, and it has created a $10 million deficit in the school’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Here’s the problem: Regardless of a student’s major, the first year or two is spent taking classes in general education subjects like English, biology, history, math, and foreign languages. This is how colleges of arts and sciences make money. When students complete these courses through advanced placement or at community colleges, it removes a significant chunk out of their budget.

In the case of Ohio State, 20% of students have completed a full year’s worth of credit hours by the time they enroll. Over the past five years, the university’s College of Arts and Sciences has experienced an 11% decrease in credit hour enrollment. During the same time period, the business school has seen an 11% increase, and the College of Engineering a 56% increase. But early completion of credit hours may not be the only issue. For example, 33% fewer students are majoring in English and history at Ohio State, which may be indicative of a hiring environment that is perceived to be less friendly to liberal arts graduates.

At the same time, though, the number of students applying to Ohio State’s College of Arts and Sciences has increased by 21%. Some faculty members are concerned that the university’s admission and scholarship policies are the problem. They contend that school administrators are selecting students who are applying to areas that have recently experienced an increase in interest, and are also more concerned with having students with prestigious credentials that raise the university’s ranking. As a result, these faculty members charge the school with failing to enroll students evenly among the various colleges.

Indiana University is experiencing similar problems. The school’s College of Arts and Sciences has experienced a 13% decrease in enrollment since 2011. 900 fewer students applied to the college this year, which represents 1,800 fewer students than applied just two years ago. And as is the case with Ohio State, students are also taking first year classes in high school or at a community college. Since 2013, almost 22,000 students have brought 167,000 credit hours when they enrolled at the university.

Trying to attract more students

As with many schools in this predicament, the Colleges of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University and Ohio State are trying to attract more students. For example, Indiana University has a new School of Global and International Studies, and Ohio State has launched a new data analytics degree, as well as a neuroscience degree.

But will this be enough? Some faculty members argue that schools need to change the perception that graduates of Arts and Sciences either won’t find jobs or won’t make enough money to justify pursuing degrees in those areas. And according to Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, who spoke to the New York Times, “We have failed to make the case that those skills [the ability to sort out values, conflicting issues, and fundamental philosophical questions] are as essential to engineers and scientists and businessmen as to philosophy professors.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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