A combination of factors has caused an enrollment dip in certain liberal arts majors as well as their component courses, shrinking the pool of students interested in upper level courses and reducing the tuition income for their respective colleges. As this happens at higher education institutions across the U.S., deans of the humanities and social sciences are launching new initiatives and working harder to convince students of the value of a liberal arts education.
“We are taking these challenges seriously and see them as opportunities,” said Stacia Haynie, dean of the Louisiana State University College of Humanities and Social Sciences. At LSU, Haynie said shrinking interest in upper-level humanities and social science courses is compounded by lower enrollment in introductory courses that students don’t need because they come to college with Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, or International Baccalaureate credits. These introductory courses, Haynie said, often worked to attract students to humanities or social science majors.
Increasingly, students aren’t giving themselves the opportunity to find out they love history or sociology or literature. The number of students entering LSU with prior history credit grew from 258 in 2005 to 1,247 in 2014, and the 2014 numbers did not include spring admissions, according to Haynie.
LSU has tried to challenge the commonly held belief that liberal arts degrees do not prepare students for well-paying careers. Haynie said she pushes parents and students to look long-term. While students who get professional degrees start off with larger salaries, by mid-career, earnings data shows humanities and social science degree holders catch up to, and in some cases, surpass their peers.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Associate Dean of Humanities Dave Clark is heartened by recent reporting that has challenged the idea that specialization in college is the best way to secure a well-paid future.
“Our students are going to graduate into a world where they're going to have a dozen careers,” Clark said. “It's a dense and complicated, multinational, global economy and the students need to embrace the kind of complexity and breadth that studying the humanities gives them.”
Clark said the university fundamentally believes in the value of the humanities and has taken steps to ensure students are getting that training, including with a newly required course for engineering students related to rhetoric and philosophy in technical writing.
At Eastern Connecticut State University, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Carmen Cid said new interdisciplinary majors have worked to bring students back into arts and sciences courses. Cid said the new majors have increased enrollment at the university overall, as well as in the School of Arts and Sciences, and helped the institution better fill 21st century career workforce needs.
In all three states, where state legislatures are still threatening potentially major budget cuts, the need to convince students of the value of the humanities and social sciences is even more insistent. But UW-Milwaukee’s Clark said it’s important to keep the true budget reality in perspective. Humanities are not simply a drain on the wider university’s resources. For one, humanities professors are paid less than their peers in engineering or business schools, making the cost of offering courses less. That’s a problem of its own, Clark said, but still makes the humanities themselves more cost-effective.
“Of course, there are always going to be peaks and valleys and degrees coming in and out of fashion,” Clark said. “That’s just kind of the reality of operating a big operation like this. The delusion that people have is that humanities simply cost money and it’s just not true.”
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